‘Paris Vagabond’ by Jean-Paul Clébert

Paris-vagabondHal Hlavinka at The Quarterly Conversation:

We meet many people across Clébert’s wanderings, and his characters (for that’s what they become) parade past the reader, page by page, each pausing only for a brief second before plunging back into the seedy tableau. While out measuring rooms for an architect, our hero is “struck by the odor of soil and dead leaves” and encounters a mushroom farm inside of an apartment. “I would have had to clamber in damp darkness,” he writes, “over little mounds of earth on which white spots were breaking out.” On the Buttes-Chaumont he discovers an artist’s workshop filled with uncaged birds, “an immense glassed-in space that stunned you with cries and colors.” A page later, on assignment in the Saint-Pierre neighborhood, we’re in an apartment-turned-serpentarium, with snakes nestled in every nook: “They were everywhere, slithering under tables and around the feet of chairs. . . . I left with my tail between my legs, ignoring the gentleman’s polite and soothing explanations.” Friends and acquaintances are equally mad. There’s Jérôme, the grave robber, “the world’s expert on the topography and benefits of Paris’s cemeteries,” who engages in the business of “headhunting.” Inside a crypt, a motivated headhunter need only avoid the caretaker, hold his breath, “grasp hold of a head by thrusting a finger and thumb into the eye sockets, twist sharply so as to snap the uppermost vertebra, and toss each skull into [a] sack.” The heads, for their part, become curios to sell to discerning bidders. And Monsieur Claude, aka Mr. Numb, “who sticks needles, pins or nails into a part of his anatomy chosen by any enthusiast who pays a round.” Only for those paying a premium does Mr. Numb reserve his best: “[He] will adorn the knob of his penis with a tight sheaf of tiny needles, a spectacle prone to make young tourists blanch and choke.” The case of Marceau and his two wives is particularly emblematic of the carefree vagabond cast. After Marceau goes missing during a multi-day bender, the police discover a corpse, which wife number one (the one and only, at the time) identifies as her husband’s. The woman grieves over free drinks from anyone who will pay their respects, until one morning when Marceau returns from the dead with wife number two in hand, “this to the outrage of the other one, who bombarded him with curses.” The polygamist remains officially deceased: “[The police] struck Marceau off the roster of the living and registered his death as accidental. End of story.”

more here.