Passing through Paris after the Cannes Film Festival, I strolled between museums, stocking up on paintings by Matisse and Picasso. Outside, the insurgents were quietly putting away their barricades, as popular anger against the pension system seemed more exhausted in the hot weather. But artistic doors opened randomly during wanderings. Although I know the place well, they persist in telling me about the works that bear witness to it, dragged in my inner bag. From my early childhood, lived partly there, I remembered the puppets of Montsouris Park, a fabulous theater of youthful enchantments. Paris is in itself as much as on its soil. To each his own references.
Sometimes a crossroads reminds us of a scene from an old movie. Then the past of the place is engulfed there, on a heavy or light atmosphere. Thus, I saw again at the bend of a staircase The crossing of Paris by Claude Autant-Lara, with Jean Gabin and Bourvil carrying in their suitcases a cut-up pig acquired on the black market, during the dark hours of the Occupation. Or, taken from French Cancan by Jean Renoir, invited himself in verse by ear to Montmartre The lament of the hillwith immortal couplets composed by the filmmaker himself (with music by Georges van Parys), where the wings of the mills protect the lovers.
The old city reminds walkers of the works that artists from successive eras steeped in history have sown in their memories. There is no longer much in common between the Champs-Élysées described by Proust, where the ladies in hats were admired in their beautiful carriages, and the democratic avenue of today, except in the literary memory which evokes these fine attires in an amused wink. But in front of the booksellers on the quays, the imagination suggests Apollinaire passing “by the banks of the Seine, an old book under his arm”. The creators defined the Parisian mosaic. Their verses or their music make more noise than cars, like the birds of Paris by Charles Trenet.
Songs shed light on the city’s history, long conveyed by its bards. They come to mind, just to illuminate a street name, giving it a deeper root than the encrusted plaques evoking the past of a building or a park. Some happy, some tragic.
My hotel was located near rue de la Roquette, where former prisons with a sinister reputation, built in the 19e century, had fire and place, not far from the Père-Lachaise cemetery. From that of the men, the Grande Roquette, destroyed in 1899, the convicts left for the penal colony and those condemned to death were guillotined at its entrance.
I hummed myself to it At the Rocket by Aristide Bruant, composed at the end of the 19the century, in my eyes one of the most moving laments against the death penalty ever written. Without theorizing, she is content to evoke the last hours of a condemned man during the time of public executions. The crime of this man will never be known. He hears “like a kind of noise” which makes him jump between the prison walls. Slang words for the guillotine—”the widow” because it made widows, “the telescope” because of its shape—as well as colorful expressions describing death under the cleaver—”Sneezing in the bag”, “having one’s nose out of the window” – accentuate the final pangs of the condemned man. The funereal music of this song sends shivers down my spine. It is beautiful and sad, like an ultimate song of life.
Victor Hugo, fierce opponent of the death penalty, twenty years after writing The last day of a convicthad spoken there in 1847 with a former pupil of Viollet-le-Duc, awaiting execution.
So I went on a pilgrimage in his footsteps, my verses in mind. Neither monumental gate, nor walls, nor courtyard of honor remain at the address of the Grande Roquette, except for the slabs of death lower down, badly replaced. Housing complexes have sprung up there as throughout the sector, obliterating the dungeons and bars of yesteryear.
Almost opposite was the Petite Roquette. This prison for minors, delinquents or abandoned, forced to do hard labor (Jean Genet was imprisoned there at the age of 15), then for women from 1835, was not destroyed until 1974. In the Square de la Roquette, a portal in perpetual the memory as well as a commemorative plaque, but the flowers have grown on the sinister jail and the children are playing football in the playgrounds. Nothing to report under the chestnut trees.
However, this song remains in me, reminding me that the death penalty is rife in so many countries, among our southern neighbors among others. They are not so archaic, the words ofAt the Rocket. Might as well hum them.