Down and Out in Paris

(Bruno Vincent/getty Images)
Reviewed by Molly Moore
Sunday, February 18, 2007


The Secret History

By Andrew Hussey

Bloomsbury. 485 pp. $32.50

For anyone with notions of Paris as the most romantic city on Earth, try digesting this image of ordinary residents' lives during the Prussian attack of 1870: "As the siege hardened, the most desperate among them took to digging up corpses in various cemeteries around the city, mincing the bones to make a thin sort of gruel, which offered little nutritional value but at least kept them warm."

Or consider this description: "In 1776, the common grave, into which the poor of Paris had been flung like so much garbage over the centuries, began to subside; dead bodies began to appear in rotten lumps, breaking through the cellar walls of nearby houses alongside flesh-eating rats."

Have the stomach for more? Consider the fate of François Ravaillac, the fanatic who assassinated King Henri IV in 1607: "He was scalded, ripped into pieces and part of his torso was roasted and eaten by the mob before the rest of him was reduced to ashes."

Andrew Hussey, a British-born historian who has made a career of writing accounts of offbeat movements in French history, has titled his latest, meticulously researched book Paris: The Secret History. He might have more accurately named it Paris: The Sordid History for its breathless race across more than 2,000 years of massacres, revolutions, insurrections, riots, wars, beheadings, plagues and poverty.

This is the rat's-eye view of Paris, captured in stomach-churning snapshots of its most visceral moments. Hussey undresses the city, its residents and its rulers. Though he reveals few real secrets that have not been unearthed by previous authors or journalists, he chronicles a side of Parisian history not found in tourist guides or, for that matter, in most French school textbooks. (Imagine picking up a guidebook with this scene from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, one of the world's most visited churches: "The 'Fête des Fous', an orgiastic four-day saturnalia that took place in the cathedral, often ending in murder and group sex, was tolerated long into the sixteenth century.") But within the broad sweep of endless mayhem, debauchery and vermin nibbling on corpses, Hussey provides valuable historical context for the Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, social unrest and national malaise of today's France.

The author describes the "virulent Islamophobia at work in Christian Paris" in the 1300s, "the conquest of Algeria in 1830" and the "wave of Islamist-inspired bombings which terrified the city in the 1980s and 1990s." He juxtaposes those historical currents with the arsons and police clashes that convulsed impoverished suburban neighborhoods of immigrants and their French-born offspring -- many of them Muslim -- throughout the country in the fall of 2005.

Paris also has often been the setting for clashes between the elites and the mass population. In particular, Hussey recounts Paris's student demonstrations, dating to the first on record, a 1229 protest against an increase in wine prices at a tavern in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel, and he explains why the 1968 uprisings were so pivotal in French politics: "For the first time this was not the revolt of an impoverished and half-starved underclass . . . but a rebellion by middle-class students." Over the centuries, Hussey, shows, French leaders have been beheaded, dethroned and overthrown because of their failure to understand or relate to the masses -- which provides a partial explanation of why today's government remains so terrified of public sentiment that last spring's student demonstrations paralyzed reform efforts and sank the presidential aspirations of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. After reading Hussey's book, one realizes Villepin was fortunate; at least he kept his head.

Hussey also explores the schisms in society that Parisians have been unable to bridge since the city's founding as a muddy enclave on the Île de la Cité. The social and political elite remain largely oblivious to the city's underclasses. For centuries, they have watched wars and protests from their balconies or their horse-drawn carriages, returning to their dinner tables when they became bored by the spectacle. Last spring, while French police pummeled student demonstrators with high-pressure water hoses and tear gas, upper-crust clients sat deep inside pricey restaurants sipping wine not half a block away. During the suburban violence of the previous fall, residents of Paris were all but oblivious to the destruction and unrest at the far ends of the Metro lines.

You may feel as though you need a long, hot shower after 400 relentless pages of carnage, misery and rat infestations, but you'll come away with a deeper understanding of a people, a culture and a city that the rest of the world has simultaneously envied and maligned. ·

Molly Moore is Paris bureau chief of The Washington Post.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company