March 25, 2013
Burning Deck

On this date 72 years ago, André, Jaqueline and Aube Breton, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Wifredo Lam and Helena Holzer, and Victor Serge and his son escaped Vichy France onboard the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle in Marseille bound for Martinique.

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During the previous months there, Breton, Max Ernst, and other surrealists had whiled away the long weeks at the chateau Villa Air-Bel, painting, writing, playing games, and creating a new tarot deck, waiting anxiously for their visas to come through. Claude Lévi-Strauss recalled the day of departure in Tristes Tropiques:

"Finally I got my ticket for the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, but I did not begin to understand the situation until the day we went on board between two rows of helmeted gardes mobiles with sten guns in their hands, who cordoned off the quayside, preventing all contact between the passengers and their relatives or friends who had come to say goodbye, and interrupting leave-takings with jostling and insults. Far from being a solitary adventure, it was more like the deportation of convicts. What amazed me even more than the way we were treated was the number of passengers. About 350 people were crammed on to a small steamer which—as I was immediately to discover—boasted only two cabins with, in all, seven bunks. One of the cabins had been allocated to three ladies adn the other was to be shared by four men, including myself. (…) The rest of my companions, men, women and children, were herded into the hold, with neither air nor light and where the ship’s carpenters had hastily run up bunk beds and straw mattresses.”

Lévi-Strauss and Breton struck up a friendship based on an exchange of shipboard letters about aesthetics and originality: “André Breton, who was very much out of place dans cette galère, strode up and down the few empty spaces left on deck; wrapped in his thick nap overcoat, he looked like a blue bear.”

The month-long voyage combined a comical sense of intrigue with sheer physical misery that Breton chose to leave unremarked but Lévi-Strauss described in detail:

In addition to its human load, the boat was carrrying some kind of clandestine cargo. Both in the Mediterranean and along the west coast of Africa, we spent a fantastic amount of time dodging into various ports, apparently to escape inspection by the English navy. Passengers with French passports were sometimes allowed to land: the others remained parked within the few dozen square centimeters available to each. Because of the heat, which became more intense as we approaced the tropics, it was impossible to remain below and the deck was gradually turned into a dining-room, bedroom, day-nursery, wash-house and solarium. But the most disagreeable feature was what is referred to in the army as the sanitary arrangements. Against the rail on either side—port for the men, starboard side for the women—the crew had erected two pairs of wooden huts, with neither windows nor ventilation; one contained a few shower sprinklers which only worked in the morning; the other was provided with a long wooden trough crudely lined with zinc and leading directly into the sea, for the obvious reason. (…) [T]here was a general urge to complete the operation quickly and get out, for the unventilated huts were made of planks of unseasoned, resinous pine which, after being impregnated with dirty water, urine and sea air, began to ferment in the sun and give off a warmish, sweet and nauseous odour; this, added to other smells, very soon became intolerable, especially when there was a swell.

Yet they had escaped the destruction of Marseille’s Old Port neightborhood and mass round-ups by the Nazis that came in January, 1943; and they would soon meet Aimé and Suzanne Césaire.

Sources

Martinique Charmeuse de Serpents by André Breton and André Masson, Ouevres Complètes, vol III (Éditions Gallimard, 1999). This title has been translated into English by David W. Seamon as Martinique Snake Charmer (University of Texas, 2008)

Maîtres Du Vent—MDV - more on the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle

Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Lévi-Strauss, translated by John and Doreen Weightman (Washington Square Press, 1977), quoted from pages 11-14.

Villa Air-Bel: World II, Escape, and a House in Marseille, by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper Perennial, 2007)

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