“The night is in a hurry!”
The Pointe-à-Pitre Fires
1965. The night has just fallen. A hasty night, as always, that is the word that comes to my mind at that age. I am eight years old and I am struck by the speed at which the night envelops everything surrounding me in Guadeloupe. I say: “The night is in a hurry!”.
And in this night, which has only just begun to break into the streets that are poorly or not at all lit, there is this cry: “Difé!”. There is a fire somewhere. A cavalcade. The inhabitants of the outskirts of Pointe-à-Pitre are rushing towards the centre, towards the flames that are rising high. I am too young: I am not allowed to join those who are running towards the event. I can only catch sight of the black smoke in the sky, rising above an unknown location. I only have the smell of the fire burning, tonight, and perhaps tomorrow, as I will walk past the rubble, I will look at this deep black colour on the planks and the small bubbles produced by the resin — small bubbles that I would like to burst under my fingers. I will also have the heady smell of burnt wood.
The second time, I am older. I am running towards the fire with my brothers, but this time, I do not simply rely on my imagination — I see an elderly woman screaming with both hands raised above her head. She is about to lose all that she possesses, her memories: images of her children, of her parents. An entire family is being devoured by the fire, even though they are still alive. This is when I understood that a human life is not only made up of the instant but that it clings to what comes before it, it is nourished by it; it is held together by the continuity among those who have contributed to making it happen and also — this I would learn later on — by what comes after it. I am no longer in the state of reverie to which I abandon myself most of the time. This very evening, I learn that a house is living flesh. Speechless, I witness the event of losing one’s house in a fire. It is a bit as if your life itself became deformed before your eyes. Just as the materials licked by the flames get distorted when heated, disclosing their other side, sometimes their transparency, or even their frame.
That night, I heard fear, panic and curiosity — I am always very embarrassed by other people’s curiosity, the inappropriate questions against which I set my face, giving one-word answers — a curiosity that bothered me but which, perhaps, that evening, stemmed from people’s concern. “But where was she when the fire broke out? And where are her children? But why did she have all these papers at her place…?”
Pointe-à-Pitre is burning: by this sentence, I am of course referring to these fire memories but I also hear this sentence as fate. As if, in some way, I was anticipating my town’s destiny by connecting it to all these other fires that have repeatedly ravaged it: on February 8, 1843, a dreadful fire resulting from a powerful earthquake raged; then on July 18, 1871, this time a fire destroyed the entire west part of the city; and again in 1897 following another earthquake; in 1899 also, a fire hit the city. The choice of materials used to reconstruct the buildings were to be strongly connected to the disasters that kept hitting the city: including the introduction of metal structures (the church, markets…) and, later on, of concrete. Yet, if wood remains, concrete — as it expands throughout the city — does not prevent fire from being an obsession. Since I was a child, I have witnessed these spurts of concrete on the spaces left by cabins levelled by willful bulldozers operated by men who are deaf to the roaring sound of their machinery. Concrete does not stop fire. Memories.
I am eleven years old. It is morning. I am still sleeping in the room that is gently ventilated by the trees behind our house overlooking a quarry upon which lianas are hanging to. A small garden is separating us from the neighbours. Our house is sturdy. My father has made sure that the workers do not use sand stolen from the beaches, which is saturated with sea water and salt and would wear away the concrete, devouring it from within, as he says. Our house is reassuring, it has survived two cyclones, Inèz in 1966 and Cleo in 1967. It roared under the attack of earthquakes, but it didn’t flinch. We find shelter in it when the wind rumbles, but the day the fire tried to get hold of our bookshop, we were forced to find our way to the streets, rushing into other people’s homes, barely dressed. The fire was defeated thanks to the collective persistency of our neighbours, who quenched the nascent fire with buckets of water. The little candle that my father had lit for trade’s spirits of good — as he did every morning after mass — that little candle had almost got the better of us.
All these memories come back to me when I find out that the city is burning today. First, the violent fire of the University hospital of Pointe-à-Pitre provoked the movement of patients and medical staff during long months. Then, a great stir was caused by the fire in the Forier house, rue Peynier. A beautiful wooden house, out of which bunches of red and pink bougainvillea flowed — a house that seemed to belong to all of us. There were these videos on social networks of a fire at the beginning of rue Frébault, followed by, last November 26, the burning of ten houses at the corner of rue Vatable and rue Victor Hugo. I followed from afar the course of events, alongside the hundreds of other netizens hailing, questioning and answering each other, living as a single heart beating the loss of a section of their town.
The Pointe-à-Pitre fires revealed a maze of invisible relationships, which gave me the feeling that this city belonged to a single body — the single body formed by all of us. Pain is revealed every time a fire begins, a feeling of sorrow that is telling of the fear of losing ourselves, the angst of seeing the disappearance of the evidence of our shared history. Every time a fire begins, we fear that what is built today will not have the unifying magic of these places that were often built without us or against us, of these courtyards, of these narrow passageways that we walked upon. But before the fire, we witness, silent and appalled, the decay of our housing, building collapses, and the emergence of infill sites punctuating our city. We observe these planks saturated with humidity, these collapsed beams overlapping, these balconies dangerously leaning towards the fall that awaits them, these facades devoured by lianas, these shopfronts still strutting about with their aged — faded blue and dull yellow — colours. Behind these facades, there often only remains a few scraps of cement eaten away by humidity, which were once the foundation of a vanished room or a dead kitchen. We keep asking ourselves what is to blame, whose fault it is, which new way of life is liable for the hardship our city is experiencing — what estrangement of the children from the country, forbidding them from imagining their return home and taking over the family house. We keep asking ourselves what, in our habits, has changed so radically and is simply highlighted by the irruption of a fire. Unless the fire simply comes clearing a silent conflict between us and ourselves.
Translated from the French by Callisto McNulty