Academic journal article Transnational Literature

The Apotheoses of Young Barra

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

The Apotheoses of Young Barra

Article excerpt

A few years ago, I travelled to Dinard, a small city in Brittany in France to attend the bicentennial conference on the great Battle of Austerlitz where Napoleon had crushed both Russian and Austrian troops - 'The sun of Austerlitz.' Most experts consider the battle Napoleon's greatest victory.

Since I had arrived early for the conference, I decided to take a stroll around the area where it was being held. The names of the streets were familiar and appropriate for a place where historians were to gather: 'Clemenceau,' named for Georges Clemenceau, the 'tiger' who had defeated the Germans in World War I; nearby, as it should be, the Rue de Verdun, and one step further, the Boulevard of Wilson, named in honor of the American president who had sent troops to Europe to protect liberty. Yet, while the names and the stories behind them were familiar, nothing actually struck my heart until I came to the Rue de Barra, when something clicked in my mind, causing a stream of association. Barra was a name I well remembered from my Soviet childhood, from my seventh or eighth-grade history book.

As many textbooks do, it demonstrated how malleable was history, how easily it could be changed depending on how the political winds were blowing. For example, in French textbooks the Paris Commune has been prudently extracted from historical memory. And, indeed, why should French children, who should be proud of their country, study a time when the French killed each other on the streets of Paris? In my Soviet textbooks, however, the Paris Commune was proudly included and, of course, the young drummer Barra from the time of the French Revolution made for an interesting little story during that time. Barrra had been captured by the monarchists who demanded that he renounce the revolution. He refused and was killed. On the face of it - a small story in a large event.

In Soviet textbooks Barra was prominently presented as a person deserving of emulation. In fact, there was not only a description of the event but a portrait was presented of young Barra who stood defiantly before his captors ready to face death from the spears of the enemy. The prominent space given to Barra in the textbooks of my Soviet youth was hardly accidental. He was duly related to similar youthful heroes/martyrs of Soviet iconography, all of whom had a singular regret: They had only one life to give for their country. This is also the view of a chap whose statue stands in front of CIA headquarters, if I am not mistaken.

The image of Barra, a mere boy, ready to die remained clear in my mind, and the message to be derived from his death was also clear. Yet for some reason I could not remember his actual words before he was put to death, which troubled me on a deep level. I put this aside, though, so I could concentrate on what had brought me to Dinard in the first place.

The Napoleonic Society had organised the conference and, as it was open to the public, I thought that I would find a room full of people, but there was actually only a handful. We sat in a hall surrounded by an exposition of stamp collections and pictures that displayed Napoleon's career. Several people took the floor to give welcoming speeches. The mayor of Dinard opened the conference with a speech in which he stressed that it was a great honor for his city to host such a prestigious gathering. He also gave his take on Napoleon. According to the mayor, Napoleon had sacrificed his life to benefit France and implicitly Europe. Then a couple of descendants of Joachim Murat, one of the most celebrated of French marshals, appeared before the public. One was a young girl, with a charming smile, dressed in a simple peasant dress. She bowed her head to the public and sat down. The other representative of Murat's family, a tall man, made a speech with a pointed message. His great ancestor and the emperor had toiled for only one goal: liberty.

After this, there was a break and this afforded me the chance to walk around the building where the conference was taking place. …

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