I’ve been reading bits and pieces of Louise Michel’s novels, as part of a larger project to get a general sense of what’s out there, and naturally with some eye to what might be worth translating in the future. One of the titles I’ve been looking at today is a massive work, Le Bâtard Impérial, co-written with Jean Winter and published in 1883. One of the major plot-lines of the novel involves Yvan, who has been an executioner in Russian prisoners, and who, through a plot twist that seems to involve mistaken identities and one of Michel’s favorite plot devices, the topsy-turvy logic of the legal and prison systems, ends up on the run. At one point, he is close to being dragged down and eaten by by rats, while trying to manage his escape through the sewers. And then a familiar figure appears:
The final victory, with a cadaver for prize, would remain inevitably with the rats.Suddenly the cover of the sewer lifted, a human head appeared at the edge of the opening and shouted to Yvan:— Hold on, I am with you!At the same time the unknown discharged two pistols in the sewer whose vaults repeated the detonations with an appalling din.Dazzled and blinded by the light, panicked by the noise, the rats, except for some brave sorts, let go, and plunged into the refuse.It was time!Yvan felt himself failing, his blood flowing from a hundred wounds.The struggle had become unequal.— Give me your hand, said the stranger Yvan.— Here it is, said the executioner.— Come on, you are saved!— I wouldn’t hope.— Wretch! Don’t you know that the sewers are inaccessible at this moment?— I was there quite against my will.— You just escaped from the underground prisons of the Kremlin.— Not at all.— Well, if you do not want to admit, it does not matter. Besides, I do not ask you for your secrets and only ask you to believe that I am notthe Moscow police.— So much the better.— You see that you are one of the prisoners of the castle.— I don’t understand.— You are the fifth that have escaped in a month.— Despite the rats?— Despite the rats.— It is not possible.— But if, if, with much courage for example.— Get me out of here, my head is spinning.— Poor wretch, you faint! cried the unknown. Yvan responded with a deep sigh.— Well, he added, we will understand each other better soon. For the moment it is enough to have saved a man.And seizing Yvan’s wrist with a herculean strength, he pulled him from the ladder and deposited him on the ground.Some rats, surprised to see themselves brought into the light outside, let themselves fall back into the muck. The others, the starving hung tight.Arriving in daylight, Yvan fell on his knees and rolled in a heap on the pavement.He no longer had a human face.His face covered in blood and mud, cut by the cruel bites, was unrecognizable, one of his eyes, pierced, formed a great black cavity under his left eyebrow and his torn and punctured ears hung in shreds on his shoulders dripping with blood.Some rats still gnawed away at that human creature. The stranger grasped them and crushed them one after another.Yvan had just paid cruelly for the murder of the innocent Paula and the theft of little Paul Vladimir.And without the stranger he would be dead like the general.That stranger was named Bakunin. Tall, robust, with a splendid, that young man presented the Russian type in all is purity and all its force.He did not know what to do with regard to Yvan.The giant lay on the ground like an inert mass, defeated by a brutal force similar to that whichhad struck down another helpless creature, poor Paula.The rats had been as cowardly towards Yvan as his accomplices had been towards Paula.Bakunin contemplated him with a questioning look.— He did not come from the prisons of the castle, he said to himself, so he is with the Sophia!This is perhaps one of our most relentless enemies. I have a good mind to give him to the rats.Yvan uttered a cry of pain.Bakunin, absorbed by his thoughts, continued his monologue aloud without paying any attention to him.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]