nthposition online magazine

Paris noir

by Alexis Lykiard

[ bookreviews ]

This fabulous and unique book - the adjectives seem perfectly apt here - was originally published in 1954 as Enchantements sur Paris, and then reissued in line with the author's wishes as Rue des Maléfices (Witchcraft Street). Apart from being a rare and quite terrific read, the sort of dark, gruesome page-turner that any one who enjoys the narratives of, say, David Goodis, Charles Willeford or 'Derek Raymond', would surely savour, this is a real one-off, a truly original, grotesque chronicle of lowlife as it was actually lived during several dark and dreadful years.

A work very much of its own peculiarly grim time (written for the most part during World War Two), today it seems extra-curious yet amazingly timeless. How to describe it? Well for starters it's an intimate Forties memoir by an incredibly brave but diffident and modest Resistance hero. The 25-year-old Jacques Yonnet was then a fugitive, a man escaped, a POW on the run from the Nazis in the beloved native city he knew intimately. He chose to go into hiding on the Left Bank, generally keeping to the 5th arrondissement, in whose bars and dives he would hide out and hang out along with an extraordinary motley crew. His friends, acquaintances, enemies and Resistance colleagues included petty crooks, beggars, madmen, starving artists, conmen, whores, black market skivers, drunks, exorcists, visionaries, informers, defrocked priests, mercenaries, psychics, gypsies, and every variety of exotic or threadbare night creature. Occupied Paris, or at least this small, lovingly detailed corner of it, harboured a veritable rogues' gallery; here indeed was a tricky, dangerous underworld that boasted a metropolitan wild bunch worthy of Villon and Céline at their most vituperative and cynical.

Yonnet addressed his readers towards the end of this weird and wonderful saga thus: "What you need to know is this: in certain areas of Paris, the supernatural is part of everyday life." He substantiates that observation quite frequently throughout this exciting book: it's full of odd facts, coincidences, mysteries and marvels. Although Paris Noir is not exactly fortean nor 'psychogeographical', it is exceedingly odd. Anyone interested in the uncanny and the occult will doubtless find much to ponder, since this mysterious genre-bending work is fascinatingly informative as well as thrilling: in its pages can be found curses, betrayals, torture, murder and even cannibalism - all the day-by-day extreme experiences of a crowd of mainly doomed, tragicomical derelicts, surviving as best they can in the direst circumstances, wandering ghosts indeed.

Translator Christine Donougher has done an excellent (and difficult) job rendering the argot of that very special era and place readable and accessible, and she helpfully provides an Introduction and useful Notes. There are also quite a few typos and proofing errors: eg, Cossak, pours (for pores), shoot (for chute), cheddite (for cordite?), Panant (for Panaït), spit (for split), that (for than), along with 'heros', 'incunablum', 'batallion', etc. But one can't really quibble, for Yonnet's amazing activities and adventures resulted in a dark, unclassifiable gem, and Dedalus are to be congratulated for introducing it to an Anglophone readership.