“Petrifying stage fright, like I’ve never felt before […]. I’m dripping with sweat under a yet-innocent sun this month of February 1991.”
A compelling mix of fiction and memoir, or fictoir if you prefer, Cinq ans de métro gives a unique take on the Paris metro – from the inside in. The 217-page story is based on the real-life experiences of Franco-Swedish author and musician Fred Alpi, who busked here (through choice) at the end of the 1980s-early 1990s to pay for his food, rent, and… find a new direction in life.
The rite of passage tale opens with our protagonist sweaty and trembling as he totters on the brink before plunging under Paris to busk for the first time. And he does it! Going on to recount the highs and lows, the meanderings and misunderstandings of a transport system people love to hate and hate to love. Music may weave the narrative thread but doesn’t dominate the proceedings. Each of the 17 chapters are neatly named after a French song (chanson française) by all the greats… Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg…Jacques Dutronc….
From Fred’s role as a busker, the story explores and reveals the intricacies of a labyrinth that draws together people from all walks of life: the rich and well dressed, tired office workers, gullible tourists, other buskers, ticket office staff, train drivers, security agents, and the down-and-outs
Readers who use the Paris metro (and similar systems worldwide) are sure to relate to some of the home truths exposed. There’s the pervading sense of loneliness, for a start: “In the metro I sang to hundreds of thousands of people; crossed paths with millions of others; yet met very few of them”; the creepy behaviour of men and their need (?) to manspread: “Legs and feet casually spread – to air their balls, they would of course say – they take up as much space as possible without any concern for their female neighbour, with her legs neatly and tightly folded together, handbag on her lap”; racism: “Fucking bamboulas, why don’t they go back to their jungle?!”
Fred also wryly observes how the ‘business’ of busking works, or doesn’t. Noting how passengers who film musicians tend not to give them money leads to philosophical musings: “yet another misery generated by a culture that favours having over being.” On a more practical level, performers must contend with the stifling heat inside carriages during the summer months, and the noise – louder on some lines than others, depending on whether the train has rubber or steel tyres. Understanding how to manage passengers to one’s advantage also means observing ebb and flow, offer and demand: “Lines saturated with musicians – where one enters a carriage as another leaves – are best avoided because passengers feel they are being hassled.”
The motley crew of characters populating Cinq ans dans de metro mirror those in the city, in the world above. All reflect the complex human fabric of 21st century society. The down-and-outs like Michel, the former légionnaire traumatised by his violent past; the ‘ordinary folk’ like Alain and Annie at the ticket office, with their jobs on the line; or the security agents – thugs best avoided. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Others, the upbeat trio of American girls, for instance, are beacons in this underworld: “they are really good musicians, but that’s not what strikes me most. What’s so special is their vitality, their sunny generosity that quickly brings joy to the whole carriage.”
Another plus, at regular intervals the narrative reaches up, out, and beyond the metro. The assassination of René Bousquet (1993); the terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City (1995); Brahim Bouarram, the young Moroccan attacked (1995) by five skinheads and thrown to drown in the river Seine; the deaths of musicians such as Leo Ferré and Gainsbourg. It feels as though the author himself needs these interludes (albeit painful) as a lifeline tethering him in time and space.
Cinq ans de métro ends with Fred singing Non, je ne regrette rien (No regrets) by Piaf, his swan song to the transport system he is now leaving, knowing a new chapter in his life is opening up: “From now on I feel like a free man, balancing precariously over a ravine, yet capable of saying yes when thinking yes, of saying no when thinking no, and of walking to a fixed point on the horizon.”
For readers too, the novel is likely to influence their own opinions and experience of Paris metro: the best way is to ride it and read.