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Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City

Author: Jacques Yonnet

Translator: Christine Donougher  

Chapter I

An age-old city is like a pond. With its colours and reflections. Its chills and murk. Its ferment, its sorcery, its hidden life.
A city is like a woman, with a woman's desires and dislikes. Her abandon and restraint. Her reserve - above all, her reserve.
To get to the heart of a city, to learn its most subtle secrets, takes infinite tenderness and patience, sometimes to the point of despair. It calls for a delicate touch, but not furtive. And love, but not unduly calculating. Over centuries.
Time works for those who place themselves beyond time.
You're no true Parisian, you do not know your city, if you haven't experienced its ghosts. To become imbued with shades of grey, to blend into the drab obscurity of dead angles, to join the clammy crowd that emerges, or seeps, at certain times of day from the metros, railway stations, cinemas or churches, to feel a silent and distant brotherhood with the lonely wanderer, the dreamer in his shy solitude, the crank, the beggar, even the drunk - all this entails a long and difficult apprenticeship, a knowledge of people and places that only years of patient observation can confer.
It is through its turbulent periods that the true temperament of a city - and even more so, the morass of the sixty villages or so that make up Paris - reveals itself. For thirteen years I've been compiling all kinds of notes, especially historical, for such is my profession. From them I've extracted what relates to a series of events I witnessed, or of which I was the very unlikely protagonist. A kind of diffidence, of indescribable fear prevented me from bringing this work to fruition before now.
Maybe it's due to particular circumstances that the bizarre events that are the subject of this work struck me as fantastic - but fantastic on a human scale.
I discovered in every fortuitous circumstance, weird occurrence and freak of coincidence a logic so rigorous that in my constant concern for truthfulness I felt compelled to introduce myself into the narrative much more than was perhaps strictly necessary. But it was essential to capture the period, and this period I lived through, more intensely than many others, I was steeped in it to the core. All the same, it would never have occurred to me to relate a personal story had I not been aware how intimately related it is to the one, infinitely more complex and worthy of interest, of the City itself.
There are no fictional characters here, nor any anecdotes arising solely from the imagination of the narrator - who could just as well be any one else.
So what should be seen in this book then is not the most disquieting but disquieted of testimonies.

Beyond the island and the two branches of the river, the city changes. In the square, on the site of the ancient morgue, stones dating from different periods at odds with each other have been cemented on top of one another. There's a muted hatred between them. It grieves me as much as it does them. It's inconceivable that no one gave any thought to this. The Seine is sulking. Showing the same moodiness as before, when I came to pay my respects after a rather longer trip than I would have liked. This river is no easy mistress.
It will be a hard winter. There are already seagulls at La Tournelle, and it's only September.
In June 1940, at Boult-sur-Suippe, I was wounded and taken prisoner. I found out that the Germans had identified me as an avant-garde journalist. I escaped at the first opportunity.
I have a little money. Enough to survive two weeks, perhaps three. But all I have in terms of identity papers is the service record of Sergeant Ybarne, a priest with no family, who died in my camp - and a demobilisation document I concocted for myself.
I don't know whether it will be possible one day to regain my own family name. I have constantly to beware of patrols and raids, especially those carried out by French policemen.
I don't yet know where to sleep. I'm not without trustworthy friends: a good dozen. I've lurked beneath their windows and always thought better of calling on them.
I wandered through the Ghetto, behind the Hotel de Ville. I know its every paving stone, every stone of every house. I came away disappointed, almost angry. There's an atmosphere of despair, acceptance, resignation. I wanted to breath a more vigorous air. It was towards the Maubert district with its secret smile that an overriding instinct guided my steps. Rue des Grands-Degres attracts me. I just have this feeling I'm sure to find a friendly handshake there.

The Watchmaker of Backward-Running Time
This little green clapboard shed is the 'shop' (not quite three square meters in size) of Cyril the master watchmaker. Born in Kiev, God knows when.
Old Georgette the washerwoman, one of the doyennes of the Maube district, who knew Chateau-Rouge and Old Lunette and was around when Rue Lagrange was bulldozed through, told me in 1938: 'That guy's incredible. I'm getting on for seventy and I've known him for ever. Watch-mender with second-hand watches to flog. Never any trouble. Every now and then he changes his name. Says he's entitled to. That's the fourteenth woman he's on to now. He's buried more than half the rest. And still the same pretty face. I can't figure it out.'
It was certainly curious. More immediate concerns prevented me from paying much attention to 'the case' of Cyril. And then, some time later, I meet him in a bar and tell him the story - that I had just reconstructed - of the building his shack leans up against.
A colonel in the days of the Empire - when all colonels were good chaps - lost a leg at Austerlizt. This led to his retirement. The officer sought permission from the Emperor to return to Paris with his horse, with whom he had developed a close friendship. The Emperor was in a good mood that day. He agreed.
Colonel and horse bought the house, and had an extra storey built on to it. It has a big courtyard paved with sandstone. A huge watering-trough was installed in it at great expense. For His Nibs the Horse was in the habit of taking baths and could only drink from running water. The colonel's assets and pension were insufficient to pay for the three or four fellows who shuttled back and forth with their buckets, between the Seine and the sybaritic nag's intermittently flowing stream. Colonel and mount expired simultaneously, locked in each other's embrace.
Cyril found this highly amusing. We drank a lot and became bosom pals.

Cyril has found me a refuge. He took me to Rue Maitre-Albert. A street that dog-legs down to the river. Pignol's - a low dive - is a tiny place and crammed with people. Snacks are served behind closed shutters.
Hourly patrols come storming up the street. Their boots can be heard a long way off. It sounds as though the asphalt answers 'turd' to every resounding step. As soon as they turn the corner, we dim the light and keep our traps shut. They have a sense of desecration. They penetrate the hostile darkness with a tremendous fear in their guts, as a man might take by force a woman who resists.
A power failure. Apparently this is now a frequent occurrence. The proprietress, Pignolette - the only person Cyril introduced me to - lights candles. I then observe the watchmaker's face - in normal light he looks forty years old at most.
Countless, extraordinarily fine, parallel wrinkles leave no area of his skin unmarked. He looks mummified. I recall Georgette's words. Cyril has already got me to recount my adventures. Now it's his turn,
Having joined the Foreign Legion under an assumed name at the outbreak of hostilities, he had the good fortune to acquit himself well in battle. Military Cross and service medal. Doesn't get arrested. He's allowed to keep the name he had chosen: at that point he's selling himself his own licence. But since Cyril, as I well recall, once described to me, in great detail, the fighting he was involved in on the French Front in the 1914-1918 war, as well as the famous Kiev massacres, when the Shirkers were tied to the rails and slow-moving locomotives sliced off their heads, this story bothers me slightly. This matter of time. And being everywhere.
People considered 'reputable' because of their three-piece suits are gathered here together with genuine tramps, shovelling down the same grub. I noticed the bespectacled fellow on the end of the bench, with a crew-cut, and his very dark-ringed protrubing eyes. Cyril whispers: 'Apparently he's a poet. His name's Robert Desnos.'
I asked for the key to my room.
Exhaustion has made me hypersensitive. A rhummy lorry passes by, a very long way off. I hear it, I sense it descending Rue Monge. It's going to drive round the square, turn into the boulevard on the left. I can 'see' it. I'm sure of it. It sends a shudder through cubic kilometres of buildings. This evening the neighbourhood's nerves are on edge.
All the ceilings in this place
had scarlattina
Hence their peeling pock-mocked faces -
O Lamartine.
That dark, circular, ringed stain above the bedside table is where the petrol lamp used to hang, stinking and leaking like nobody's business. A nasty fly-specked light-bulb dangles over my head, swinging fractionally. It makes the shadows move. The lorry draws closer, and the disturbed shadows cannot quite settle back into place: then the room itself shares in the general unease.

The call-up caught me by surprise on my return from a trip to Eastern Europe. In my bohemian two-roomed apartment, I'd accumulated documents and books about the history of Paris. I hadn't had time to go through them.
During the day I went by my place - surreptiously. The Germans have put a seal on my front door - that's to say, two strips of what looks like brown wrapping-paper stamped with the double-headed eagle. They think they can impress the world by such pathetic means. For me, it was child's play to get inside, gather together of bundle of linen, documents and books, put everything back in order and leave without being seen.
So I retrieved, among others, Paris Anecdote by Privat d'Anglemont, the 1853 edition; a huge and a very old collection of Arrests MŽmorables du Parlement de Paris; and two precious notebooks that will enable me to collate records of events, places and dates. Then the National Library once again opened its doors to me. Also, the Arsenal, and St Genevieve, and the Archives. I was able to reconstruct a medieval legend, which relates to the very place where Cyril has been working for so many years. Here it is.

In 1465 the Ruelle d'Amboise, which led from the river to Place Maubert, originated in the teeming industriousness of Port-aux-Beches. The sluggish Bievre formed a kind of delta at that point, before mingling its muddy tannin-polluted waters with those of the Seine. Unsquared logs were left to pile up in the stagnant mud that made them imperishable. A brooding unease overhung Paris. Charles the Bold's forces were sweeping down from the north. Along the Loire, the Bretons, won over to the Burgundian cause, were pressing hard on the Duke of Maine's people. Francis of Britanny and the Duke of Berry had also joined forces against the crowned king, Louis XI. In the City itself, the Burgundians were plotting. The over-extended police forces were unreliable. So there was a relaxation of the vigilant watch kept on the serfs, semi-slaves, vagrants, pedlars and hawkers congregated below the walls of the Town.
On the very site of Cyril's shack, a watchmaker who had arrived from the Orient, a convert to Christianity who displayed 'great piety', set up business. He made, sold and repaired time-pieces, which were extremely valuable and rare in those days.
His clients were inevitably members of the nobility or wealthy merchants. Tristan the Hermit, who lived in a house very close by, appreciated the watchmaker's skill and had taken him under his patronage.
The watchmaking trade was thriving. The Oriental had repudiated his barbarous name and called himself Oswald Biber. (Which means 'beaver'. as does the old French word 'Bievre'.) The wily fellow lived frugally, and yet he was known to have become very wealthy. Meanwhile, some gypsies who had been driven out of the City established their encampment in the vicinity of Port-aux-Beches. They read the future in tracings made in the sand with the end of a stick, in the palms of women and the eyes of children.
Some prelates got upset and condemned this as magic. But there was not enough wood in the entire port to burn all those who rightly or wrongly would have been accused of witchcraft. The gypsies - at that time they were called 'Egyptians' - were on good neighbourly terms with the watchmaker. Perhaps it was because of this that a rumour developed and gained currency, according to which the pious Biber was in reality in possession of forbidden secrets. With the passage of time this could not be denied.
Some of his clients - the oldest and wealthiest - seemed to be less and less affected by the burden of years. They were rejuvenated, and old men beheld with astonishment those they believed to be their contemporaries become once again men in their prime...
It was discovered that Biber had in great secrecy made watches for them that were little concerned with telling the time: they ran backwards. The person whose name was engraved on the watchwork arbors saw their fate linked to that of the object. He went into reverse, retrogressing through the term of life he'd already lived, he was restored to youth...
A brotherhood established itself among the beneficiaries of the marvellous secret. Many years passed...
And then one day Oswald Biber received a visit from his assembled clients. They entreated him:
'Could you not make the mechanisms that rule our lives keep going without progressing any further?'
'Alas! That's impossible... But consider yourselves lucky: you would have been long dead if I hadn't done this for you...'
'But we don't want to get any younger! We dread adolescence, oblivious youth, the dark night of early childhood, and the inescapable doom of returning to limbo... We cannot bear the haunting prospect of that inexorable date, the preordained date of our demise...'
'I can do nothing, nothing more for you...'
'But we've known you for so many years now, and why do you still look the same as ever? You seem to be ageless...'
'Because the master I had in Venice, in times long gone by, who did not, to my great regret, impart all his knowledge, made this watch here for me.
'The hands run alternatively clockwise and anticlockwise... I age and rejuvenesce every other day...'
Unconvinced, the candidates for the eternity of their flesh went away and conferred. It was decided that they would go back to Biber the sorcerer at night and compel him by whatever means necessary to do as they wanted.
They invaded his house but did not find him there. Each of them had also come with the secret intention of stealing the watchmaker's watch, the only, deeply reassuring, one of its kind...
They fought savagely among themselves, and in their struggle the object that controlled all the others was shattered.
Their watches stopped immediately, and immediately these fine fellows died. Their corpses were discovered and solemnly execrated. They were piled up in a charnel house in a place where 'the soil was so putrifacient that a body decayed in nine days...'

At the time I almost regretted having mentioned this to Cyril. I'd already noticed his subtle turn of thought, appreciated the soundness of some of his advice. The unanimous opinion of folk in the neighbourhood could be summed up in these words: Cyril knows things that others don't. But I wasn't aware that he was the holder of a secret - his own - and that to be reminded of it was so painful to him. All I said was:
'Are you at all familiar with a legend... Time running backwards... Oswald Biber...'
He paled, he began to tremble. In a broken voice, staring at me with a kind of terror, he said as if to himself, 'So you too are in the know? It's much more serious than I thought...'
For a moment there was infinite distress in his eyes, rising out of the depths of the ages.
And then he recovered, and we spoke of other things.


RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 280

Publication date: 31.12.2006

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 48 2
978 1 907650 36 9

World English