La-zar Kunst-mann

The Painted Lizard, wrote the American journalist Christopher Ketcham, is "one of the nastiest pranksters in the underworld." Cavannus, a former Parisian now living in Montreal, says something similar: "Dangerous. To avoid." Another catacomb rat goes further. "The guy's a megalomaniacal jerk and deserves no publicity of any kind," G——- wrote in an email, asking that I not use his name. "He is a lesser human being."

Ketcham recalls seeing a photograph of the Lézard (and a black friend) in Nazi SS uniforms, "singing old German war songs at full throttle, stomping through the tunnels, sieg heiling, the songs echoing down the halls for a half-mile." He's a fascist, G——- tells me. "In the 1990s him and another guy going by the name of Ktu used to beat people up. They had the network shared, one 'gang' held the south, the other the north. Idiots are in awe of him because he can break into anywhere [but] an asshole is always an asshole."

I obtain the Untergunther's court records less than a week after my visit to the catacombs. I google the names – Sophie Langlade, Dorothée Hachette, Christophe Melli, Eric Valleye. Slim pickings, except for Valleye. He is named in Ketcham's 2002 article for Salon. Valleye, Ketcham writes, is the real name of the Lézard Peint.

"We dress up as Nazis, sure," the Lizard said, "but we have no politics, none whatsoever. This is all ... theater. A game of transformations, masks."

I consider the Lizard, reformed, assisting the patient restorers of the Pantheon's clock. Perhaps he met them belowground. And then suddenly the darkness slips into focus. Lazar, after all, sounds an awful lot like Lézard. Kunstmann, the German word "art-man." Lazar Kunstmann – Lézard art-man?

After that, I'm running. I dig into the Untergunther website, UGWK.org. I discover the site's files reside on a different server, and I note the URL: http://web.mac.com/peint/UGWK. I scour cataphile forums for photographs of the Lizard, search Flickr. Most photographers lack UX's discretion. I find the Lizard, head bowed, in a series of subterranean snaps. It is the same man with whom I clinked glasses at Le Pantalon.

When I go back to speak to BHV, his ankle has healed. I ask the question whose answer he neglected to volunteer last time. Yes, the cataphile admits, "Lazar and Lézard Peint are the same single person."

I do not know how to feel. Thrilled by my discovery? Proud of my detective skills? Or utterly deflated, imagining UX as an asshole's practical joke? It is as if I am back underground. This time I have no leader.

"[Lazar always] had a group of friends, but they didn't particularly have a name," BHV says. He suggests they adopted the name LMDP after the discovery of the cinema, Untergunther after the discovery of the clock, UX after the publication of his book. Whereas UX claim to have over a hundred members, BHV and Cavannus guess that "Kunstmann's group" are no more than 20. The Untergunther say they have completed a dozen different projects, LMDP to have hosted dozens of events, but there's scant evidence. Perhaps it is because these actions were secret. Or perhaps they didn't happen.

BHV points to another sign of obfuscation in Kunstmann's book. The volume is peppered with comic relief courtesy of Olrik and Peter, UX's goofy, incompetent jester duo. Olrik is real, well known underground. But Peter? "He is maybe Lazar," BHV supposes. "I looked into it. It might be him." Peter, I note, is the French word for farting.

At that noisy, crowded bar, as I set a pint of Leffe before him, Kunstmann confessed he sometimes "gives simple answers to questions that deserve complicated ones." Months later, I contemplate UX as a tall tale, an exaggeration, the invention of an arrogant catacomb trickster. And yet the truth still feels just out of reach, beyond the beam of my flashlight. It is as if I can hear the footfalls.

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