A sweeping saga disguised as a tiny tome

This is not so much a book review, as it is a plea to the publisher of Les Catacombes – Histoire du Paris souterrain to issue the title in English.

But before I say a word about this extraordinary little volume (or why you should buy it and just Google Translate it) I must first disclose that its author is a friend.

I met Gilles Thomas because of his book Les Catacombes de Paris, which I credited in a different post. He saw the mention, dropped me a note, and voilà. Underground adventures galore!

Braye quarry climb BLOGYours truly, hoping she doesn’t fall.

Gilles watching out 1220328 BLOGMy friend Gilles, also hoping I don’t fall.

Gilles opens the underground 1240981 BLOGGilles, showing me one of the “doors” into the catacombs.

That fact has not influenced my opinion of this book, however.

What has influenced my opinion is the almost incredible breadth of this work, which draws on more than 250 French novels, 50 academic works, hundreds of maps, countless geological studies, as well as Gilles’ own deep appreciation for history. All of it condensed into 278 petite pages that are as economically penned as they are engaging and descriptive.

Gilles Thomas catacombes book 1330127 BLOG

Plus, the book itself is beautiful — as much a pleasure to hold as it is to read. It’s filled with old engravings and charming icons, and the binding is superb. Good thing, too, because my copy sure got a workout.

Gilles Thomas Catacombes book 1330132 BLOG

Gilles Thomas catacombes icons 1330143 BLOG

Gilles Thomas catacombes book 1330134 BLOG

Nevertheless, I had misgivings when Gilles first told me about his book — only because he’d already written a significant geological survey in his Atlas du Paris souterrain, and because he’s penned two other tomes on the catacombes and their inscriptions. “What more could there be left to say?” I wondered.

Plenty, as it turns out.

He begins with a retelling of his own baptism into the catacombs of Paris 30 years ago (like “attending his own birth”), and his ensuing study of film, books, TV, and diaries for any mention of the old quarries. His purpose? He seeks to preserve the heritage of Paris’ underground — a history many French still aren’t aware of, and one that is increasingly under siege.

Indeed, some of these historic tunnels could be threatened by proposals to pump them full of concrete, rather than continue to reinforce the walls. “Let’s hope this method of ‘consolidation’ … which is a must for the gypsum quarries, doesn’t extend into the quarries underneath Paris and become their ‘swan song,’” he writes.

But before Gilles dives too deep into the tunnels he first treats us to a quick geology lesson, including an explanation of how the quarrymen extracted limestone, among other materials. (I loved his description of “men playing the role of hamsters” in the quarry tunnels. The catacombs really are like a human-scaled, stone Habitrail.)

habitrail BLOG

Gilles discusses Charles-Axel Guillaumot, of course, and his inventive method for labeling the tunnels. He also mentions other uses for the quarries: sneaking into Paris and evade taxes, mushroom cultivation, wartime bunkers and bomb shelters — and of course, partying. (The first party of note was recorded in 1777, in case you were wondering.)

Some people even made their homes in the dark tunnels. “Closer to us, in the 19th century, the gypsum quarries in Montmartre acquired a bad reputation because they served as shelter for the miserable people who came there to seek refuge at night,” Gilles writes.

He also sheds new light on some old lore, such as the story of Philibert Aspairt “whose misadventure has become legendary.” There’s no doubt Aspairt existed, but the story of the doomed Val-de-Grâce doorman has been shrouded in myth and mystery since his body was discovered in 1804.

Was he drawn by “curiosity and the call of the dark” when he ventured into the tunnels on November 3, 1793? Or did he intend to pilfer a bottle or two from an underground cellar? Whatever prompted his deadly stroll, at least now we have official confirmation of his identity — and the revelation that he was married, and that his widow was still alive when his skeleton was found — through a recently discovered document in the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) archives.

I discovered other myths I’d never heard before, such as the “green goblin” that haunted the quarry corridors and terrified the quarrymen. Gilles is scientific-minded and dismisses such stories. But … who knows? He certainly cites enough eyewitnesses.

The book isn’t only about history and lore, though; it also offers a look into today’s “cataphile” culture. (“Cataphile” is a generic term for someone who enjoys exploring or studying the tunnels — as opposed to the destructive “cataclasts,” who deface old markings.)

I found Gilles’ description of this complex “catacosm” fascinating, along with his list of organized events (such as a “Ktaclean,” in which cataphiles sweep through the tunnels like janitors and tidy up any mess). I was touched by his homage to the first modern cataflic (“catacop”), Commander Jean-Claude Saratte. Saratte was so respected and well-liked that, when he retired in 2000, the cataphiles threw him a huge underground party.

Moving on to the tunnels themselves, Gilles begins with a guided tour of the municipal ossuary — an official museum, and the only portion of the catacombs legally open to visitors. Gilles tells us about the curious crowds that gathered in the 1800s, the important role the tunnels played during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and about the modern improvements (such as the addition of electrical lights during the 1970s) that have drawn droves of new visitors. Sadly, all this traffic comes at a price and the place is now threatened by “Lascaux syndrome.”

I also savored Gilles’ descriptions of other places I’ve only seen on maps …

Catacombs map detail BLOG
Screenshot from explographies.com

… such as “la Plage” (“the beach”), so named because of its fine, sandy floor. This place has a rich history — including one incarnation as the deep cellar of a brewery, and designation as a civil-defense shelter — but today it’s best known among cataphiles for its enormous mural-tributes to Hokusai and Picasso.

IMGP6616-cd599Image via extreme.dahut.fr

Neighborhood by neighborhood, Gilles meticulously chronicles the history of the tunnels and caves that lurk beneath the pavers. And through it all he tosses in wonderful excerpts — ranging from classics by Balzac and Dumas to more modern works like “Elvis on the Seine” by Stéphane Michaka — that both illuminate and expand his own text.

In short: Gilles has created a work of tremendous scope and ambition cleverly disguised as a beautiful little book. It’s a marvelous synthesis of geology, history, literature, and culture, and will reward any Francophone who has even a passing interest in these topics.

I do hope Editions LePassage will consider translating it to English, because it deserves an even wider audience.

Félicitations, Gilles !

Text and images © Heather Munro.