Cendrars, Blaise

The seventh uncle: everything and nothing

The Panama Canal is intimately linked to my childhood…

Panama? Why Panama? 

After the difficulties experienced in the first attempts to construct the Panama Canal, the idea of which dates back to the 16th century, in 1889 Ferdinand Lesseps’ project leads his Company to bankruptcy. The financial scandal erupts in 1892 and leaves 800,000 investors in ruins.

My father lost 3/4 of his fortune
As many other good people who lost their money in that crash
My father
Less foolish
Did not lose his own,
Revolver shots,  
My mother crying…

The drama was there, in few words.

… I sincerely believe
That Panama’s crash should be of more universal significance
Because it disrupted my childhood…

Georges Sauser, a watchmaker, and his family —Marie Louise and their children, Jean-Georges, Marie-Elise, Freddy— leave La Chaux-de-Fonds on 14 June 1894. Why? Could it be due to Panama’s crash? In any case, it is time to recount the victims of the event. The Sauser family arrive in Naples on 26 September 1894. Freddy is seven years old: he is the Frédéric Louis Sauser who will become Blaise Cendrars.

‘Tell me, Blaise,’ Raymone will ask him sixty years later*, ‘when I hear Panama’s beginning, I think of your house in Naples…’
‘The house in Naples?… Ah, yes, Vomero’s property… what does it make you think of?’
‘It makes me think of your seven uncles… Was it then when your mother began telling you about her seven brothers?’
‘Yes, of course… It was then when I first heard about my seven uncles. My poor mother received letters from all over the world, and I only waited for one thing, the postman; to snaffle the letters from him, for the stamps…’

The link with Panama, would it be the crash of a young boy’s life?
This great poem holds the secrets. Will we discover the key to the seven routes chosen by the poet among the infinity of possibilities the becoming of a human life holds in childhood?

‘These uncles,’ Blaise adds, ‘left together and by common accord… There were seven of them. The eldest was eighteen when they left home, and the youngest was seven or eight; and they swore to never split as long as the youngest was still underage.’

All of them together, like a block…

‘… I call all my uncles Alfred, because they had only taken out a passport in the name of the eldest. During their lives there was incredible confusion because of this single passport for all seven boys, who kept calling themselves Alfred. Every time they needed official documents they would pass the passport around, and each of them had American papers made using the name of Alfred!’

‘Why did they all leave together?’ Raymone insists.
‘One for all, all for one. They did not want to split. They swore to never abandon each other until the youngest, who was no older than eight, had grown up. They remained together in the United States until the youngest was eighteen or twenty, and from there they parted again, each their own way, each in a different direction, to all the countries of the world. They had one point of contact: my mother, to whom they all wrote.’

‘You know… I feel like you resemble almost all your uncles.’
‘There was only one who looked like me, or rather, I looked like him. Of course, another Alfred… I am not sure what he did exactly: everything and nothing.’

Everything and nothing.
The question that Blaise would obsess over and raise throughout his work.

‘Tell me, Blaise, why have you always mixed Panama with the story of your seven uncles, if none of them ever went there?’
‘None of them travelled to Panama because Panama did not exist at the time. Panama originated much later, with Lesseps’ speculations…’

With the events that would change Freddy’s life.
So, Naples, seven years and seven possible destinies.
But only one would be fulfilled: the one of the seventh uncle.
1896: the Sauser family returns to Switzerland. Basilea, Neuchatel… Alfred… apologies, Freddy, would have a thousand arguments, escapades, detentions, school absences, trips on sailboats on the lake… and then three years in Russia, Moscow, St. Petersburg… reading bulimia and the taste for writing. Bern, studies… trips… He leaves for America.
Now he can call himself a poet.
Everything will be born from nothing.

… Scatter my childhood on the earth
Put a station in its place…
I am a new man…

The seventh Alfred reaches adulthood and finds his name: Blaise Cendrars.
From nothing to everything. And vice versa.
Returning to Paris from New York in 1912, in his briefcase he brings the work carried out during his stay in America: manuscripts, book projects, poems: Easter in New York, he will later write The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and Little Jehanne of France
Here is his journey, his direction: great poems, like secret legends.
In the springtime of 1913, in the attic of 4 Saboya Street, in the fifth district of Paris, manuscripts, folders, and the thick guide of American trains are piled up; and on a folder made of thick brown cardboard, one title: Panama and the Adventures of my Seven Uncles, and one date: poem started in October 1912.  
It is his third great poem. It will be finished in June 1914.
In 1918… after the terrible setback of the war where, as a volunteer, he loses his right arm, Blaise Cendrars finds work as a literary adviser for Editions de La Sirene at a perfect time.
La Sirene publishes an astonishing creation, a booklet that folds as a train guide or a road map, illustrated with 25 American train itineraries. The painter Raoul Dufy designs and makes the double cover in colour. The book is Panama and the Adventures of my Seven Uncles.

Miriam Cendrars

The quoted texts are extracted from: Panama or the True Story of my Seven Uncles. Conversation between Raymone and Blaise Cendrars (fragments of a radiophonic emission, around 1952). Portrait of the author by Fabio Zimbres.