La Catastrophe de la Martinique: five
Before the Volcano
(On the way to Saint-Pierre, at sunset)
The land! It is always there at the end of a voyage, an impatience, a quivering, when we approach land. The eyes scrutinize, the glasses scour the horizon, searching between the sky and the waves, that place, in the uncertainty of the distance…the patch a little darker, which hour by hour, mile by mile, will come into focus, will delineate itself, marking the port.
With an anguish of impatience, in a confusion of sorrowful feeling, we searched on the horizon that little dark spot which, emerging, growing, must bring into clarity the glow of the destructive volcano; show us, in lieu of the welcoming port of our joys, a dead city, a cemetery of sadness.
At first, it was very beautiful. The day fell away in a calm light of thin mist, the rain that casts itself like a muslin veil on the tropical seas, in the months of high sun. The waves were a pale emerald, as the poet saw like to the eyes of Minerva, the blue-green eyes of the goddess…this was a sea very wise.
The land. A mountain of rounded forms, harmonious; a purple mountain, of light blue on light crimson, a mountain haloed in clouds that seemed rose powdered with azure. An exquisite pastel of delicate grace…
That…the volcano? This lovely thing…?
But, we approach. At the same time that the night…
In the night…
The tenderness coloring the countryside, from the details made precise by shadow, becomes a harsh anger. The sea plunges itself into mourning. The mountain grows large, black, tragic. A menace.
It is no longer veiled in rose and blue. It is helmeted, plumed in black smoke, with spots of red, with spots of blood. And this mounts to the sky, very high, launched by a powerful breath.
And we approached still. And there were, on the flanks of the mountain, large lava-channels, white. And then, under the black again, a stain of white, very large, long, at the bottom of the gulf…
But what blacks…! What whites…! I know of no words capable of rendering the livid filth, a thing never seen, beyond dreaming…and that you will not have imagined. No need to know that, in there, over there, are scattered forty thousand corpses, for this vision to seem frightening. No word, I tell you, to rehearse for you the horror…
White and black.
And never will a painter find on his palette such…so dismal, this black, this white; under the glow of the volcano, under the glow that, now yellow from the mudslides and the ashes they carried, greens the blues of night.
And we approach closer. We pass nearer, near to Saint-Pierre, this that was Saint-Pierre.
And then, it was more than horror…
The white ruins under the night, ruins that seemed a city of tombs, and from where we ventured, the stench of ashes. This white, that covered the mountain; this white, that covered the ruins—an immense shroud, all white, a white our eyes had never seen…all this white that lay white in the night, it was ashes…the ashes that had killed…
A nightmare vision. A terrible nightmare.
The hour after, we arrived at the harbor of Fort-de-France. There were ships. We heard, from a high deck, the Blue Waltz. The admiral was dining. We returned to reality.
Other Sights of the Volcano
The mountain emerges as a truncated cone, and the clouds are the truncated cone reversed. Cloud and mountain, two truncated cones interpenetrated by the mountain’s summit, a gigantic X, a solid base, a loose belt fluttering, a floating cap. At five miles from the vent, we breathed the odor of sulphur and received ashes. This powdery ash filters the light…
Each minute, thus to say, varies the aspect of the mountain…
The cone of the cloud is crumpled, the smoke tumbles very low. It is now a reversed plume that spreads towards the North. Then the cloud rises wide, enormous, very high, cleanly cut on the clearer sky of the South coast, confounding itself with the black sky of the North coast. It is a dark, sooty mass that reflects reddish, yellowish, that expands into layers very black at the heights. Is it the imagination, that all these lava flows, white on the mountain, have the air of an amphitheater’s stone slabs?
When we point South, and we ourselves are moving off, the mountain and clouds all resume the aspect of a pastel, of a dark indigo pastel; and there, where we divine the summit, the crater we see is a curved line, a very large U…five incandescent dots that must be huge. They seem to us, in the distance, in the somber blue of night, like five red balloons; you know, those of the engineer Beau, the balloons of celluloid in which the gaiety of the cities enclose their electric lights and render them more pale, more lovely.
The impressive thing about this photo, taken from Hess’s book, is the hand on the rope. It gives a sense of immediacy to the moment depicted, the ship approaching the ruin of Saint-Pierre, the passengers not yet knowing exactly how the horror will appear to them.
Translator’s notes: on page 8 of this translation, the Blue Waltz was heard from a “haut bord”. Because the next sentence is, “the admiral was dining” and because Hess is entering the harbor on a ship himself, I picture the music coming from the deck of another ship, a larger one with the admiral aboard, so I’ve chosen to state it this way.
On page 9, a puzzling phrase, “la joie des villes”, that in searching Gallica, I can’t find as a set expression; in context, it seems to refer to providers of conviviality generally, which I call here the “gaiety”.
These two instances may not be correct.
(Jean Hess, La Castastrophe de la Martinique, 1902, public domain: translated by Stephanie Foster)