Friday, September 9, 2011

Le Passe-Muraille.

Fly to Paris.  Make your way to Montmartre, and go to the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur, high atop its hill, north and west from the infamous Moulin Rouge.  Leave the Basilica and make your way through the narrow, winding streets of the old village, past the café Le Consulat, and down the Rue Norvin to the Place Marcel Aymé.  There you will find a peculiar thing:  a statue of a man, but not a complete statue.  Instead, it shows the man as if he were walking through the wall - and in fact he is.

The statue is of the titular character in Le Passe-Muraille - in English, The Walker-Through-Walls, a 1943 short story by the Marcel Aymé after whom the square is named.  As you might imagine, the story deals with a man who discovers that he has the ability to move through solid matter:
Dutilleul discovered his power shortly after he turned forty-two. One evening, the electricity went out briefly while he was standing in the front hall of his small bachelor apartment. He groped around for a moment in the dark, and when the power came back on, he found himself standing on his fourth floor landing. Since the door to his apartment was locked from the inside, this gave him pause for thought. Despite the objections of his common sense, he decided to return home in the same way he left—by passing through the wall. This strange ability seemed to have no bearing on any of his aspirations, and he could not help feeling rather vexed about it.
Dutilleul visits his doctor, who prescribes:
...two doses a year of tetravalent pirette powder containing a mixture of rice flour and centaur hormone. Dutilleul took one dose, then put the medicine in the back of a drawer and forgot about it.
Astonishingly, Dutilleul does nothing with his ability, even though he retains it after only taking one dose of the medicine rather than the prescribed two.  However, when he has trouble with his workplace supervisor, Dutilleul uses his ability to drive the supervisor crazy.  Pleased by this success, he looks for other outlets, and turns to a life of crime.

His career as a criminal is a phenomenal success, and all Paris stands in awe of this mysterious, miraculous thief, from whom no treasure is safe.  However, when Dutilleul attempts to take credit for his actions and announces to his co-workers that he is in fact the mystery man, he is laughed out of the office.  As a result, he allows the police to capture him, in order to prove to the scoffers at work that really is the amazing thief that they all admire.

It would seem insane to allow the authorities to arrest him just to gain the respect of his fellow workers (which he does), but then, think - what prison can hold him?  He proceeds to steal the warden's gold watch and hang it in his cell, borrow books from the warden's library, and finally announces the time and date of his departure from prison, at which point he vanishes completely from the public eye, living off his plunder and quietly working on his stamp collection.

Sadly, as you might guess, Dutilleul's downfall comes in the form of a woman.  (This is, after all, a French story.)  Tempted by a blonde beauty whose jealous husband keeps her under lock and key, he walks through the walls of their apartment and repeatedly makes mad passionate love to the captive goddess.  However, one night he feels the pangs of a headache, and rather than disappoint his innamorata, he finds what he thinks to be aspirin tablets in a drawer, takes two and goes to see his beloved.

As he is making his exit, he finds to his horror that he is trapped within the garden wall, unable to come or go through the masonry.  The pills which he thought were pain killers were of course the forgotten medication from his doctor, and his ability has left him at the worst possible moment.
Dutilleul was immobilized inside the wall. He is there to this very day, imprisoned in the stone. When people go walking down the Rue Norvins late at night after the bustle of Paris has died down, they hear a muffled voice which seems to come from beyond the grave; they think it’s the sound of the wind whistling through the streets of Montmartre. It’s Lone Wolf Dutilleul lamenting the end of his glorious career and mourning his all too brief love affair.
So, it is in fact on the Rue Norvin that Dutilleul meets his Waterloo, although perhaps not at the exact location of the statue.  The thing about that statue that most captures my attention is the expression on the Passe-Muraille's face. It reminds me of the ambiguous smile of the Mona Lisa - what is he thinking as he smiles that slight smile?  Is it smug?  Is it satisfied?  Is it contemplative?  Or perhaps is it simply pleasure in his unusual talent - the ability to walk through walls...
- Sid


  1. Fascinating! I like that story.


  2. Back in those days pharmaceuticals didn't obviously have a "best before" date. was suggested to me recently that pills don't expire as quickly as the label would imply - provided they are stored properly. They are usually good for another couple of years at least, but the drug companies want you to buy them more often, hence the expiry dates. Food for thought.

  3. Actually, I think you'll find that centaur hormone has an astonishing shelf life.
    - Sid