I made my Les Miserables pilgrimage to Paris in mid October, but until a friend used the word, I didn’t call it that. Pilgrimages were for churches, and even though I visited the church of Saint Merri, I went for a little known rebellion, not God. On the surrounding streets I hunted for any trace of its existence and found nothing, no plaques or statues except for a courtyard of modern artwork, an offshoot of the Pompidou. Charles Jeanne, the best known leader of this rebellion, is still an obscure name in French history. He wanted a republic, but the king, Louis-Philippe, crushed this insurrection, and so there are no victory monuments. What we know of Charles Jeanne, we know because he survived his suicide charge and testified at his own trial. The fictional rebels of 1832 are more famous than the real ones. They are Victor Hugo’s Les Amis de l’ABC, and though many mistakenly assume Les Amis fought at Saint Merri, the book itself places them at another, smaller barricade. Its headquarters were a wine shop named The Corinthe.
The Corinthe is not real. Hugo’s generous description of its history (a chapter named History of the Corinthe From Its Foundation) is lovingly, painstakingly fictional. But the streets existed as he names them: Rue de la Chanverie, Rue de Mondétour, and Rue de Saint Denis. A fragment of Rue Mondétour survives, but the intersection with Rue Chanverie is gone. When Les Amis barricaded this intersection, the streets would have been no more than five meters wide, in some places three, and today the spacious Rue Rambuteau runs in Chanverie’s place. If you begin at Saint Merri, walk along Rue Saint-Martin past the Pompidou, turn left at Rambuteau, and walk to its intersection with Saint Denis, you find a closed, derelict shop on the corner. Metal shutters bar the shopfront, covered with graffiti that looks like sprinkles. This is where the soldiers of Louis Philippe advanced on Les Amis. The rebels would have torn up the streets for paving stones and stripped lead from the gutters to make bullets. If you walk a little further, you cross where the barricade rose and reach the intersection of Rambuteau and Mondétour. The Corinthe is not real, but this is where it might have stood. There is a building in its place. It is too many stories to be the Corinthe, which had only two, but by some small mercy for pilgrims like me, this building seems much older than its neighbors. It is the only building on the street that could date from the June Rebellion.
The current owners have covered up some of the building's age. Its facade is white and smooth and clean; it hosts a cafe, which, like all Parisian cafes, is half open to the street. The canopy is sleek and black. In modern, white text it says: LeDétour, and below this, un jour, un plat. Below are arrays of small tables and metal chairs in red, blue, orange, and yellow. Trendy exposed light bulbs hang on long metal stems, and rows of juices and sandwiches in plastic packaging line the back wall, but despite all this, the building's age shows. History is evident in its walls: old, pale stone covered with chisel marks, large hewn blocks on the corner, small, unshaped stones near the back, all surrounded by blotchy masonry redone again and again. I took a polaroid from across the street. To anyone watching, it was an inexplicable photo of a forgettable building. Inside I ordered an apple tart and a ham and cheese sandwich. To go? the cashier asked. No, I said, to stay. He handed me a plastic tray and I took a seat after discreetly touching the wall.
Hugo's Amis knew and ate at The Corinth before building their barricade headquarters there. Here they are, in order of introduction. Enjolras, the leader. Combeferre, who took three guns to the riots, and three bayonets to the heart while helping the wounded. Jehan, a poet. Feuilly, a fan painter who spend his last night engraving long live the peoples! into a wall instead of sleeping. Courfeyrac, who took a sword cane to a gun fight. Bahorel, a flâneur. Bossuet, who lacked a home, but not a good sense of humor. Joly, a medical student and Bossuet’s closest friend. Grantaire, who shared none of their convictions and efforts, but died holding Enjolras’s hand. With the exception of Feuilly, they were students, a reversal of the actual, worker dominated history. Les Amis would have attended the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter, close to my hotel. For the four days allowed to us, my classmates and I lived, ate, and drank where they would have. Our conversations in the neighborhood cafes and bars were not that different. Enjolras was a terror in battle but also in his puns, Grantaire scorned both God and life, Joly sought to impress his girl, and Bahorel advised Joly, saying, more or less, dress up and go down. Bahorel was the oldest, but all were young. Hugo doesn’t provide exact ages for everyone, and the dates for some, like Enjolras, don’t line up, but they were likely scattered between seventeen and twenty seven. They were our ages when they died.
I sat facing the street and a shopping center. The rest of the cafe pleasantly minded its business, some people sitting alone, some together. Two women embraced at the table beside me and armed guards in camouflage uniforms patrolled the street, helmets hanging from their hips. Pedestrians bustled past, none stopping to take photos. It was possible that although I barely spoke a word of French, I was the only one there who knew the significance of the place. Hugo is, of course, commemorated across Paris. He’s buried in the Panthéon. One of the subway stations has his name in mosaics on the ceiling, and a classmate remarked that Hugo is the French equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr. in street planning—his name is on roads everywhere. But nothing marked the intersection of Rambuteau and Mondétour for Les Amis, and nothing marked Saint Merri for the very real Charles Jeanne. I told myself this was alright. The book is the monument. Two centuries later, it led me there, along with the research of people who love the book and the rebels of 1832, both real and fictional, people who studied old photographs and maps and told me where to go. One of them translated the letter Charles Jeanne wrote to his sister when it resurfaced at an antiques auction. Hugo must have had access to this letter before it was lost; too many similarities appear between Enjolras and Charles Jeanne. Inside is an account of the barricades. Charles Jeanne wrote it from prison, but most of his men died in the insurrection. Some surrendered and should have been put on trial with him, but instead were bayoneted, shot, stabbed with a slow saber twist, or thrown from the windows as soldiers joked “heads or tails!”
Enjolras was fortunate. Hugo killed him by firing squad. He would have died a floor above me, Grantaire with him. They died last, and Bahorel first, by bayonet. Jehan was taken prisoner and executed in the street. I already told you of Combeferre. Bossuet, Feuilly, Joly and Courfeyrac were killed without any explanation. They were killed, the book says no more.
At most pilgrimage sites there are etiquettes and ceremonies: places to cry, to kneel, to leave flowers, to place a candle available for two euros at the altar. I sat at my empty table, watched Rue Rambuteau, and finished my sandwich without tasting it. The cashier left me and the other customers alone, in no hurry to open up tables. I had no knife and attempted to cut the apple tart with my plastic spoon, but the spoon trembled. It shook uselessly from the tremors of my hands until I gave up. I lifted my sunglasses off the top of my head, put them on, pushed my scarf up around my face, and cried discreetly.
Many thanks to my friends, who already made this journey and helped me follow their lead. As the streets of Paris continue to change, this post and its sources will become outdated, but information regarding the historical events, Jeanne's letter, and an earlier guide to the streets of the barricade can be found in Thomas Bouchet's A cinq heures nous serons tous morts, the public domain sections have been translated into English here.
In the popular musical, the Cafe Musain replaces The Corinth. Both buildings appear in the book, but only The Corinth is located on the barricade.