Une traduction brussolienne

(En 1994, j'avais complété cette traduction de « Soleil de soufre » de Serge Brussolo, mais je ne semble jamais avoir trouvé l'occasion de la publier ou de contacter l'auteur pour lui en parler.  Comme une traduction du même texte par Edward Gauvin vient d'être mise en ligne, je me suis dit que ce serait intéressant pour les lecteurs de pouvoir comparer les deux exercices.)

Sulphur Sun

Serge Brussolo

It rose like a gigantic pyre erected on the gray clay of the plain.  Like a titanic imbrication of firewood atop which the city seemed strangely and insecurely perched, with its towers wider at the base than at the pinnacle, the dungeons curiously narrowing at the height of their crenellations, so much so that they could be confused from afar with those seemingly endless factory chimneys.  The ramparts around the city also followed the same pattern of truncated cones, and they unfailingly inspired the feeling that the sentinels going along their rounds were on the verge of falling over the edge and sliding down the abrupt slope of the walls, their helmets striking sparks from the smooth black blocks cut open here and there by the thread-like apertures of loopholes.  Coming closer, one saw that the flanks of the mountain where the city took root were totally covered with a multitude of tree trunks recently felled, trimmed, scalped; reduced to large anonymous logs and constituting an inextricable thicket that piled up to abut the first stones of the ring of ramparts around the city.  Whence arose this strange impression of a pyre thrown down in a heap by the hand of a colossus for some feverish holocaust.

To enter the city, one had to drift for several long days through this labyrinth of firewood, at first sticky with sap, then, as one got closer and closer to the top, dry and splintery.  Such a race, where each step could dislodge and break the balance of the tangled trunks, condemning at once the traveller to perish in the thunderous roll of an avalanche of bark, invariably left one feeling caught in one of these oriental needle games where the slightest false move will disqualify a player.

For my part, as soon as I crossed the threshold of the only access gate, I remember very well how I seeked the cool refuge of a church's blue slate walls, fleeing into its darkness the heat and the intolerable smell of sawdust which had escorted me in my climb.  Instinctively, my fingers sought the marble baptismal font usually flanking the collection box at the foot of the first pillar.  The icy liquid stinged my knuckles, immediately chasing away the migraine as its first symptoms already buzzed beneath my temples.  I dipped my palm in the middle of the chipped Carrara conch, in the small, iridescent puddle where still danced the rare gleams filtering through the stained-glass windows.  Then raising my arm at the cost of an excruciating effort wherein could already be deciphered all the exertions of my uphill race, I touched forehead, lips, and stomach with my thumb...  The heady fumes of gasoline made me shiver.

I stayed there.  My back to the pillar, savoring the cold of the marble through my sweat-drenched shirt.  Somewhere in the depths of the crypt rose the cry of a child, uncertain, surprised to find himself there, naked, held by a stranger's hands above the bowl of the baptismal font as drops of kerosene swelled on the lip of the holy cruet and came crashing down on his forehead, between his eyebrows.

I went out, eyes lowered, discovering anew the paving stones of the sun-flooded street where straggled, in the burning dawn, the ultimate arabesques of a farandole.  The wind blew along the ground a rolling wave of red confetti which sweat stuck to the exposed skin of my legs, like so many fantastical pustules.  Stricken with this carnival smallpox, I nevertheless walked to the fissured fountain where a cluster of bronze tritons spewed out a stream of ethyl alcohol, fatty, almost thick.  Maybe methanol.  The violent smell, unalloyed, industrial I should say, made me curse briefly such a tasteless and unimaginative choice of liquid.  However, the intoxicating effluvia muddled my thoughts, paralyzed my brain like a prolonged inhalation of ether, and images unrelated to my present preoccupations rose up between my eyes and reality.

As I do each time, I had to make a sudden effort to avoid sinking down, my knees weakening, complaining, and to tear myself away from the tide of evermore insistent odors.  I ran down the sloping street, twisting my ankles on the irregular pavement made iridescent by the rivulets of alcohol, spreading in steel-blue and golden streaks.  The first pyres appeared, marking off the roadway, the sidewalks.  Meticulous piles of dry, dusty bundles of wood, jealously protected from humidity for years until this ultimate day.  Mountains of logs in studied and alternating arrangements, with access galleries and central combustion chambers for a whole family...  I slowed my running, offering my raw throat to the aromas of the gnarled wood, the dried, blackened twigs, the kindling, armfuls of skeletal and rustling branches popping under my heel in a concert of dry crackling.  I watched for an instant white hands turning blue, streaked with scratches, as they carried bundles scrupulously chosen long in advance of this one ceremony, and then I strolled among the heaps of branches, amid these sounds and smells of a forest in the fall.  The heat had gotten worse, and my eyebrows could no longer contain the flow of sweat streaming down my forehead.  I suddenly wished to dive into the shadows of the arcade and an unendurable thirst squeezed my throat tight, swelling my tongue between my teeth.

A dark vault sucked me inside...  A ballroom, with a tiled floor of black deep as a mirror, its echoes at once near and faraway, with a dome of night, blue like the sleep of buried beasts.  My toes left incongruous haloes of condensation on the marble, manifestations of a fever that suddenly seemed obscenely moist in these rooms where glazes and mirrors appeared to have been conceived for something altogether different than catching the last breath of a dying man.  At my feet, a handful of confetti had sketched a hasty atlas of unknown constellations.  A silken shawl, moved by a draft, wiggled on the floor like a strange smoke fabric fallen from the shoulders of a ballerina, drifting on the surface of this lake of solidified black ink.

Intruding in this world of dark snow with the stench of my sweat and my panting, I felt the sudden urge to look if the soles of my feet had not melted the ice of which the ground seemed made, to check if my ankles had not just broken through the indelible waves of a pond marking me for life with the most ridiculous tattoos.

The woman stayed back, leaning against a caryatid, and her livid hand, blue, the nails cyanotic from an irrepressible inner cold, rested very exactly between the breasts of the statue in an unwittingly provocative gesture.  A long scarf of gray silk girded her neck, two lengths crossing below the nape, and fell down to the ground on both sides of the collarbone, enclosing her nude and icy body between twin fabric parentheses.  Her belly hung heavily and her breasts pendulously.  Networks of purple capillaries crisscrossed the skin, evoking the image of a porcelain finely crazed.  Fragile.  Shadows washed out her features; barely did I have time to discern a plain and graceless profile, pale and upsetting, before her upraised arm offered me a cup of some unknown liquid.

I drank.  Without a word.  When came time to leave, grabbing the hand still offered, I bent, placing my mouth on her hand's back, just above the knobby line of the joints.  She did not stir, yet, in that second when her wrist fell back, I distinctly saw the horrible burn inflicted by my lips on the smooth, cold skin, like a double curve swollen by bloody blisters.  Perhaps, if I had listened more closely, I could have heard her flesh sizzle when my lips touched her skin, and inhaled the unique aroma of burnt meat.

She smiled apologetically, with a bored and worldly air, like a hostess who—at a high society dinner—would note a protocolar misstep beyond her control and would call on the indulgence and complicity of her guests.  I went out.  Finding again the boulevards, the heat and the row of pyres raised on the pavement at regular intervals.  Was I really running a fever?  No more than usual no doubt.

I observed that some fled my gaze, while others, more clever, affected on the contrary to inspect me without seeing me, as if I were devoid of any opacity, transparent, in a word.

Stopping in the ballroom had been useless, only intensifying the presence of the furnace outside.  Groups of girls, nude and silent, filled the balconies on both sides of the street.  If I raised my head, I could see the stiffened tufts of their pubic hair, lacquered with red phosphorus, like their eyelashes, their hair, or their nipples.  A few had shaven heads, and the naked skulls, helmeted in a crust of scarlet phosphorus, irresistibly reminded me of enormous matchheads.

I believe two or three of them smiled, but I cannot swear to it...  I noticed how their haggard features bore the marks of the previous night's exertions, of the songs, the dancing, the terror perhaps.  For I knew that strange celebrations filled the narrow streets at night, horrible farandoles where boys and girls dance, buckled into costumes covered with white phosphorus ready to burst in flames as soon as the ambient temperature rises above the fatal threshold of 30 degrees C, which forces them to flee the streets and the exposed squares as soon as the first rays of the sun strike.  Afterwards, woe to they who let daylight surprise them on the grass of a park, felled by a drunken stupor, supine in their lethal costume of which the powdery white somehow recalls the uncertain substantiality of a butterfly's wing.

Transformed into a living torch, they cannot even throw themselves in the nearest fountain since it will only make the fire destroying them burn harder.  And yet they continue.  Every night.  Racing through the childish and antiquated stagings of a laboriously reconstituted Italian festival, they scatter, terrifyingly vulnerable, offered, exposed to the slightest scrape a tad too brutal, to the glowing embers of the cigarettes that some start smoking, like dandies relishing such a challenge's bravado.  They dance, without watches, deprived of any means to tell time since all the city's clocks are now stopped.  They dance, knowing full well that at this latitude the Sun follows night without any perceptible transition, and knowing that since the wine robs them of their sense of time, they will soon be unable to foresee where and when daytime will catch them unawares.

Thus, plazas, gardens, large esplanades with few hiding spots are greatly prized during these ironical and desperate sarabands.  "The greater the risk, the gayer the dance," say the songs, and more than one farandole has suddenly caught fire like a living wick, consuming in a few seconds all those who had joined hands instants before, leaving only a wreath of blackened bodies across the flagstones, strangely reduced and deformed by the flames, tarry statues contorted by chance according to postures out of the arcana of ancient thaumaturgy.

Thirst and fever made me stumble again and seek refuge under the porchways.  At the top of a few stairs, my moist, burning hands fell on a chiselled marble plaque screwed above a large bronze knocker.  In the stead of my eyes momentarily blinded by the half-light, my fingers deciphered the straight-lined and sharp-edged letters of the word "MUSEUM" cut with a burin.  An inky black carpet guided my steps between hedges of gold chains meant to protect the exhibits from the tactile inquisitiveness of the visitors.  The door left open caused a draft to clank, lazily and rhythmically, the festoons of links.  The acid smell of the alignment of sculptures immediately swept over me, teasing my sinuses, boring deep into my smarting nostrils, and I sank in a contemplation of the lemon-colored statues lining the gallery.  Slender virgins, all tapering veils and folds that blossomed finally with the face of absence or blissful void.  Titans, freezing an ultimate and prodigious contraction.  Ephebes, combining soft and harsh curves all at once, and so many others, standing, all carved from solid sulphur by the chisel of a genius.  Brittle masterpieces, incredibly fragile, suffocatingly fragrant, that an elbow can shatter to bits, to dust, that a spark can set ablaze, releasing a torrent of unbreathable smoke and leaving nothing of the work but a large soot flower splashed on the wall like a forgotten shadow of the vanished object.  I have never been able to resist the fascination of these bodies, of these gestures, arrested by the artist in a material so unfit to immortality:  sulphur; to resist the intellectual wrenching wrought by these powdery and flaky marvels that one would want to be eternal, forever preserved from the time of destruction, and that one discovers instead to be poignantly frail, as if their creators—by choosing for their art such an eminently perishable substance—had wished to highlight the irony of their vulnerability.

I slowly stepped across the room, putting behind me the twin rows of inflammable creations, and I entered the library.  The smell of leather and paper, assailing me in waves fringed with mold and dust, progressively dispelled the acrid stench of sulphur, and I could let my fingers run along the shelves, counting the gilt-backed books like the rollers of a prayer-mill...  The inquiries of a people slept there, exposed to fungi and to the gnawing of rodents:  treatises on phlogiston establishing fire as the main principle in the constitution of bodies; abstruse studies on the decay of poisons and the emanations of hydrogen phosphide from which originate the will-o'-the-wisp; parchments smeared with oriental characters discoursing upon the secret of Greek fire; histories of Bengal lights and fireworks in thirty volumes, with sections devoted to erudite and in-depth discussions of roman candles, Congreve rockets, serpents and crowning pieces...  I continued on my way, pressing the palms of my hands cooled by the leather of book bindings to my cheeks burning from the inflammation.  A high and narrow corridor propelled me into the coppery world of pyrometers, into a forest of fevered gauges with increasingly sensitive needles.  Yet, the unit chosen for their calibration being unknown to me, the quiverings and leaps of the red cursors I passed by hardly allowed me to judge the gravity of my state.  The corridor led to a vast room.  Its unstudied architecture, based on the mere imbrication of enormous stone blocks, told me it was likely situated within the fortifications surrounding the city.   It was damp and cold.   There was no lighting system to dispel the shadows left by the two loopholes with their overgrown openings; I held my breath, knowing ahead of time what I was going to discover.  Very quickly, quite unsurprisingly, my fingers stretched out like a blind man's touched upon the smooth surface of a showcase and I knew immediately I had not been mistaken.

I closed my eyes, trying to imagine my surroundings:  showcases like high and narrow aquariums, in serried ranks, holding within their walls the unique canvasses of old masters, priceless tapestries, fabrics, silks, painted in olden times by geniuses.  A whole world of irreplaceable portraits, frescoes, triptychs painted or woven long ago with materials derived from phosphorus anhydride and since then provided with the unpleasant faculty of spontaneously bursting in flames upon mere contact with air.

Whence the obligation to keep them permanently enclosed in vacuum within sealed display cabinets, which would seem at first glance to isolate them definitively from any danger.  Yet, to depend trustingly on this false evidence would be a grave misunderstanding of the esthetic perversity of this planet's artists, as not one of these protective panes is thick enough to withstand a simple thrown stone.  Some—preferably those which contain artistic treasures without compare—are made of the most fragile crystal, and the mere impact of a lost bird flitting about aimlessly after entering through one of the loopholes, would be enough to cleave them along their entire length, letting the ambiant air rush in, with a shrill whistling.  Not one of the exposed pyrophoric materials would stand up to such treatment for more than a few seconds, and one would see the tapestry consumed, falling prey to an inner combustion, to a destruction inscribed in its very pigments, its wools, its threads since the first day of its existence, of its creation, when it was woven in a perfect vacuum inside an air-tight caisson by a man in a survival suit.  What could be more worth contemplating by the mind than the image of this obscene and subtle game whereby the artist strives to destroy by creating, and whereby, far from trying to fashion his work out of incorruptible bronze, he struggles to make of it a thing infinitely delicate and fragile in which the germ of mortality can awaken at any time.  Thereafter the permanence of danger can only sustain the rare and powerful exaltation of the esthete, the amateur, which multiplies their powers of perception, a sensation analogous to one's feeling in front of those faces, on a railway station platform, which one tries to grave into memory in a few seconds because one knows they will never be seen again.  I turned back, unhurried, carried by the torpor of my fever.  Drowsy and yet terrified to have to face again the heat of the street.

It is true that here, on this planet, in these streets, under these arches, beneath these marble vaults, people die from strange icy maladies that kill without a fever or a sweat.  And these women, and these men suffer from eerie algid disorders in which the sensation of unceasing chill is progressively coupled with a general weakening that result in deadly languors beyond remedy.  "Adiabatics..." a girl once whispered into my ear, a very long time ago, characterizing with that one word the problem afflicting these bodies that neither receive nor transmit any amount of heat.  Whence their fascination with fire, their esthetics, and this morbid cult of incineration.  But no matter after all since my task requires not philosophy but action.  I know they burn without feeling anything and that a child can pass his hand through the flames and watch his charred fingers shrivel as he continues to chew the candy that fills his mouth.  No matter then that couples will sprawl undressed on sheets damp with gasoline, rubbing desperately against each other, knowing that in a few seconds the boy's pubes, coated with a crust of phosphorus and potassium chlorate, will meet his partner's mons veneris, lacquered with an abrasive film to serve as a friction strip, so that this contact will strike the spark that will embrace them in an ultimate conflagration.  No matter...

My role will be over in a few hours, as soon as all will have gained the summits of the pyres, like castaways clinging to the crests of tiny desert islands, and I shall have reached the great council hall where, deposited in the center of the gigantic ceremonial table, lost in an immensity of somber varnish, will be waiting for me the only match of this city.

Perhaps, like some of their fellows in other towns, they will have prepared for me one of those white and shapeless asbestos suits, breached only at eye-level by the narrow opening of a fire-proof glass window, but such consideration, though revealing of the utmost delicacy, is quite unneeded.

I shall pick up the match, I shall press it upon my lips burning with fever, listening for the quick crackle before the ignition, and, with one sweep of the arm, it will be enough to throw it by the window into the first fountain overflowing with alcohol.  Then...

Then, I shall run away in the midst of the first cracklings of the blaze leaping from fountain to gutter, from gutter to pyre, and I shall leave the city, shooting through flurries of sparks blown by the wind into every opening.  Perhaps I shall nevertheless put on the asbestos suit, just to delight in its darkening by curls of soot...

I shall leave by the main gate, careful to look back only as I start down among the labyrinth of trunks covering the hill.   Then shall I see thick and hard curls of smoke shoot up like a seething mob from the top of the towers, completing the analogy with factory chimneys in my mind; and the fire will roar behind the ramparts with powerful, muffled growls.  I shall look back a second time as my feet will touch the soil of the plain, to let my brain record the image of a hill become a gigantic pyre, a mound of flames in the middle of the desert, and hear the heavy beat of this inferno.

Once the last fires die down, I shall turn back, climbing once more the rise amidst the sharp explosions of the charcoal bark.  I shall ascend to the summit, clutching against my breast the small box of white wood with its label from a grade-school notebook, barred by two parallel broken lines and framed by the usual thick blue border.  Softly will I then pour between the walls of this frail and derisory vessel, using my hollow palm, the ashes of a people as futile as the hope of a successful patience.  At night's fall, my nails stained by the blue ink, my fingers straining around the wire-like handle of the tiny penholder, I shall have to calligraph laboriously the name of the city, the planet and the inhabitants in a single stroke that will be dried in the same second by my fiery breath...

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