Lapierre's books are the work of a reporter, but they always had an intensely emotional undertow. In the City of Joy Lapierre broke the tradition. Western writers are usually so horrified by Kolkata or an Indian city that they rarely get beyond their own reactions. The city and its millions of poor are described from above, sometimes vividly and passionately, but almost always from a Western frame of reference.
Dominique Lapierre once said that his curiosity was so expansive that he would need ten incarnations of life to fully explore the world. An author whose City of Joy sold more than 50 million copies around the world ruled hearts of millions, touched the chord of struggling populations through his epic works like Freedom at Midnight, and Is Paris Burning, In his obituary Hugo Young wrote in The Guardian UK, "Wars, disasters, catastrophes . . . as a reporter, Dominique Lapierre was always there, in the thick of it all. And he made a fortune in the process. Now he has leapt over the fence: a doer and a fixer, who has invested millions, and himself, in making things better".
Dominique Lapierre, a globe-trotting French author who used intimate stories of struggles and triumphs for best-selling historical narratives died at 91. He considered himself a historian with a flair for vivid journalistic storytelling. "Is history a piece of cold cake that no one can digest," Lapierre told India Today, "or is history a reenactment of what actually happened with all the emotions, smells, colours, impressions of events?" His wife, Dominique Conchon-Lapierre, confirmed Lapierre's death in an interview with the Var-Matin newspaper on the French Riviera. They had lived for decades in Ramatuelle, France, on the Mediterranean coast. His books, mixing journalism and historical reconstructions, sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. He had a precocious literary start, with the publication in 1950 of Un Dollar les Mille Kilomètres (A Dollar for One Thousand Kilometres), an account of travelling in the United States. After a stint in the French military, he landed a job at the magazine Paris Match, where he covered the Korean War, and then was a special writer and editor based in Paris.
As Ernest Hemingway did in his For whom the Bell Tolls. Lapierre too used a mix of journalism and historical research in books and took interest in on-the-scene reporting in Is Paris Burning?" (1964) with co-author Larry Collins, in their account of the Nazi occupation of Paris and the Allied push into the city. In his 1991 book on the AIDS crisis, Beyond Love, Lapierre spent months with people afflicted by the disease and followed scientists and health teams. For Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, written with Javier Moro and first published in French in 1997, Lapierre spent three years observing the lives of families living near the Union Carbide plant, where a December 1984 leak of a highly toxic gas used for pesticides, methyl isocyanate, became one of the world's most deadly industrial disasters. The book, released in English in 2001, doesn't explore the chemical disaster until the last chapter. The stories from the shantytowns are already poignant in their desperation. Lapierre's topics ranged far, and included exploring South Africa's history of apartheid in A Rainbow in the Night (2008) and the Israel-Palestinian conflict in O Jerusalem! (1971) with Collins as co-author. His professional and personal interests, however, were most closely bonded with India. A love story, he once called his connections to the country. Lapierre and his wife funded humanitarian initiatives, including homes for people with leprosy and clinics in India's West Bengal region and around Bhopal.
His 1975 book Freedom at Midnight (with Collins as co-author) revisited the 1947 partition of the subcontinent after British rule. Another major work came from nearly three years living for various stretches in Anand Nagar, or "the City of Joy," a teeming slum in the heart of Kolkata (then widely known as Calcutta). The City of Joy (1985) vividly chronicles the grinding poverty and never-ending hardships in a slum whose incongruous name was coined by jute makers seeking to attract workers. . The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre goes beyond this tradition. He has actually managed to describe the poor from their own point of view. This is a remarkable feat. Until now, Lapierre has been the master, with co-author Larry Collins, of a heavy- breathing style of contemporary history. Lapierre found inspiration, too, in the generosity amid the squalor, such as families taking in orphans or tending to those with tuberculosis, dysentery and other diseases. Lapierre is criticised for over-romanticising the struggle of the poor But Lapierre commands praise for humanity and empathy is noted for the fidelity to facts. Some of its moments may abide with a reader forever. It is difficult to forget the dying rickshaw puller selling his bones to a man who makes money from exporting skeletons, or the poor of Calcutta washing the body of a friend, and weeping during the riverbank cremation ceremony. Lapierre pledged to help aid groups in Kolkata with half his royalties from the book, which was made into a 1992 movie starring Patrick Swayze.
Dominique Lapierre was born on July 30, 1931, in Châtelaillon-Plage, France, on the Bay of Biscay, into a family that kindled his lifelong interest in travel and writing. His mother was a journalist, and his father was a French diplomat who brought Lapierre to New Orleans as a teenager during a posting as consul general. In Louisiana, Lapierre attended school and developed a love for cars and the open road. He later hitchhiked and traveled across the United States — adventures he incorporated into his first book when he was 19. Lapierre graduated in 1952 from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and bought a 1937 Chrysler convertible for $30. He and his first wife, Aliette Spitzer, took a road-trip honeymoon, driving the car to Mexico and then Los Angeles, where they won $300 on a radio game show when they were almost out of money. Lapierre was conscripted into the French army, serving as an interpreter with Allied forces in Belgium. There, he met Collins, an American corporal, who took a job with the United Press news agency in Paris after his discharge and decided to try his hand at something bigger — a book about the liberation of Paris.
Its commercial success led them to the next project, O Jerusalem! about the birth of the state of Israel, which was adapted into a 2006 film. In 1980, they collaborated on a novel, The Fifth Horseman, about a Libyan terrorist plotting to detonate a hydrogen bomb in New York Lapierre's books are the work of a reporter, but they always had an intensely emotional undertow. In the City of Joy Lapierre broke the tradition. Western writers are usually so horrified by Kolkata or an Indian city that they rarely get beyond their own reactions. The city and its millions of poor are described from above, sometimes vividly and passionately, but almost always from a Western frame of reference. He plunges into his subject with a degree of sympathy that is sometimes disorienting if one approaches the books expecting dispassionate narrative. His style of hot-blooded engagement was halfway to expressing the need he later felt. "In Algeria," he told, "I did some very tough reporting on people dying. They were wounded and I did not pick them up. My first loyalty was to my paper, and my first problem if I had a camera was to do the photos and make sure they got back to my office." But he felt more beyond that. "I was from the extremist group of the Marxist-Leninist party," he said quite solemnly. His extraordinary health work he sees as a kind of socialism in action, Marxism with a human face. He was a realist in spite of all his romantic ideas. He rightly said, "I discovered on the battlefield that one cannot be at the same time Hemingway and Mother Teresa."
Dr Ratan Bhattacharjee
Former International Visiting Professor USA and
Trilingual writer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org