At the age of just 12, François Maspero suffered two tragedies. Firstly his elder brother Jean, a Paris resistant, was killed by German occupiers in 1944 after being denounced for his attack on one of their soldiers. As an additional punishment, both parents were sent to concentration camps (Buchenwald and Ravensbrück). Only his mother returned. From these traumatic events grew not bitterness but instead a profound humanism and a desire to support all uprisings against injustice and tyranny.
He began his combat by publishing socially-engaged writers and philosophers and by supporting them in his own independent bookshop on Paris’s left-bank, activities he continued throughout the 1960s and early 70s.
After losing his publishing house and closing his bookshop, he turned to writing and translating. Much of his writing (and radio broadcasting) focused on travel and exploration, in places such as China, Bosnia and Palestine. From these trips came the idea of a voyage to another "terre inconnue", the suburbs of the city in which he was born and had lived all his life.
Voyage au bout de Paris
It was a project that he describes as having started as a joke, of being absurd and insignificant, although people didn’t laugh quite as much as he would have liked when he told them. The joke though had a serious objective – to take the pulse of this land which is so close and yet may as well be thousands of kilometres away.
Paris était devenu une grande surface de commerce et un Disneyland de la culture. Où était passée la vie? En banlieue. Le "tout autour" ne pouvait donc pas être un terrain vague, mais un terrain plein : plein de monde et de vie. Le vrai monde et la vraie vie.*
The project, undertaken in the Spring of 1989 and later published as “Les passagers du Roissy-Express” (Roissy Express: a Journey through the Paris Suburbs) was a five-week journey along the city’s RER B suburban train line, covering 50km and 38 stations. It became a kind of state of the nation voyage just ahead of the bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution.
François Maspero did not travel alone, but took with him a photographer friend, Anaïk Frantz. He would wander, note and report, she would take photos. Although the book is written by Maspero, he always refers to himself in the third person, remaining at all times on an equal footing with his companion, both curious outsiders in these territories.
Their journey – and book – begins, somewhat ironically, at Charles de Gaulle airport. Although the two travellers look at the departure board and pick their dream destination, they instead take a suburban bus and head out to Roissy village, an ancient settlement (and interestingly the location of the 1950s French erotic ‘classic’, “L’histoire d’O”) today encircled by the airport.
Each day is the same routine. A packing of the bags, one stop more along the RER line (to the north and south of Paris - they skip the seven stations that can be found within the city itself), the sometimes impossible search for a hotel in industrial outposts that no-one ever visits, then a drift through the territories bordering the railway line.
The book recounts these days, their unexpected discoveries, their encounters with the locals, their frustrations and boredom – even their homesickness – but always in a affectionate spirit of curiosity that breathes generosity, empathy and a completely un-Parisian humility.
For lovers of the Paris suburbs like myself - or for those fascinated by city outskirts anywhere - it has become a cult book. It is a guide not to specific places, their histories or a present which quickly becomes a past, but rather a way to look and to interact.
Maspero’s book was translated into English in 1994, but is probably out of print today and very difficult to find. I have found a copy hosted on Google books though, although I’m not sure if it is the complete journey.
For those who do read French, the original text has never been out of print and is easy to find in shops. If you do purchase a copy though, think of François Maspero and buy it in an independent outlet!
*Paris had become a business hypermarket and a cultural Disneyland. Where had the life gone? To the suburbs. 'All around' could not, therefore, be a wasteland, but a land full of people and life. Real people and real life.