Adieu, Paris!

Issue 4/1994 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

One day an Indian physicist discovers that Paris has disappeared – or, in the words of the French government, has been relocated: ‘it now exists not merely in one place, but in many, perhaps not precisely here or there, but to some extent everywhere’. Extracts from the novel Kadonnut Pariisi (‘Paris lost’, Otava, 1994)

The news of the disappearance of Paris was, at first, an item in the remotest corners of the foreign news pages of the newspapers and in the light feature at the end of the television news – those absurd little stories: an elephant’s escape from the zoo, the mother of four who beat the world record for toothbrush-swallowing or the suicide of a news reporter in the middle of a television broadcast.

Professor Ansari, an Indian physicist, had developed a method for the extremely accurate measurement of the mass of the Earth. His conclusion was that the Earth weighed too little. And, by an extraordinary coincidence, the missing mass was approximately the same as the estimated mass of Paris. The physicist was foolish enough to make his result public and to utter the fateful words: ‘Well, of course the simplest explanation would be that Paris is missing. That it doesn’t exist any more.’ A news item on the subject in the ‘Crazy World’ column concluded with the remark: ‘Professor Ansari is continuing the development of his theory in the government mental asylum in Delhi.’

It was the project of Zhang Ziwang, a Peking traffic planner, to design an underground railway system for his native city. Gathering information about the Paris metro, he came to an unexpected conclusion. The total length of all the metro carriages of Paris was three times the length of its metro network. The system should have been completely and multiply jammed. Shocked, Ziwang told a colleague about his result: ‘Could a city like this even exist?’ Fortunately, the leader of the traffic-planning group was a man with a sense of humour. Zhang Ziwang was given a job designing a children’s playground traffic layout in the Peking suburbs.

The greatest ridicule, however, befell the Canadian literary critic Dorothy O’Malley. She held a press conference in which she said she had left for Paris but had never got there.

Miss O’Malley was working on a doctoral thesis on American literary circles in Paris between the wars. At the beginning, all had gone well: she had read books and done some writing. But this was not enough for her. She had to see Paris, she wanted to write the final chapter of her thesis there.

Dorothy O’Malley flew to Paris from New York. The plane was filled with a group of pensioners from Hunterville, Kansas. When the captain announced that they were about to land at Orly airport, all the passengers burst into a round of applause. Dorothy was amused, although she, too, was rather excited.

She was a little surprised when the guide on the bus announced that they would reach the Champs Elysées in five minutes. The guide was not lying: after a moment they drove through an archway above which was written, in gaudy neon letters: ‘Champ Elyseus –The Real Thing’. The Eiffel tower was placed in the middle of the street and decorated like a Christmas tree. Cries of admiration filled the bus.

‘This isn’t Paris! We’ve been tricked!’ cried Dorothy O’Malley. The old people looked at her pityingly. ‘What a terrible effect jet lag can have on people,’ she heard someone whisper.

Dorothy O’Malley packed her bags, went back to Canada and held a press conference. To begin with she was laughed at. One of her colleagues criticised Dorothy’s thesis: ‘In her work, Miss O’Malley appears to have forgotten the most important methodological rule of the literary critic. To adapt it to her work: the Paris of Hemingway and Miller, Stein and Nin exists just as surely as the real Paris. But one must remember that it must be sought in their books.’

When a group of international journalists interviewed the French president in a live broadcast from the Elysée palace, someone asked playfully at the end: ‘Doubts have recently been expressed in Canada as to the existence of your capital. How do you respond to these doubts, Mr President? Are we in Paris?’ The entire group of journalists chuckled good-naturedly, and a broad smile spread over the president’s face.

The president got up from behind his table and walked to the window. All the cameras followed him. He opened the window: ‘There’s Paris for you.’ Through the window the city could be seen, at rest in the afternoon sun.

Then, before the eyes of the French president, the journalists and millions of viewers, Paris was torn in two. In the centre of Paris there appeared a black, fluttering hole, into which the Seine flowed.

The journalists shouted, covered their eyes and were certain that the end of the world had come. At the same time loud curses began to be heard from inside the black hole. At exactly the spot where the Place de la Concorde had split, two workmen appeared. They were talking loudly and at once and pointing at each other. Gradually the audience realised that it was not Paris, after all, that had been ripped apart, but a very, very large picture of it. In fact, an enormous canvas on to which the image of Paris had been projected.

The French government hurried to explain the event as an unfortunate gaffe: because of recent terrorist acts, the presidential palace had been moved to the centre of the country for security reasons. To avoid fuelling general panic, the matter had been kept secret from the general public.

Troublesome additional questions followed: What about the metro carriages of Paris? What was the reason for the statistical error? And where was the mass of Paris? The Indian professor who had lost his mental balance was dragged from his mental hospital into the limelight. Zhang Ziwang was given a job designing China’s space traffic, task for which he was in no way qualified. Dorothy O’Malley wrote her memoirs.

Then someone thought of comparing the area of Paris, its population and the number of tourists who visited the city each year. The result was flabbergasting: it would have taken around ten normal Parises to accommodate anything like all of them. It turned out that the statistical institute for Paris was located in a large, pleasant villa in the South of France, near Cannes and the sea.

The institute’s director was grilled in a television interview as to whether his researchers had made the figures up. ‘I wouldn’t put it quite like that. In certain cases, where the information is incomplete, we have been forced to make certain estimates. Here we have relied on probabilities. Now it simply looks as though those probabilities have collided.’

The French government was forced to admit that Paris had been slightly decentralised. There had, nevertheless, been a desire to preserve its general effect, and modern technology had been pressed into service to this end. ‘Paris does not perhaps exist in quite the sense that has been supposed, but in another sense it now exists not merely in one place, but in many, perhaps not precisely here or there, but to some extent everywhere,’ said a spokesman for the French government.

At first people laughed at the story. They knew they had been to Paris, had studied in Paris, had worked in Paris, had lived in Paris, that they lived in Paris now. But when they began to think about it more closely, they had to admit that they had no overall view of Paris. They remembered the hotel, the hostel, the apartment or the house where they had lived. They remembered the local shops, the metro station they had used to get to the university, their office, the opera or the cinema. They remembered the building where they had worked, studied, eaten their lunch. They might remember a theatre, a cemetery, some jazz club, a museum, some monument rising high into the sky. But how did all these perceptions relate to one another? To combine them all into Paris seemed suddenly arbitrary. They had walked across the road, entered the metro station. How did they know what, in the end, had been behind the buildings?

American and Russian space technology experts held a joint press conference on ‘the reconstruction of Paris’. As the first satellite pictures became available, something strange had become clear: for some reason, Paris could not be seen. The necessary adjustments had simply been made to calculations and maps, since the atmosphere above Paris had for some reason falsified results and diffracted the light in a strange way, it had been thought.

‘For of course we all knew that Paris existed,’ said the Russian scientist.

‘Even physicists like us read literature,’ added the American scientist.

A 70-year-old ‘Parisienne’ who said she had never left Paris in her life was interviewed on television. She pointed to the quarter she lived in and swore that the buildings were the same as in her youth, this was Paris, quite definitely. ‘If you go to the end of that alley, you should see Sacre Coeur.’ It was a dead end. A dirty picture of Montmartre was painted on the wall.

The disappearance of Paris had touched the world. The loss of such a big and famous city was shocking. People wanted to help.

Expeditions were set up.

In a study made by a Swedish television producer who subsequently became very famous, the expeditions were classified according to the way they came into existence.

There were expeditions set up on the initiative of some office or official, after the relevant application procedures and viability tests. There were expeditions put together by some individual who succeeded in finding and inspiring the right people. And then there were expeditions that were formed through a joint, spontaneous decision, in a conversation around a restaurant table.

Expert expeditions, government expeditions, expeditions by idealistic societies, expeditions of friends. And expeditions that were bound together by the relentless hatred felt by the members of the expedition toward one another.

There were also expeditions that achieved genuine, tangible results. The expedition led by Colonel Jansen in a sense found Paris.

The expedition’s arrival in Helsinki led to this new, fateful turn of events. The expedition’s financial manager, Werner Schulz, uses the third person in his account of the affair:

The expedition’s ever-cheerful financial manager, Werner Schulz, stepped briskly and soberly across Esplanadi park in Helsinki. A moment before, he had seen the expedition’s therapist, Ann Johnson, walking along the opposite side of the street. Werner Schulz felt his moment had come: his firm intention was to offer Ann Johnson an ice-cream in this very place, on the first day of spring, and thus finally find an opportunity to speak with a woman whose enquiring, acute gaze he both worshipped and feared.

Nevertheless he was forced suddenly to stop: in front of his nose walked a tall, wiry form, walking with a notably brisk and decisive gait. There could be no doubt that he was the leader of the expedition, Colonel Jansen. But there was something strange in his resolute pace.

All at once Colonel Jansen halted as if he had walked into a wall. He pulled a map out of his pocket and spread it right out. The map fluttered quietly in the wind as he held it with both hands.

As a well-bred person with a grasp of the formalities, financial manager Schulz felt it correct to go and greet Colonel Jansen. He was already standing beside Colonel Jansen when he recognised the map the colonel was holding in his hands. It was quite clearly a map of Paris. At the same time Colonel Jansen mumbled something, folded the map up and continued, if possible more briskly than before, along Esplanadi.

All this happened in a couple of seconds, but when Werner Schulz looked over to the other side of the street, he could no longer see any sign of Ann Johnson.

Colonel Jansen’s behaviour puzzled Werner Schulz so much that he raised the subject when the expedition met to take its afternoon coffee. It was by no means unnatural, for many were already voicing their astonishment as to how it was possible for Colonel Jansen to ignore their communal coffee meeting for the first time in the expedition’s two-year history.

It seemed indisputable that Colonel Jansen had had a map of Paris in his hand. Schulz had been a mere four feet away from him; the possibility of error could be discounted.

Could it be merely a mistake, a coincidence? What exactly was going on?

When the debate was at its height, Werner Schulz asked permission to speak. He said he had just remembered what it was Colonel Jansen had muttered: Champs­ Elysées.

Had financial manager Schulz really heard Colonel Jansen say those words, or was he merely trying to impress Ann Johnson?’

Whatever the truth of it, Werner Schulz’s speech put an end to speculation about Colonel Jansen’s purposes, true or imagined.

Soon everyone was following Jansen’s example.

Now members of the expedition navigated their way through the city using the map of Paris exclusively. Purposefully and relentlessly, they began to trace, uncover and reveal Paris’s disguise as Helsinki.

At first they were extremely disappointed.

‘There’s nothing of Paris here,’ many said. This is the direct opposite of Paris!’

Doubts were also expressed as to Colonel Jansen’s mental health and suitability for the responsibilities of leadership. Jansen had mysteriously disappeared – he had not been seen since financial manager Schulz had espied him on Esplanadi – and he was therefore unable to defend himself.

It was true that similarities between the cities were few. It was difficult to believe that all the handsome historical monuments of Paris could be hidden within this particular city. Could that suburb, on a hillock in the middle of a wood, be a skilfully disguised Montmartre? And where had that grey sea come from?

Besides, the inhabitants of the city seemed to be entirely lacking in Parisian elegance and style. Taciturn and unspeaking, these people wandered among the slush in the screaming colours of their tracksuits. Their sentences usually consisted of a single word.

‘Are we taking the climate seriously enough?’ commented Ann Johnson. ‘Weather conditions, the amount of sunlight and temperature have a bigger effect on people’s personality and spiritual wellbeing than we realise. Look at yourselves.’

It was quite true. For weeks, conversation had no longer flowed as volubly as before. The members of the exhibition noted changes in themselves that had caused them to resemble these people – these people whom, at first cautiously and still in quotation marks, they began to call Parisians.

They noticed that navigating in this town using a map of Paris was perfectly possible with a little practice. Distances were not always accurate, the Seine had in places dried up completely, while in others it had spread into inlets. Nevertheless, the basic features held: streets wound here and there, met each other, joined each other, divided off from each other.

There were other similarities, too, on closer inspection. In the light of a winter afternoon, a department-store coffee-shop might feel a little like Paris. A young woman waving to an old man from the window of a tram stirred the heart and senses like a deep-welling memory of something that had once existed.

Some of the members of the expedition moved to the northern suburbs of the city, by the railway. ‘Near the Porte de Clignancourt’, as they described their neighbourhood, although main-line trains passed by it, not the metro.

They began consistently to speak French in their day-to-day dealings. The results were surprisingly good. French phrases really did spread among the northern districts of the city; in some quarters, a kind of French was beginning to be spoken. But, most importantly, the identity of the local inhabitants underwent a change. Some began to consider themselves ‘almost Parisian’. The counter-reaction was as immediate as it was blunt: many of the residents of the area took up an attitude of unconditional opposition to this ridiculous snobbery.

But the ‘Parisians’ willingly believed Dr Johnson, who had, in a lecture to the library study circle, remarked that it was possible for a sudden geographical shift to mix and somehow adapt the memory strata of the brain to new conditions.

The traumatic experience had nevertheless disturbed the minds of these people more deeply than had been appreciated. Meeting a neighbour could, with luck, result in a pleasant moment of conversation. But it could also happen that, after the first greeting, neighbours who had lived for twenty years in harmonious silence would stand still like pillars of salt, staring at their shoes and the marks left in the snow by dogs, neither of them knowing what they should say next.

Shy kisses on the cheek were exchanged. Generally they led to blushes, battered noses and spectacles, feelings of embarrassment, shame and clumsiness. But results might also include misunderstandings, outbreaks of jealousy, family quarrels and violence, and sometimes, finally, the use of knives and guns.

Despite all the difficulties, results were obtained. The city and its people were changing. Perhaps not yet quite into Paris, but into something different nonetheless. The slushy greyness of winter did not disappear, but it had taken on a new tint.

This positive development came to an embarrassing end. An exhausted, alcoholised Colonel Jansen was discovered in a restaurant in an eastern suburb of the city. That prematurely aged human wreck explained, stammering and stuttering, to his subordinates that he had taken the map of Paris with him by mistake, become miserably lost and lived this entire time among these awful, barbaric people, whom none of the culture that was generally associated with the name of Paris would ever touch.

The members of the expedition realised their terrible mistake.

Silently they packed their belongings and went on their way.

But as the giant ship (it really was far too big to be a river barge) slipped out of the harbour, Dr Ann Johnson and financial manager Werner Schulz crept secretly on to the stern deck. They gazed at the floodlit tower of the great church which, as the ship drew further away, began more and more to recall Saere Coeur. A cold wind blew across the deck. Dr Johnson pressed herself against financial manager Schulz and sighed:

‘Poor, poor Parisians!’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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