“Je peux vous aider?” the man asked me.
“Je suis désolé, je parle un peu le Francais,” I responded. I’d been on the ground in Paris just a few hours and had not engaged my language skills long enough to do anything other than apologize for my poor French.
“Oui. Merci, monsieur.”
“Do you know of her?” he asked in English, much to my relief, rolling a cigarette with one hand and adjusting his plaid, wool scarf with the other. “Most people don’t stray off the path here. Are you searching for something?”
We stood for a moment and admired the subject which sparked him to interrupt an odd Canadian woman’s wander through the lonely graves along the South wall of Cimetière du Père Lachaise.
“She’s extraordinary,” I whispered. I knew he’d caught me half in tears in the moments before our first words. I’d been searching for more than half an hour for Monument aux victimes des Révolutions and wanted her to be it.
“May I ask why you are looking for it?” he asked upon learning of my quest and odd interest in Communist Paris.
“Marie Guerrant,” I told him.
“Who is she?”
“Muriel Gale’s pseudonym.”
Puzzled, he introduced himself as Olivier, one of the historians of the cemetery.
I returned the courtesy, offering up myself as a novelist, which cleared up any confusion he had earlier about why I’d be tossing around names such as Marie and Muriel.
Paris plays a key role in the Woman On The Wall as the place where our main character, Elijah Gale, returns to eight years after her grandmother Muriel’s murder.
Muriel, a Holocaust survivor, is buried at Père Lachaise under the name Marie Guerrant (Mary at War) in the novel. She was also a Communist – a seemingly unfathomable pairing. However, the woman had always been an enigma whose politics favored the people rather than power.
Olivier’s eyes lit up.
While he had to take up a position at the front gate in under half an hour, the charming middle-aged Parisian who looked every bit the part offered an arm and his knowledge to guide me through my search for answers amongst the dead.
From that point, he walked me along the boulevards lined with maples and acacia beginning their dramatic shift from summer’s hues to the vibrancy of Samhain. The stories of the interesting and uncommon flowed from him as if they were his own.
The graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Edith Piaf remained far in the distance. Instead, we chatted about the quiet, undecorated graves of people who lived out eternity inside one of the most noted cemeteries in the world. Graves like the one that carries the name Marie Guerrant in Woman On The Wall. Graves that serve as masks for lives we will never know or understand.
I found myself struck by a knowing as to one of the reasons Muriel never revealed her true identity. Père-Lachaise’s most wrenching memorials haunt the walkways, those to the dead of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the other concentration camps.
Olivier spoke of how soil from those places was mixed with that at the graves. We walked past sculptures of emaciated souls and I understood as if Muriel shared it with me herself. She was a survivor of Dachau who worked to preserve lives, culture. Being buried amongst those who died in the camps would have defeated her in death. She preferred the power of anonymity in order to make sure that work continued on.
Despite the fact that Muriel is dead long before Woman On The Wall begins, I love her as a character. She drives Elijah in the best and worst ways, and I’m genuinely fascinated by her impact on the entire cast.
The last bit of the walk proved quiet and had me wondering if Olivier was either irritated or lost in thought. As we made our way to the cemetery entrance near Rue Robineau, he turned to me once again.
“You know they call it The Wall,” he said of the Monument aux victimes des Révolutions. “You’ll find it in the park up that hill. No one really ever goes there.”
As he spoke the words, my entire body seized up with a sense of awe at the serendipity of the one sculpture I’d come to see carrying the moniker of the novel I am writing. My eyes overflowed with tears.
“It was never allowed to be inside the cemetery for reasons no one really knows,” he continued. “You must see her, incredible, holding back the revolutionaries of not just the Commune, but all of the generations.”
“She was their protector, then?” I asked.
“Their Sibyl, you might say.” he replied.
As the first stop on my first day in France, this proved to be the beginning of a truly remarkable confluence of time and opportunity during which people such as Olivier dropped into my life to reveal extraordinary details I would never have otherwise known.
As I rode the Metro to the Museé de Cluny that afternoon, I marveled at how clear Muriel had become. The pace and path of Elijah’s return to her grandmother’s home in Paris and the role it played in the story firmed up in my mind.
Now, I needed to know, who were these victims of revolutions locked inside the stone of this Wall?