Translated by Edward Gauvin
It was like a gigantic pyre rising from the center of the gray, argil plain. A colossal intertwining of branches atop which the city seemed bizarrely unbalanced, with its towers broader at the base than the summit, its keeps oddly narrowed toward their crenellations, such that from a distance they might be taken for factory smokestacks that went on forever. The fortifications around the city had the same truncated-cone look; it was as if like the sentries pacing their wall-walks might at any moment topple into the void and go sliding down the steeply banked sides, helmets slashing showers of sparks from the black, gleaming slabs pierced here and there by spindly embrasures. Drawing closer, it became clear the mountainside where the city took root was entirely covered in countless logs, freshly pruned, sawn, scalped, reduced to the state of anonymous timber, forming an inextricable tangle that piled up against the outermost stones of the city’s surrounding wall. Whence the curious impression of a pyre thrown together pell-mell for some feverish sacrifice.
To gain entrance to the city took long days of navigating this labyrinth of wood, wood at first sticky with sap and then, nearer the summit, dry and studded with splinters. A path where every step might at any minute disturb and shatter the equilibrium of imbricate trunks, an instant death sentence beneath a hellish, thundering avalanche of logs, such that travelers feel like they’re picking their way through a giant game of pick-up sticks where the slightest misstep immediately leads to a crushing disqualification.
I, for one, quite clearly recall that no sooner had I stepped through the only gate than I sought the coolness of a church with blue slate walls, fleeing in the heart of its shadows the heat and unbearable smell of sawdust that had accompanied my entire climb. Instinctively, my fingers reached for the marble font normally beside the collection box on the first pillar. The merest touch of that icy liquid on my joints immediately dispelled my migraine, early warning signs for which had been buzzing at my temples. I rested my palm in the middle of the chipped Carrera conch, in the little iridescent puddle where a few rare glimmers danced, filtering through the stained glass windows. Pulling my hand back with a painful effort that betrayed all the exhaustion of my journey, I touched my thumb to my forehead, lips, and belly… The heady smell of fuel gave me a shiver.
I stayed there for a moment, leaning against the pillar, savoring the cold marble through my sweat-soaked shirt. From somewhere deep in the crypt rose a baby’s cry, frail, no doubt surprised to find itself naked and in unfamiliar hands above the baptismal basin while drops of kerosene pearled at the sacred cruet’s spout and splattered on its forehead, between its brows.
I left the church, eyes lowered, returning to the cobblestones of the sun-drenched street where in the burning dawn, the arabesques of one final farandole were dwindling away. Low to the ground, the wind blew a rolling wave of red confetti that stuck to my bare legs, gummy with sweat, like so many strange and fanciful pustules. Sick with the carnival measles, I made for the cracked fountain where a cluster of verdigrised bronze tritons spat ethyl alcohol by the mouthful, slick and almost viscous. Methanol, maybe. The harsh reek — nuanceless and even industrial — made me curse such a lack of taste and imagination in the choice of fluid. But the exhilarating fumes scrambled my thoughts, paralyzed my brain as if through prolonged exposure to ether, and images unrelated to my worries of the moment intervened between my eyes and reality.
As always, I had to make a violent effort not to let myself drown, knees suddenly weak, lifeless, and tear myself from the swell of ever more pervasive odors. I tore up the sloping street, twisting my ankles on uneven cobblestones rainbowed by steaks of alcohol with starbursts of gold and steel blue. The first pyres appeared right away, lining the sidewalks and thoroughfare. Meticulous stacks of dry, dusty firewood, jealously defended from humidity for years in waiting for this final day. Mountains of cunningly interlocked logs with access corridors and central combustion chambers designed for the entire family… I slowed my pace, offering up my irritated mucous membranes to the scent of knotty, splintering wood, those dark desiccated twigs, kindling, armfuls of rustling, skeletal branchings shattering underfoot in a concert of dry detonations. For a moment I watched the white, bluish hands striped with scratches hauling bunches of bines scrupulously selected long ago in anticipation of this ritual, and then I wandered among the piles of branches, amidst scents and sounds of an autumn forest. It was even hotter now, and my eyebrows could no longer stem the tide of perspiration flooding my brow. Suddenly I wished I could drown myself in the shade of the archways, and an unbearable thirst clogged my throat, swelling my tongue between my teeth.
A dark vault sucked me in… a dance hall with its floor a deep black reflective, its echoes at once near and far: a dome of night blue as the slumber of burrowed beasts. My toes left an incongruous halo of condensation on the marble, testifying to a fever that suddenly took on an obscene dampness in this place where mirrors and windows seemed conceived for something entirely apart from harvesting the dying breaths. At my feet, a handful of confetti had hastily sketched out a planisphere of unknown constellations. A silken shawl, stirred by a breeze, moved across the floor, strange fabric smoke fallen from a dancer’s shoulders to end up drifting the surface of this lake of frozen ink.
An intruder in this world of black snow, with my panting and sweat-stink, all of a sudden I wanted to see if my soles had melted the ice the floor seemed to be, and if my ankles were sinking into a pond of indelible waters, marking me for life in the most ridiculous way.
The woman was standing back, elbow on a caryatid, and her pale, bluish hand, nails cyanotic from an irrepressible internal cold, lay quite precisely between the breasts of the sculpted torso in an unintentionally provocative posture. A long scarf of gray silk wound round her neck, ends crossing behind her nape and falling again over her clavicles all the way to the floor, surrounding her frozen, naked body in a parenthesis of cloth. Her belly drooped and her breasts sagged. Networks of violet venules traced her flesh just under the skin, bringing to mind finely crazed porcelain. Fragile. Darkness drowned her features; all I caught was a glimpse of a thickened, graceless silhouette, pale and distressing; already her outstretched hand was offering me a cup of some liquid…
I drank. Without a word. Just before leaving, I seized her still outstretched fingers, bowed my head, and placed my mouth on the back of her hand just above the lumpen line of joints. She didn’t flinch, but the minute her wrist fell back, I saw quite clearly the horrible burn my lips had left on her smooth, cold skin, twin swollen lines of oozing blisters. Had I listened more closely, I might have caught, just as I was kissing her hand, a crackle and the unmistakable smell of burning flesh…
She smiled with an apologetic, weary, and worldly air, like a hostess who, upon noting an inadvertent lapse in etiquette during a lavish dinner, begs the complicit indulgence of her guests. I took my leave. Returned to the avenues, the heat, and the row of pyres punctuating the asphalt at regular intervals. Was I really feverish? Probably no more than usual.
I watched as some looked away from me, and others more shrewdly feigned to stare me down without seeing me, as if I’d been divested of all my opacity — made, in a word, transparent.
My detour into the dance hall had done nothing except make the furnace outdoors even more felt. Groups of silent, naked girls cluttered the balconies on either side of the street. Looking up, I could see on their hardened pubes shocks of hair, daubed in red phosphorus like their eyelashes, hair, and nipples. A few of them had shaved their heads and their bare skulls, which crusts of scarlet phosphorus fitted close as a helmet, helplessly teased my mind with the image of a giant match.
I think a few of them smiled my way, but I can’t be sure… I noticed their drawn features still bore traces of fatigue from the night before, from singing, dancing, maybe even fear. For I know bizarre festivities fill the alleys at night, horrible farandoles where boys and girls dance corseted in costumes coated with white phosphorus that spontaneously combusts when ambient heat reaches the fateful limit of 303°K, forcing them to vanish, to flee the streets and open squares as the first glimmer of dawn. From that moment on, woe betide he whom day catches drunkenly sprawled on a park lawn, lounging about in his deadly costume whose powdery white is not unlike the unsettling texture of butterfly wings.
Transformed into a living torch, the unlucky victim will be unable even to hurl himself into the first fountain he sees, for that will only fan the flames ravaging him. And yet they keep doing it. Every night, from one end of the city to the other, through puerile and outdated yet laboriously reconstructed Italian carnival décor, they spread themselves out, dreadfully vulnerable, offered up, exposed to the slightest friction that might prove too brusque, to the tips of cigarettes some start smoking out of defiance, bravado, and dandyism. They dance without watches or reminders of any sort, since all the town’s clocks are now stopped. They dance on, knowing full well that in these latitudes, night gives way to day without transition of any sort, and that since they’ve lost all notion of time from drink, they will soon be unable to predict where and when dawn will surprise them.
And so the squares, gardens, grand esplanades that offer hardly any places to hide are particularly prized during these ironic and despairing sarabands. “The greater the risk, the better the party,” go the songs, and more than one farandole has suddenly gone up in flames like a living fuse, in a matter of seconds consuming everyone holding hands just a moment ago, leaving but a garland of charred corpses strewn across the flagstones, corpses oddly reduced and deformed by the fire’s devouring, tragically tarry statues that chance has shriveled up in postures straight from the rituals of ancient magic.
Thirst and fever made me stagger once more and seek refuge in the hollows of doorways. Atop a flight of steps, my damp and burning hands flattened against a chiseled marble plaque set above a great bronze knocker. Taking over from my eyes, briefly blinded in the gloom, my fingers deciphered the word MUSEUM graven in tall uprights and sharp serifs. An ink-black carpet guided my steps between the hedges of gilded chain meant to protect the objects on display from the visitors’ tactile curiosity. The breeze from the still-open door made the festoons of metal links clank in lazy cadence. Right away the acid reek from the row of sculptures overwhelmed me, irritating my sinuses, a drilling prickle along my nostrils, and I grew lost in the contemplation of lemon yellow statues lining the hall. Slender maidens, tapering folds and veils atop which a countenance of absence of beatific nothingness discloses itself. Titans frozen in one final, prodigious spasm. Ephebes with curves soft and firm all at once, and so many more, all standing on their ebon pedestals, freed from sulfur by the chisel of a genius. Brittle masterpieces, of incredible fragility and suffocating smell, which a stray elbow might reduce to crumbs, to powder, which a spark might set ablaze in a torrent of choking smoke, leaving nothing of the work behind but a great flower of soot splattering the wall like the forgotten shadow of something that no longer exists. I have never been able to resist the fascination of these bodies, these actions, arrested by an artist in Sulfur, a medium so ill-suited to immortality; never been able to resist the cognitive heartbreak provoked by these friable and powdery wonders. We want them to be eternal, to be preserved forever from time the destroyer, and instead we find them poignant in their fragility, as if the creator, in picking an eminently perishable material for his art, had wished to highlight the irony of their vulnerability.
I crossed the hall slowly, leaving behind a double row of flammable creations, and entered the library. The smell of leather and paper, in heavy waves fringed with mold and dust, gradually supplanted the bitter whiffs of sulfur, and all I had to do now was let my fingers run over the shelves, counting out the gold-stamped spines like the letters of a prayer wheel… The curiosity of an entire people slumbered here, abandoned to all manner of fungus and rodents: phlogistical treatises establishing fire as the very essence of the body’s composition, abstruse studies on the putrefaction of fish and phosphine emanations as the source of will-o’-the-wisps, parchment scrolls whose flow of exotic characters dissert on the secret of Greek fire, thirty-volume histories of Bengal lights and fireworks, with a main section of comprehensive reports on Roman candles, missiles, bottle rockets, snakes, and peonies… I continued on my way, pressing the palms of my hands cooled on leather bindings to my cheeks burning with infection. A corridor on high hurled me into the coppery world of pyrometers, a forest of feverish dials, each with a needle more sensitive than the last. As I did not know what units were used to calibrate them, the leaps and quiverings of red cursors as I passed gave me no clear idea of my condition. The corridor led to a vast chamber whose unaffected architecture, based wholly on the interlocking of enormous blocks, informed me that it was most likely located within the city’s walls. No system of lighting allowed me to banish the gloom maintained by two embrasures overgrown with vegetation. So I held my breath, knowing in advance what I would find. Quite soon and without surprise, my blind, outstretched fingers touched the smooth surface of a showcase, and I knew right away I’d made no mistake.
I closed my eyes, trying to imagine the setting around me: rows of glass display cases like high upright aquariums holding within their walls the only canvases of ancient masters, invaluable tapestries, fabrics and silks painted long ago by virtuoso brushes. An entire world of irreplaceable portraits, frescoes, triptychs, painted or woven in their time with the help of materials derived from phosphorus pentoxide, and thus endowed with the disagreeable property of spontaneously combusting upon contact with air.
Whence the necessity of keeping them locked up in a vacuum forever within sealed and leaded glass walls that seem at first to insulate them once and for all from any danger. However, trusting in this apparent fact would be to misestimate gravely the great aesthetic perversity of artists on this planet, for not a single one of these protective panes is thick enough to stand up to a simple hurled stone. Some of them — usually those containing artistic treasures beyond compare — are made of the most fragile crystal, and the mere impact of a stray bird, come in through an embrasure and fluttering randomly about, would be enough to crack them from top to bottom, letting the surrounding air in immediately with a shrill whistling. Not a single one of the pyrophoric media on display would last more than a few seconds under such conditions, and the tapestries would consume themselves, victims of an internal combustion, a destruction written into their very pigments, their wool, their threads, from the first day of their existence, when they were created in an airtight tank by an artist in a diving suit in a total vacuum. What could be more riveting than to imagine this obscene and subtle game wherein an artist strives to destroy by creating — wherein, far from wanting to see his work cast in bronze, he toils to make something infinitely more delicate and fragile in which the seed of death might awaken at any moment. From then on, the constant danger can only keep the aesthete, the amateur in a state of rare and powerful exaltation, heightening his perception of things, a sensation not unlike that of trying, in the space of scant seconds, to commit faces from a railway platform to memory because already you know you will never see them again. I retraced my steps, in no hurry, borne by the fever’s torpor. Numb, and yet terrified at having to return to the heat outside.
It is true that here, on this planet, in these streets, beneath these archways, deep in these marble vaults, people die of strange frigid diseases that kill with neither fever nor sweats. “Adiabatism,” a girl once whispered in my ear long ago, in a single word summing up the problem of these bodies that neither receive nor emit heat in any quantity. Whence their fascination with flame, their entire aesthetic, and their morbid cult of incineration. But all this matters little, since after all, my task is not to ponder but to act. I know that they will feel nothing when they burn, that a child out strolling could have his hand on fire, watching his carbonized fingers shrivel, and not stop chewing on his mouthful of candy for a single second. What does it matter, then, if naked couples wallow on sheets damp with fuel and desperately rub their bodies up against each other, knowing all the while that in a few seconds the boy’s pubis, daubed in a crust of phosphorus and potassium chlorate, will strike his partner’s mons veneris, also abrasively lacquered, and this friction will give rise to the spark that will set them both ablaze in a final embrace. What does it matter?
My role will be over in a few hours, as soon as everyone has climbed to the top of the pyre like castaways clinging to the ridge of a tiny desert island and I myself, through streets now empty, have come to the great council chamber where, in the middle of an immense ceremonial table, lost in a vastness of dark varnish, the only match in all the city awaits me.
Perhaps, like some of their kind in other cities, they will have readied for me one of those shapeless white asbestos jumpsuits with a narrow slit of fire-resistant glass at eye level, but such considerations, though they attest to extreme sensitivity, are quite useless.
I will take the match, I will set it on my lips burning with fever, attentive to the quick crackle before ignition, and then with a sweep of my arm, all I’ll have to do is toss it out the window into the nearest fountain overflowing with alcohol. And then…
Then I’ll walk away amidst the first cracklings of the conflagration flowing from fountains in streams, streams to pyres, I will walk out of the city, through the whirlwind of sparks the wind blows into every opening. Perhaps, all the same, I shall wear the asbestos jumpsuit for the sole pleasure of seeing it darken in the whorls of soot…
I will leave through the city’s main gate, careful not to turn back until I’m about to enter the maze of trunks covering the hillside. Then I’ll see smoke, hard and thick in curls and scrolls surging upward like a living tumult atop the towers, making them at last like the factory smokestacks of my imagination, and the conflagration will growl and rumble behind the ramparts with a mighty, muffled roar. When I set foot on the plain, I will turn back once more, to sear deep into my mind the image of the hill become a gargantuan pyre, a mound of flames in the middle of the desert, and listen to the heavy shuddering of the inferno.
When the final flames die away, I will turn back, scaling the hillock once more in the sharp crackle of charred bark. I will climb toward the summit, toward the blackened ramparts, hugging close to my chest the little box of white wood, with its schoolboy-notebook label of two parallel dotted lines framed by the usual thick pink margin. Gently, from the hollow of my palm, I will pour between the four walls of this paltry and fragile receptacle the ashes of a people as vain as the hope of success. At night, my nails sullied with blue ink, fingers tight around the slender stem of my little penholder, I must inscribe, in laborious calligraphy, the name of the city, the planet, and its inhabitants in writing my fiery breath will dry that very instant…
© Éditions Denoël, 1980