Clearly Sante is a serious writer, and his research here is extensive and seems impeccable. However, in the end, the book is as much playful as scholarly, and a general reader can find plenty to enjoy. He seems to be both a more intrepid explorer and a far more entertaining writer than most of his psychogeographic forbears. And if the book lacks a grand overarching design, well that’s in the nature of his serendipitous, drifting methodology.
Here, we see the sneaky genius of The Other Paris, which, like Low Life, conceals the complexity of its structure, masquerading as a popular history or a set of popular histories, until it reveals that it has been about the circling all along.
The Other Paris implicitly criticizes the sanitization of history, and in many ways the book is also an argument against cultural imperialism, gentrification, and the forces of global capitalism. Yet a central dilemma to The Other Paris is just how far to take this argument: while Sante doesn’t glamorize poverty, mourning the loss of Paris’s microeconomies and societal tumult for the color they contribute seems to undercut the experiences of those on the ground.
Sante's book shines when he's offering this kind of vivid detail, whether through the book's numerous historical illustrations or his written profiles of its inhabitants. The sheer scope of The Other Paris...can make it feel unfocused and cursory at times. But you'll be drawn back in by some of the unheralded characters Sante finds in Paris' past...
He has written a wonderfully rich book, packed with information, lively in style, evoking the turbulence of a vanished time and city. Admittedly it often verges on sentimentality, and is soaked in nostalgia.
Sante ends his book with a hymn to flâneurie, this lazy meandering pursuit of truth, drink and other goals, like the literary archaeology of a city that’s no longer there. Following his path is worth the inevitable hangover.
Sante takes the Paris catacombs, with their thousands upon thousands of anonymous skulls, as an image of his project to commemorate countless unknown lives. It is a selective picture of an extreme and marginal city – Santeville, we could call it – but elegiac points emerge not only about Paris but great cities in general.
In this exhaustively researched and abundantly illustrated book, Sante draws references from art, film, history, literature and the French language. He peppers his pages with wit, empathy and a sense of inclusiveness. Through his writing, Paris becomes a metaphor for those historic cities of the world that have forsaken their past way of life in pursuit of modernity.