Almost a month after our meeting, I confront Lazar Kunstmann (aka Lézard Peint, aka Eric Valleye) over email. Fifteen hours later, I receive a reply. Kunstmann says the Painted Lizard does not exist. He claims that this character's reputation is intentional, invented, part of a concentrated effort to muddle perceptions of UX. Stories of villainous cataphiles quickly take over the discourse, masking any other activities. I am reminded of a comment he made at the bar that night. "A secret launches any information," he said, leaning forward in his chair. "It's a very simple principle. 'I am going to tell you something. It's a secret - above all don't tell it to anyone.' You will see two other people and say to them, 'I'm going to tell you something. It's a secret - above all don't tell it to anyone.' In four seconds, everybody knows." The greater the tale, the bigger the lizard, the faster word spreads.
Met with G ——-'s allegations, Kunstmann admits that one "operation," between 1985 and 1987, "was mildly violent" - but never, he insists, "physically violent." "For a Ravioli," he writes, "anything outside of routine is psychologically violent." He does concede that one of Ktu's friends might have knocked some heads.
And then I receive a message from Lanso. This is unexpected. The head of the Untergunther does not relish the spotlight, hasn't written any books, never talks to journalists. She has not contacted me before. "I know that [catacomb adventures] are very entertaining to foreign readers," she writes, her verbiage precise. "It's the exoticism of 'subterranean Paris'. But it's not what defines [UX]. We are people who realize projects without asking permission. That's all."
From there, Lanso acknowledges that UX's cast of regulars, the nicknames most often cited, may now seem like mischievous cataphiles. But she says these are part of a "media group" led by Kunstmann – a team meant to dazzle and distract the press, mesmerizing us with catacomb talk.
"The small world of the catacombs, which is apparently your place of departure, easily amplifies the importance of Lazar's band of rascals," Lanso writes. "Lazar is a good spokesman ... but all of the [obfuscation] and [media] diversions that he has been able to do, he and his friends, both in the press and [among cataphiles], gets linked to OUR activities, which they have nothing to do with." Kunstmann is an important member, Lanso admits, but the Untergunther and most of the rest of UX "have nothing to do with 'cataphiles,' nor even the catacombs. Nothing to do with Ravioli forums nor the beliefs and myths of these places. Nothing to do with the dozens of confusing articles conceived by Lazar and his cohorts between 1985 and 2004. Nothing to do with the folklore of the Latin Quarter so dear to the previously-mentioned."
Kunstmann's tales, the activities he recounts, the cataphile culture he invokes – it is, Lanso suggests, a fumis. It is smoke. It is the smoke that fills our vision, fills newspaper pages, conceals the group's true projects and real work. Look to the Untergunther website, available in French and English, a kind of souped-up press release, useful documents for journalists. Look to Zone Tour, maintained by Olrik and Kunstmann, ostensibly a website for Paris cataphiles but purely in English. Look to an article in Zurban magazine, two years before the "restoration wing" of UX announced themselves. There are the "Untergunther," doing nothing more than run-of-the-mill culture jamming, changing George V subway station signs to George W. Fog, smoke, misdirection.
As for what this 'real work' is, Lanso will not say. These projects, she underlines, are secret. "Don't think that I say this against you, or against journalists in general. It's the same for everyone. To be able to do what we do, this is how it has to work."
I have reached a dead end. Lanso's secrets are tantalizing, but I can neither confirm nor deny them. UX's deepest riddles cannot be googled. The question I ask is: Do I believe them? And then I ask: Do I want to believe them? And then I know my answer.
Despite their unassailable secrecy, UX still have something to offer the rest of us, trapped on the far side of the smokescreen. Kunstmann talked about this as we finished our beers that night. "Over time," he said, "I've noticed that the principal reason that UX completes its projects is that we dismiss past inhibitions."
The organization simply tries things. If one idea doesn't work, they move on to the next. And whereas doubt inhibits, precedents inspire new experiments. "If someone says tomorrow, 'Ah, I'd love to fly across the Atlantic,' no one would say, 'It's impossible! It will never work!'" Kunstmann said. "If it's already been created, it must be possible to recreate." We cannot join UX. They will not tell us who they are, or what lies at the heart of the maze. But we can do as they did. We can make our own maps.
And a big hearty thanks to all the readers who answered our call on Twitter and sent in photos of the Paris catacombs. You guys rule.