A review of: The Order of the Day (2019, Picador); Sorrow of the Earth (2019, Pushkin Press); The War of the Poor (2021, Picador)
I had never heard of Éric Vuillard before, although he has a reputation both as a writer and documentary filmmaker in his native France. So far, these are the only books of his translated into English.
All three are fascinating, beautifully written and deeply moving. The Order of the Day revolves around the meetings that took place between the European powers in the months preceding the outbreak of World War Two; Sorrow of the Earth considers the exploitation of Native Americans by the showman William Cody (aka “Buffalo Bill”); andThe War of the Poor is the story of Thomas Müntzer, the leader and inspirer of the Peasants’ Revolt in Central Europe in the sixteenth century.
What links them is their concern for the oppressed, the dispossessed and the marginalised. Even when Vuillard is writing about the meetings between an increasingly deranged and belligerent Hitler and the cringing, spineless Austrian Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, he constantly brings this Punch and Judy show down to earth with his descriptions of the desperate plight of Jews in Vienna on whom von Schuschnigg has turned his back. Relentlessly persecuted, they begin to flee the city that has been home for generations. In fact, so many leave in such a hurry, that they fail to pay off their household bills and the Viennese gas company, in a macabre and unknowingly dark, ironic act, writes to all remaining Jews informing them that their gas supplies have been cut off. After the war, von Schuschnigg enjoyed a long career as a lecturer in politics at the University of St, Louis in the USA.
In The Sorrow of the Earth, Cody, having already played his part in slaughtering the Bisons on which the Native Americans depend, turns showman and hires Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux chief who becomes the highlight of Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West Show and the main reason why spectators turn up in their thousands. Yet Native Americans are loathed and the crowds boo, jeer and spit at him.
After only four months Sitting Bull returns to the Dakota reservation, where those of his tribe who have survived the white man’s genocide are holed up in miserable conditions. Shortly thereafter he is killed in a confused brawl. Cody travels to Dakota and hires a group of the remaining Sioux to provide the highlight of his future Wild West Shows — a re-enactment of the “Battle” of Wounded Knee which, as everyone now knows, was a massacre of a people already half-starved and freezing to death. It was never a battle.
The Shows were a grotesque parody of what happened in the so-called Wild West, a “Circus of lies” as a critic in The Independent so aptly described it. The Wild West label was probably invented by Cody, as was Sitting Bull (whose real name was Tatanka Iyotake). Everything was fake.
At the show’s end: “The spectacle is over; people wander round the Indian craft stall and the hot dog stands. They’d love to have a tomahawk or even a feather headdress. This is what we now call merchandising. The Indians are selling products that derive from their genocide. They haggle with the gawpers, and then stash the modest sums in their leather purses”.
At times, the degradations heaped on the Native Americans leave you struggling for words. One of the few survivors of Wounded Knee, Zintkala Nuni, was sold as a baby by a business acquaintance of Cody’s. Re-named Marguerite, she appeared briefly in a few Hollywood films depicting a culture and a people about which she knew almost nothing. She was hired for Cody’s Wild West Show and dressed in fake tassels with a feather boa.
Finally, destitute, she turned to prostitution and died in the influenza pandemic at the end of the First World War.
Cody ended up a failure as his Wild West Show lost out to the new medium of cinema. He tried his hand at filmmaking. It was a disaster. The great showman wasn’t so talented after all.
In a final act of self-aggrandisement he even built a town, Cody, which still exists today in Wyoming.
The radical preacher Thomas Müntzer, the leader of a huge peasant army (which really wasn’t an army) and the main figure in The War of the Poor, was driven by one overriding thought — why was it that God, who supposedly loved the poor, was always on the side of the rich? He answered this question by attempting to overthrow the established church and replace it with a plebeian, radical Christianity which rejected wealth and strove for the accessibility and openness of religious teaching.
At that time radical politics were usually expressed in religious language. Müntzer translated the bible into German and then Czech, and he refused to preach in Latin. He was a firebrand and a fighter. He thought Martin Luther was weak and he called for the “miserable, wretched sack of maggots”, the Bishops, Dukes and Princes, to be put to death. He signed his letters “Müntzer the Sword of Gideon”.
40,000 flocked to his cause and the established order, church and state, began to tremble. However, the Peasant “Army” had hardly any weapons, little military expertise, cannons or cavalry. They were butchered in their thousands at the battle of Frankenhausen, 14-15 May 1525, by the joint forces of Philip I of Hesse and Duke George of Saxony. Müntzer was captured, tortured and executed. Vuillard ends the book with these words, “Martyrdom is a trap for the oppressed. Only victory is desirable. I will tell of it”.