Jeanne Calment she claimed that as a child she had known to Vincent Van Gogh. He was born in 1875, before inventing the telephone, the automobile and the cinematograph. He died in 1997, at 122, in the world of the digital revolution. It had an anodyne existence except for one detail: no one has lived more than her in the history of mankind. Now from Russia comes a theory according to which she was an imposter and never reached that age. In Arles, the small town in southern France where Calment lived, some citizens are mobilizing to defend who he was and is an institution.
"All this is a little abracadabresco," says Rémi Venture, director of the Arles library, in reference to this theory.
Venture is part of a group of Arlesians outraged by the theories of Nikolay Zak, the laboratory employee and graduate in Russian mathematics who, allied with the gerontologist Valeri Novosselov, began planting a few months ago doubts about the "dean of humanity", as the inscription on the tomb of the Trinquetaille cemetery in Arles says. Zak examined documents and photographs, including the reports of gerontologist Allard and demographer Jean-Marie Robine, who in the nineties credited his longevity. Zak's conclusion: Jeanne Calment was not Jeanne Calment. The woman who died in 1997 was actually her daughter Yvonne, officially born in 1898 and died in 1935. And who really died in 1935 was not Yvonne, but Jeanne. Perhaps for dark financial reasons, Yvonne would have usurped her mother's personality when she died.
"There is no solid argument [en las teorías de Zak], only insinuations, although there are many, dozens, "he says by telephone Robine. He adds: "It is the opposite of the way of proceeding not only scientific but even judicial. It is not the accumulation of small doubts that ends up tilting a decision of justice. You need a test, an argument, something. "
The mystery of Jeanne Calment mixes extravagant conspiracies with old stories of a people globalized in social networks. It combines the defense of local pride with the fear of foreign interference, specifically Russian. And all this, in the middle of a very serious discussion about the limits of human life. The fact that he does 22 years that nobody has lived more than Calment, and that the second longest person died at 119, feeds the theories, although the number of supercentenary -Persons over 110 years old- does not stop increasing decade by decade, as Robine emphasizes.
In the municipal archive of Arles, the volume of 1875 contains the birth certificate number 110. It is that of Jeanne Calment, born on February 21 of that year. In the margin, it has been added in black pen: "Deceased in Arles on August 4, 1997".
Zak approaches it as a probabilistic issue. What is more likely? That someone reaches 122 years? Or that there has been a usurpation of personality and that this woman is his daughter? "It's more likely to be Yvonne," he says from Moscow. His reports are full of clues, from contradictions in the woman's memory to photos of her at different times in which she apparently shows a different physiognomy. But nothing conclusive. "If people want to be sure, they should do a DNA test," he challenges, although it is also not clear if the DNA would give the answer.
But an operation of this kind-a change of identity in a place where the Calments, owners of one of the main businesses, were known-could hardly be done without attracting attention. "How do you want the whole family, the employees of the Calment stores, the Arlesians of the time to have accepted the daughter to replace the mother?" Asks Venture. "If they had been in a lost town at the bottom of the Alps or the Pyrenees, who knows? But in Arles! "
In Arles, the financial motive is also questioned: Yvonne would have gone through Jeanne to save her inheritance taxes. But the taxes were not so high as to justify the assembly. Zak then wields another possible motive. While Jeanne was out of Arles due to illness, perhaps Yvonne replaced her by signing papers before notaries or insurers. When Jeanne died it was too late to undo the deception. Everything sounds too bizarre. The answer of the Russian: it is more improbable that he died at 122.
"They call me the 007 of Arles," says Francis Aurran during a walk in the neighborhood where Jeanne Calment lived. Aurran is one of the members of the group of neighbors who, since Nikolay Zak published his thesis, have joined together to dismantle them one by one. They explore archives, they meet weekly, they have created a Facebook group where you can provide evidence. It's Friday and Aurran and Colette Barbé, who met Jeanne and also belongs to the group of amateur detectives, show visitors Arles de Jeanne Calment: the church of San Trófimo, the alley where the hairdresser she frequented was, the Calment stores where Now there is a supermarket.
The walk ends at the house of Paul Bourouliou, who at the age of 99 is presented as "the dean of the rice farmers of France". Arles – the picturesque city where Van Gogh and Picasso passed, one of the bullfighting capitals in France with Nîmes– It is at the gates of the rice fields of the Camargue. Bourouliou was a contemporary of Yvonne and Jeanne, although he does not remember anything of the first. Yes, Jeanne. "He was kind but he had his character. Until the end I smoked a daily cigarette and drank a glass of porto ". And the? Do you expect to reach 122? "I hope to live even ten years", he predicts. "I take care of myself. I take six remedies every day. "
The journalist Silvie Ariès met Jeanne Calment at the end of the eighties, when she moved to the Maison du Lac, the nursing home in Arles. Since then, when she was 112 or 113 years old, and until her death, she visited her a couple of times a year.
After spending decades in solitude after the death of his daughter in the thirties, his husband in his forties and his grandson in the sixties, became a celebrity. The journalists visited her. A local group called Gispsy Kings, who like her had become famous all over the world, sang her rumbas.
Ariès describes her as a woman "selfish and spoiled", who "never in her life had worked or washed a plate". The speculations of Nikolay Zak seem far-fetched. "It's typical of conspiracy theories. You have the answer and then you make everything fit, "he says in a bar of bullfighting fans in the Forum square of Arles.
Another woman, from the neighboring table, intervenes in the conversation, and an impromptu gathering is organized. "We have the oldest lady in the world," the woman, whose name is Johanna Roch, is proud. "Although it bothered us until the end", jokes Ariès referring to his bad character.
Some suggest making an uncertain DNA test with samples of blood stored in a laboratory in Paris. From exhuming the corpse of Jeanne Calment and her relatives, no one wants to hear about it. "Maybe it was hateful, but her grave will never touch her," Roch warns. "The Arlesians will reject it."