11 April 2018

Jean Nohain and François Caradec: Le Pétomane (1967)

I ordered the English translation of this in error, although it's hardly important because it's non-fiction (even if the story inevitably reads like fiction). Calling Nohain and Caradec the authors of the book seems a little misplaced to me: surely 'editors' would be more accurate, because most of this book is quotations from other people. The full French title is Le Pétomane, 1857-1945, sa vie, son oeuvre, and the English simply Le Pétomane: 1857-1945, whereas the awful punning on the front cover adds 'The story of an amazing man who breezed his way to fame and fortune.'

As many people are probably aware, Joseph Pujol (better known as 'Le Pétomane') was a showman who entertained in the late part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century by going on stage and farting. Well, of course there's a lot more to it than that. When going into the sea as a child on one occasion, which was a frightening experience he only took the courage to repeat while doing his national service, he came to discover that his anus could take in a large quantity of water and then expel it. Having this amount of muscle control meant that he could also take in air, so using his intestines as his chest and his anus as his mouth (by farting) he had the remarkable ability to make noises at will, to such an extent that he could play tunes by farting.

As Pujol's profession was as a baker in Marseille he was initially reluctant to exploit his farting skills, although his family managed to persuade him to put on concerts, which he began doing in Marseille to considerable success. He branched out to other towns in the Midi, such as Clermont-Ferrand, Toulon, and Toulouse until he felt confident enough to tackle Paris. He went to the Moulin Rouge and his abilities very quickly demonstrated to the co-founder Charles Zidler that Le Pétomane was a force to be reckoned with.

And he wowed the audiences with his performance, which included smoking a cigarette with a length of tube attached to his anus, snuffing a candle out from a foot away, and playing 'Au clair de la lune'. He began earning more than twice other famous performers were making, including Sarah Bernhardt. But he really wanted to break away from the Moulin Rouge and start his own travelling business up, which he did, but broke his contract and he lost a law case over it. It was the price he paid for freedom, as he immediately began the Théâtre Pompadour, a travelling show.

World War I and the chaos and calamities it brought made Pujol lose faith in continuing as an entertainer, so he returned to baking, later running a biscuit factory. He is said never to have been ill and died at 98. He is buried in the cemetery in La Valette, Var.

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