The scent of freshly baked bread filling the senses nourishes the spirit and while it is something very simple it radiates joy and a love of all the good things in life. In the first chapter of The Emperor of Paris there is a fire and the bakery is burning. There is also the suggestion that at some time in its history the bakery had become, in part, a library. So the author has planted seeds of mystery; questions that raise our curiosity and hold our attention in mid air starting at page one. This book is about two people who are destined for each other, yes a love story set in Paris during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. It is Paris of the small quartiers where the inhabitants go every day to the neighbourhood bakery to buy their bread. Such a quartier is a village within a great city and the neighbours are understanding, and compassionate. The baker in such a neighbourhood knows that many people depend upon his getting up at four in the morning and firing up his ovens to make sure his friends and neighbours have their daily bread and these efforts are respected and greatly appreciated by all. If the neighbours gossip it is not in a malicious way but out of an interest in the well being of the baker and his family.
The story is skilfully written in waves that float back and forth over two generations involving people from very different backgrounds. The principal protagonists are Emile and his son Octavio. Emile is famous in his quartier as the thinnest baker in Paris and is married to Immacolata, a lady of Italian descent who makes up for the baker’s lack of girth with her own substantial figure. But she was not so large that Emile could not put an affectionate arm around her waist as they worked side by side in the bakery. Their happiness seemed complete with the birth of a son, Octavio but this happiness was marred by the discovery when Octavio started school that he possessed a disability preventing him from reading. Octavio inherited this disability from his father who was himself illiterate. The knowledge of Octavio’s inability to learn how to read sent Immacolata into a tunnel of despair. Somehow she felt she had failed as a mother the day she took Emile out of school and handed him over to his father to apprentice as a baker. Emile was not in despair and revealed to his son how he had coped with his own illiteracy. Part of this revelation is introduced by a story he has invented called, ‘The Emperor of Paris’. The story has as its theme the recognition of one’s individual gifts rather than yearning for the things one cannot have. He also intorduced Octavio into the drivers behind the workings of his imagination; a system of inspiration of his own creation. Emile was famous among his customers for always having a story ready no matter what the subject. His stories are a feast of imaginings: he would say: “Give me a word any word…” and with that one word he could make up a tale that might be worthy of the admiration of the poet Charles Baudelaire who is quoted just after the title page. This lovely quote begins with: “The observer is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes.” Octavio is made privy to the secret ritual of Emile’s Sunday paper. Emile studies the pictures and makes up stories to go with them which satisfies a need to create art that might have been books were he able to read and write. Later when Emile returns from the horrors of WWI it is the paintings in the Louvre that provide the inspiration for his and Octavio’s imagination.
At this point I have to talk about the images of the photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau whose black and white photos of Paris in the pre World War II era C.S. Richardson credits as being, in part, an inspiration for this book. Coincidentally I have a book with a collection of Robert Doisneau’s photos of Paris dating from that pre War era. I can clearly see the inspiration Mr. Richardson mentions in the photos of the streets of Paris, the gardens of the Tuilleiers with its pond for sailing toy boats (the same places where a young Marcel Proust would have played ) and the chairs that were dragged out of or in to the sun by Parisians come to enjoy an afternoon in a public park. Then there is the man walking a fat rabbit as if it were a dog. Another photo with annotation shows a destitute painter washing the colours from his canvas in the Seine; something he would do every night so he would have something to paint on the next day. The author finds a prominent place for such a poor artist who has the similar practice of recycling his canvas. This character will play an important part in the destiny of the lovers. The Emperor of Paris is infused with the beauty of these still photos, so clear and crisp in the demanding formality of black and white capturing the gestures and faces of ordinary Parisians.
I mentioned that this is a love story and as you read this novel you will be happily convinced of the inevitability of the lovers coming together. However this is not the point. As in all good stories the ‘point’ is not the destination but the journey. Deep in the workshop of the Louvre there is a young woman named Isabeau Normande who is carefully restoring the work of some of the great masters. She looks at these; the Botticellis, the Rembrandts and sees the beauty in the faces the artists represent while finding her own reflection unbearable because of a facial scar acquired as a child. She too must follow the example of the Emperor of Paris and learn to find her own inner gifts. This story compels the reader to accept that far back in time, even before they were born Octavio and Isabeau were destined for each other.
My blog, Fiction Quest is about exploring what makes a good story. This story is a work of beautiful craftsmanship and I may re-read it but again for pleasure. I don’t want to pick it apart like one might a machine to see how it works as that would somehow spoil its effect. I am going to track down and read C. S Richardson’s first book, The End of the Alphabet with great expectations.