In August 1974, when Philippe Petit executed the most audacious and breathtaking high-wire walk of modern times, making eight crossings without safety devices between the twin towers of the newly constructed World Trade Centre, no one could have imagined that the book he would one day write about it would serve as a memorial not only to the extremes of human daring, but also to the buildings themselves.
The book – Petit’s first in English – has been years in the writing and, although it was completed after the destruction of the towers, he has resisted the temptation to load his account with restrospective symbolism; his references to the events of 11 September are confined to a brief and moving In Memoriam section at the end. His narrative – lyrical, swaggering, urgent, with the odd telltale twist of Gallic syntax – keeps resolutely in the present tense, yet it is impossible not to find portents in his descriptions of these contemporary towers of Babel, built ‘in total disregard of the commandment, “Thou shalt not try to reach the clouds”.’
Petit himself had been rebelling against that commandment since his youth. By the age of 24, when he began to plan the walk he calls ‘the coup’, his crossings already included the towers of Notre Dame and the pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge. The conception and execution of the tower walks are charted in elliptical, snapshot episodes that at times read almost like a film script, but the most striking passages are those that allow glimpses into the extraordinary mind of the author. You sense that Petit must have a different chemical make-up from the rest of us; some DNA mutation that causes him to disregard the rules of sanity without being insane. He is not eccentric or foolhardy or fearless; instead there is a kind of Herculean self-confidence and pioneering spirit at work in his boldness.
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For the Twin Towers walk is madness by any standards, yet the planning is as coldly meticulous and exact as the calculations of the engineers and architects who are still engaged in building the towers as Petit organises his coup. The operation is planned with a group of friends who, understandably in thrall to Petit’s charisma and self-belief, suffer his rages and frustrations through the setbacks and months of tedious research.
Gradually the story takes on the tension of a thriller, with preparations as fraught and meticulous as a bank heist. There are endless days of sneaking into the towers in the guise of builders or delivery men to ascertain rooftop access, measure distances and gauge such crucial factors as how to stretch the wire between the two rooftops in the first place (they fire it with a bow and arrow).
Finally, the vertiginous photographs speak for themselves. Compelling, terrifying and beautiful, they frame a moment when the triumphal towers became synonymous with human frailty, as they did again 28 years later. (One picture, with a plane silhouetted against the sky, is chilling in its prescience.) Petit’s promise to walk again when the towers are resurrected, risking his life as a tribute to all the lives lost, is inspiring, though whether Daniel Libeskind’s design will afford him this opportunity remains to be seen.