The French writer Dominique Lapierre, known for bestselling books such The City of Joy, O Jerusalem! and Is Paris Burning? died on Sunday at the age of 91, his widow told the French publication Var-matin.
A novelist, essayist and journalist, he was for many years a reporter for the French magazine Paris Match, first in the Soviet Union and later in India, a country that he became passionate about. It was that experience that gave him the inspiration for what is arguably his most famous and successful novel, The City of Joy, published in 1985. The story is set in a suburb of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and based, according to Lapierre himself, on what he personally witnessed on the outskirts of the Indian city. The author donated part of the royalties from that book to the fight against the poverty it described.
The City of Joy had such an impact that, according to the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, many young people decided to become volunteers or study medicine after reading it. The same outlet recalls that, when he first pitched his story idea, Lapierre received a skeptical response from his publisher, who felt that the lives of a rickshaw puller, a girl who collects coal, a Swiss nurse or an English tie salesman living in India would be of no interest to anyone. Instead, the book was tremendously popular, and it cemented the reputation of a writer who was already enjoying some degree of fame from his historical and literary reconstructions in partnership with the American writer Larry Collins.
Born in 1931 in Châtelaillon, France, into a family of diplomats, he was in Paris during World War II and in the late 1940s he undertook a trip to Mexico, the United States and Canada that was the basis for his first book, A Dollar for a Thousand Miles (1949). The title was based on his own journey, an adventure of 32,000 kilometers with just $32 in his pocket.
In 1965, in collaboration with Collins, he published Is Paris Burning?, a detailed reconstruction of the days before the liberation of the French capital during World War II, based on dozens of testimonies. The rigor of the investigation and documentation, together with the literary quality of the writing, were hallmarks of the works of Lapierre and Collins, who worked a correspondent for Newsweek magazine. This type of collaborative historical recreation was followed by O Jerusalem! which focused on the birth of the State of Israel and is still considered one of the best sources for understanding one of the most troubled areas on the planet.
Another of his best-known books is Freedom at Midnight, about the birth of India and Pakistan, which involved four years of work traveling over 250,000 km in search of places and testimonies.
After the success of The City of Joy, Lapierre created the City of Joy Foundation, dedicated to raising funds to fight poverty in India.
Four of his books were made into films, including City of Joy (1992), starring Patrick Swayze and directed by Roland Joffe.