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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 6 page 17

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"My stomach a Noah's Ark"

It would be another week before the roads, bridges and railways could be restored to carry provisions into Paris. For Octave Crémazie, that meant another week of horrid dark bread and whatever scraps of dog and cat meat he could grab. “My stomach has become a Noah’s Ark,” he told his brothers once he was able to exchange mail again. “Like everyone, I’ve grown thinner.”

He did not explicitly plead for money, but he couldn’t stop telling his brothers how penniless and indebted he was.

Crémazie popped his journal into the mail, all two hundred hand-written pages of it, tacking on a post-script, actually a screed, spreading the blame for France’s defeat on all the political factions he never liked in the first place. On the other hand, he forgot all about the Protestant-versus-Catholic kulturkampf which he had initially fingered as the cause of the war. Seeing that France had to pay a total indemnity of five billion francs, Crémazie now believed the Prussians had waged the war for money.

No doubt the Journal of the Siege of Paris has some value to history scholars. Altho it is hardly the only surviving account of the famous siege, Crémazie’s account has the merit that he made no attempt to revise it to make himself look prescient as to how events would unfold. He allowed his misperceptions and miscalculations, his weaknesses and prejudices, to remain on the page.

As a literary effort the journal has palpable shortcomings. The streets and buildings of Crémazie’s Paris are featureless, the city is scarcely more than a checkerboard for marches and counter-marches. And aside from the political figures Crémazie knows from the papers, there are no personalities, not even the briefest sketch of the café keepers he sees every day or the neighbors who endure the siege with him.

Of course, he was not crafting his journal, he was not aiming for a discriminating readership. He could not know that the work would be published in 1882, three years after his death.

The journal’s principal value is biographical, recounting a particularly punishing period in the bleak penitential years of Quebec’s first “national poet.”

In the wake of the French surrender, the radicals gained the upper hand in Paris and established the famous Paris Commune which provided so much fodder to Marx and Engels. Crémazie fled the city on April 2, thereby missing out on the suppression of the Commune by the French army whose commanders, having so recently failed to defeat a foreign enemy, could now at least boast a triumph over their fellow Frenchmen.

After the journal, there was no more writing from Crémazie. He survived on white-collar odd jobs. He was in the employ of a shipping agency at the time of his death from an intestinal inflammation in Le Havre in 1879. He was buried under the name the local people knew him by, Jules Fontaine.