Fatal Isolation begins in the Parisian public cemetery of Thiais, where roughly a hundred victims of the 2003 Paris heat wave who were unclaimed by family were interred at public expense. These bodies, the lives that once animated them, and the welfare state fissures they reveal are the subject of Keller’s captivating book about la canicule, as it is known in colloquial French. During the heat wave, the longest and most intense in France’s recorded weather history, about fifteen thousand died, 7 percent of these in Paris, although the city held only 2 percent of the nation’s population. Those whose lives ended with a mass public funeral at Thiais are Keller’s main subject. His project, in part, is to critically examine three narratives about the heat wave. Chapter 1 describes the emergence of “official” narratives produced by the state and media; Chapter 2 analyzes “anecdotes” told about the “forgotten” victims, like those buried at Thiais; and Chapter 5 considers the ramifications of scientific explanations of the disaster. In Chapters 3 and 4, he sets two defining characteristics of the heat wave’s forgotten victims—their status as elderly and urban citizens—in deep historical context. As the scale of the disaster came into focus in early August 2003, the left blamed the right, the right blamed moral decrepitude, and the media blamed young self-centered families on vacation while grandparents sweltered back home in the city. Subsequent official inquiries upheld these narratives: according to one, 82.5 percent of victims were seventy-five or over, elderly women experienced greater mortality than men, and Paris had an undue share of deaths. These contours of risk became cemented in popular imagination, but they also made the canicule’s nearly three thousand other victims (double Hurricane Katrina’s toll and the same as the September 11 attacks) invisible, Keller argues. Epidemiological and statistical methods reinforced this. Aggregate pictures of risk created by scientific methods left tremendous blind spots, and for Keller, the early AIDS epidemic is an appropriate point of comparison: conclusions about gay men’s risk rendered the disease’s impact on women and heterosexual men long unrecognized. In France, even people who personally knew nonelderly victims of the heat wave refused to accept heat as their cause of death. In stories told about forgotten victims, Keller finds what he calls “anecdotal life”: a limited set of biographical details inevitably show how an individual was responsible for his or her death in isolation. People like Marie France, a cantankerous woman who refused the help of neighbors, and Roger, found dead in a sweater in his 115-degree apartment, thus became people who “sealed their own fates” (p. 73). Marie France, along with a disproportionate fraction of the forgotten, died in a top-story chambredebonne, a former servant’s quarters and a legacy of Baron Georges Eugene Hausmann’s nineteenth-century redevelopment of Paris, which today comprises the city’s cheapest real estate. Stifling, minimally plumbed, hazardous, and pest infested, the chambres constitute a “vertical geography of risk.” Keller convincingly argues that the ideas of the “bare life” (advanced by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben) and biopolitics are constructive frames for understanding how the humanity and citizenship of the elderly has been “degraded” (p. 16) in modern France. Although historians have understood aging as economic and physiological, it is also profoundly cultural, shaped by a “rhetoric of exclusion” with roots more than a century deep that has consigned France’s aged to a “site of consensual alterity” (p. 149). Keller's book is thought-provoking reading for those interested in the history of public health, demography, built environments, geographies of risk, and disasters, “natural” or not. His methods are noteworthy: he collected victims’ addresses from death notices and phone directories; visited ninety-three homes of those buried at Thiais; interviewed their custodians, shopkeepers, and neighbors; and studied their buildings as sources. Indeed, individuals lie at the heart of Keller’s book, and at the end he returns to Thiais for a final visit, in 2012. Although policy mandates the removal of bodies unclaimed after five years, seventy of those who died in the heat wave nearly a decade ago are still there, “physical yet evanescent traces of a catastrophe that signaled the vulnerabilities not only of France’s most marginal subjects, but of the welfare state itself” (p. 191). © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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