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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 6 page 12


On October 24 the government began selling off zoo animals to augment the meat supply. Yacks, zebras, gazelles, and swans were among the first to be sacrificed. Eventually the elephants joined them, and the camels and kangaroos and giraffes. Naturally the meat went to those echelons that paid most, such as the upscale butcher shops and restaurants that would in turn promote the exotic gourmet experiences to their clientele. It had to be done. There was no more feed for the animals in any case.

Celestial omen

That very night, after they auctioned the animals, there was a blood-red aurora borealis such as Europe had not seen for a century:

The sky was red as if a huge fire had burst out around Paris. For a moment people thought the Bondy forest was burning. Everybody went to their doors to look. Many people watched this strange spectacle with anxiety. Some of them saw in this phenomenon a sign of great evils for the nation, and others saw a harbinger of defeat for the Prussians. This gigantic red cloak, through which the stars sparkled like flinders of gold on a background of velour, unfolded over our heads and seemed intent on wrapping us in a bloody shroud. It was grandiose but sinister.

In the following days, word came that General Achille Bazaine, who had been holding out in the city of Metz, had surrendered — handing 173,000 prisoners, 700 canons, and 250,000 rifles to the Germans. Those weapons would be brought forward against Paris. “Treason!” cried the radicals. Of course, they were always calling everybody a traitor. Their main conspiracy theory was that the French old guard was collaborating with the Prussian old guard with a view to crushing the Paris radicals once and for all.

When the provisional government tried to negotiate an armistice with the Prussians — which under the circumstances probably would amount to a surrender — Crémazie watched from the sidewalk as angry left-wing militiamen waving a huge red flag marched by on their way to overthrow the government. “Everybody followed them,” said Crémazie. And all this was in the pouring rain. Afraid (he says) of catching a cold, Crémazie went home. But there was so much agitation in the streets and blowing of trumpets that he stepped out a couple more times. At five in the evening he learned that there had been a coup. Later he would learn that the coup had been reversed by a counter-coup, so the provisional government was back in. Thru it all he managed to steer clear of any up-close reportage at any active venue that might feature stray bullets. As a war correspondent, Octave Crémazie was a flop.

The bad news was that the government was unable to reach terms with the Prussians. “So it’s a fight to the death,” said Crémazie. “The outlook is dark as a funeral cloak.”

On November 16 he noted:

They have begun selling rats.

A rat market was established at city hall square, with the rats alive in cages. Originally the price per rat was, you could almost say, reasonable — up to ten sous, which equalled half a franc. The average worker in Paris earned five francs a day. But then again, a sizable proportion of the population was out of work. Crémazie claimed rich people were driving the price of rats up by making a dining fad of salami de rat.