At first everyone thought it was a joke that might have appealed to a Berliner with gallows humor or some latter-day Kafka, lacking the Gallic touch. Surrealism, after all, had been long defunct, and the antics of Pataphysics had always struck sophisticates as uncouth, more apt for an armadillo or orangoutang. Still, the Siberian tiger stalking the back alleys of the City of Light was an irrefragable fact.
It was glimpsed by street cleaners and bakers’ apprentices on their way to work, when the gutters still glistened in the early morning and mist clung to lamp posts under a mauve sky. Glimpsed not in plausible places, say close to the Jardin des Plantes or in the Bois de Boulogne, or even among the lichened tombstones of Père Lachaise, but slinking around the chaste arcades of the Palais Royal. Even so, the creature could be spotted in one night at two ends of the city, in the ethnic slums of La Courneuve and among the lofty villas of Versailles, as if searching desperately for its home in the taiga.
Oh, the tiger was real: it left steaming scat along its inscrutable path. But the rumors it generated became phantasmagoric. Some fancied the animal had come to remind Parisians of Viking raiders rowing silently down the Seine in ships with dragon prows; others sullenly recalled the leather-coated Gestapo during the Occupation. (Patriots identified the tiger with Jean Moulin and the heroic Resistance.) Intellectuals argued it was an emblem of Existentialism, though none saw the big cat near the Café Flore or Les Deux Magots. Many looked on it with nostalgia as the spirit of May ’68. Old pieds noirs saw it as a revenant of the Algerian War. The influx of immigrants, the ravages of tourists, global warming, even the early elimination of the French team from the World Cup—all featured as grist for the mills of fantasy.
Not that the tiger had mangled or devoured anyone. Despite its bright eyes and burning stripes, despite its razor claws and horrific fangs, it glided through Paris like an ancient portent, like a nocturnal breeze. After the initial terror, panthera altaica became a romantic icon like the Phantom of the Opera or the Hunchback of Notre Dame. But with this difference: La Bête de Paris, as everyone now called it, appeared to every resident in a dream. Appeared only once, never leaving two persons with the same impression or mood.
The effects of this apparition were subtle and pervasive. Citizens became… what? Rude, impatient, egotistic? These epithets, current among disgruntled visitors, failed to capture the influence of the tiger. It was as if the human eye had turned into a mirror, capable only of reflecting pitilessly the world.