Monday 20 March
Last night, during a face to face Debré / Marchais over the referendum (do eggs have to be broken at the big end or at the small one ?), Marchais throws at Debré : “Let me speak, this is not La Réunion !”
Sunday 26 March - La Réunion
The aeroplane for Tananarivo takes off at 19. OO. Many people from Marseille get onto the flights of Air Madagascar. We are assigned the “first class” seats 1 A and 1 B. Runway bus. Light-blue sky over Paris. Dark-blue seats on board the plane.
Marseille, stop-over at 20 h15. Taking off again. Rome down there, to the left : this is Easter week. Rome, tiny capital of tiny christendom between the infinitely big and the infinitely small. Mariner IX, the space probe, is turning around the planet Mars and discovers that 450 m3 of water-steam are coming daily out of the “red” planet, which could not but irritate Prof. Monod, Nobel Prize, who maintains the contrary.
Diagonal flight across the Mediterranean : Crete and its Minotaur, Racine and the Orient, a desert. Flying over the Egyptian shores, we hear to our surprize a Malagasy father ask his threefold offspring in a flute-like voice : “who knows Le Corbeau et le Renard ?”. Are there ravens in Madagascar and foxes, like at Château-Thierry ? Does the President Tsiranana, former primary school teacher, still believe in the virtues of French classicism, as he did at the time when, as a Senator, he had a seat in the Palais du Luxembourg and befriended our cousin J. N., also an agricultural teacher and a Senator ?
One eats a lot in first Class and ... choice pieces.
In Djibouti (25°) the ventilator blades are turning softly in a rimbaldian atmosphere. In the basement, toilets “the French way”. Gendarmes and military in shorts, revolver alongside. The VIP reception hall remains closed. A ground hostess, in civilian clothes, a small dress over moving muscles, of a distinguished black, hard face, clearly contoured hips, busies herself here and there, when a bespectacled old foguy with beard passes and speaks into her ear : she exclaims about something, with a little dry, forced laugh, for the little man, paper in hand, clearly looks like some official ...
On board, grapes from South Africa and strawberries are served.
Crossing the line, two passengers dubbed with Champagne, diplomas handed out ...
Tuesday 28 March
The Boeing 707 landed in Gillot yesterday after a stop-over at Tananarivo under a burning sun, after flying for a long time over that ocean where “in the immense expanse from Capricorn to the Pole the wind bellows, roars, whistles, growls, miaows”, as so well expressed by a great local poet.
On the footbridge after landing, shock from the tropical atmosphere. Silhouettes gesticulating on the airport terrace : the Cousins showing their pleasure. Suspicious authorities : it is necessary to show the return ticket : a pleasant female custom official. Renault cars everywhere on Bourbon Island : like on Seguin Island. On the coastal road, the first “Bougre” (native Creole of La Réunion) and the first nissen-huts - St-Denis, capital; St-Joseph, St-Paul, St-Pierre, St-Benoît : religious impact before “geographical” secularity?
In Saint-Denis, stop at the Prefecture : delivery of a registered letter given from hand to hand for the kind Mr. D., from the office of a Prime Minister whose name one sees everywhere painted in white between the Lorraine crosses on the macadam of the embryonic motorway and on the walls (“verba volant ?”).
Then ascent towards the Plaine des Palmistes and the Plaine des Caffres. Many children, many, many. Have they heard D. discuss repopulation after having kissed Lilette the French way twice ?
Bouts of mist, now, over a scene which presents itself the pyreneo-norman way. Luxuriant vegetation. Cows, French type roads, grass, flowers, mountain freshness, steep rocks whose summits are lost in the clouds. Animals ? None or almost. Hares, rabbits apparently. Birds ? A single one, the Cardinal. Humans ? “Bougres” walking along the roads with supple hips and strained head movements.
Wednesday 29 March - Saint-Pierre de La Réunion
Nocturnal sarabande of moskitos which must be doing a three/eighth time. Getting up covered with swellings. Walk in town under a sky gradually brightening up and quickly becoming an incandescent blue.
Street of the Good-Children, these are the Champs-Elysées of Saint-Pierre, with, in addition, iron-mongers, electrical household equipment, pastry-shop. The Post Office dates from the XVth century : will it make the XXIst century ? But a new post office, nice-looking, has already replaced it, closer to the shore. A “Bougre”, come down from his mountain, addresses me suddenly, asking me in his dialect, whether I don’t have a “coin for the doctor”. I take pity, hand him the coin; he flees hastily (not without having looked back uneasily in my direction), before diving into a grocery-and-bar kept by an Asian.
Two steps from the hospital bumped into Gwendoline, daughter of a norman nobleman whose father stifled her personality up to the day when she fled, alone, as far as La Réunion where she has been residing for five years and where she obtained, on the university side of Saint-Denis, a great love who killed himself in the mountains. Ever since, a war widow in the 14 manner, she goes for walks with her glasses in an octogonal frame and her long legs covered with blond down.
As for Dr. B., head of the women’s ward in the hospital, he fears female patients and colleagues alike. Speaking to cousin J. I don’t know about what nor about whom, she holding out her hand to conclude the deal, Dr. B. (beyond 40) brusquely withdraws his paw, while cousin J. blushes : a pig who goes back on his word ?
Wednesday evening, 29 March, 21.00 - St-Pierre de La Réunion
Letter to our hosts’ family living in Appamea (Hexagon)
These few words to tell you that we have indeed arrived in the Colony and that your children seem in excellent health : they work, of course, in a hospital and do not lack anything, since everything is free : mineral water, butter, vegetables, strawberry yoghurts, black currant ones, local honey, brown sugar, pineapples, lemons, oranges, beef, pork, milk, all, all, all as free as you could wish. In this respect they are not unhappy, nothing to report. Even have a pretty 4L Renault. The Island is, by the way, teeming with the Billancourt product. One would think this is Tournefeuille* (Tomefeil) in October. It is not at all cold, it rains from time to time and in the evening it comes down fast enough to fill the washtubs which people put outside briskly and cheerfully to collect this pure water which falls from heaven (the one falling from the tap being of only imperfect drinking quality).
When one arrives in Gillot (that’s the Island’s airport), everybody drops their jacket and long johns posthaste and takes to trotting along barefoot, such is the surprize. Afterwards it’s better. It is more airy than Cayenne, given that it is an island. From time to time, a cyclone sweeps up the debris of permanent festivity, for there is no shortage of drink in the absence of water. The chemists’ are magnificently stocked. Doctors, everywhere. Private clinics pullulate in addition to the Hospital where your young colonials are working (statistics say : 3 doctors per inhabitant). There are more women than men on the Island and any woman who does not have a ”z’amant” (lover) is considered a disturbing element of society. But lovers, there ain’t enough for all : remains the black labour system, supplementary hours. At the Hospital, cousin J., in a long white overall, with her chest-listening machine, has herself addressed as Madame le Dr J. by her numerous and faithful clientèle whom she feels, palpates, rejects, encourages, discourages, threatens when they become enterprizing, sticks needles into them everywhere and calls the nurses, saying : “Take this away for me !”.
As for cousin Dr G., bare-chested under a half-open overall, he runs from emergencies to mortuary and back four or five times a day with the excuse that in the heat meat doesn’t keep. The nurses greet him be it with deference, be it with this wink that says a lot about the state of their relationship. He is the king of the house, the boss of the bosses, the Master after God, the man who at first sight assesses the colour of the weewee in the test tube, howling in shock : “that’s absinthe !” ; for the ill cheat, they are afraid of everything, especially of these merciless doctors who have come from the Metropolis in order to “do CFA work” and to withdraw stinking rich to some corner of a Riviera countryside, leaving the others to the maggots...
The Hospital’s Director, a friendly fifty-year-old, terrorizes her surgeon-husband and does not suffer assistant doctors measuring her against their brand-new learning. The Director was a typist in civilian life ...
You will hear the continuation orally. Affectionately to you all from all of us.”
Thursday 30 March
Yesterday morning, bathing in the lagoon, beach of Saint-Pierre, which could be magnificent without those pieces of glass the tide brings in and not out again.. Extraordinary limpidity of the water. On the other side of the coral barrier sharks are prowling, and the shore is lined with crosses to the memory of the unfortunate who served as meat for the fish.
In the plaine des Maques, tiny red wild strawberries, looking like confused blushing teenagers, only taste of water. We leave them regretfully on the needles of filaos, while in the total and fresh silence a woodcutter is slaving away on a tree stump and a solitary sparrow hops from one blade of grass to the other. How did he get so high ?
The plaine des Maques dominates the cirque of Cilaos. A wooden rail protects from a prodigious sheer drop. Facing, in the distance, the Piton des Neiges and the pass of Taïbit from where it is possible - on foot - to accede to the Cirque de Mafate, refuge of the “Petits Blancs”**, sheltered from contaminating civilization.
At Saint-Louis it is preferable not to go for walks on election days, for the “Bougres” put up stone-barricades on the roads and when the car slows down snipe at it using pebbles (count the arrivals in emergencies at the Hospital of Saint-Pierre) ; the pebble is the preferred weapon of the “Bougres” who organize single duels or meetings between several, with “return game” and “rubber game”, as at belote.
The “Bougre” does not use the burning asphalt which wounds his bare feet but he trots along the paths which come down in the middle of the sugar cane fields under the sun which makes their skin and bones sweat out water vapour. The “Bougre” is afraid, afraid like the dog which sometimes accompanies him. The dogs don’t smile when you call them; they don’t stir the burning-hot air with their ragged tail to inform you that they find you pleasant, they only lift their head to prepare for fleeing : so far the “Bougres” ...
Saint-Gilles, that’s le Touquet in the Tropics : avenues, tree-lined streets, villas with vétiver-covered roofs (the local thatch), sandy beaches, luxury, luxury.
At Manapany, on this Easter Monday in the restaurant, “my” diced vegetable salad with mayonnaise conceals a fly. I tell the Dr Da who had lunch there the previous day, Easter Sunday. “I”, he says, “I had the right to the eggs” !
At the Hospital, Flavienne T. (administration assistant and specialist’s wife) retorts to M., who is surprized to see a girl of 14 pregnant : “but most of them are only twelve years old !” ...
At Saint-Pierre, on the beach of the Lagoon, Marie-Hélène, white statue of stone par excellence of a “zoreille” *** woman, since she is the daughter of a sculptress-mother, assembles every morning at eleven o’clock sharp a pleiad of tanned skins who come to contemplate her all-over blondness. Marie-Hélène, cardiologist, causes hearts to beat and flatters herself that she loves Leconte de Lisle **** who lived on the 4th floor of the boulevard des Invalides, because he was poor. There, he received, it is said, on a Saturday evening : Catulle-Mendès, Albert Glatigny, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Paul Verlaine, François Coppée, Sully Prud’homme and also José Maria de Hérédia who stuttered a little. Mrs Leconte de Lisle was significantly younger and more gracious than her husband who had a powerful and balding skull, according to François Coppée.
Easter Monday, 9 am - The Volcano
The Volcano, that’s the Island’s volcano, up there, the Piton de la Fournaise. Leaving from the coastal Saint-Pierre, one has to climb the steep, twisting road, via Le Tampon (respiratory estate for Whites who lack breath) up to the plaine des Casfres (in reality a high-plateau, like all the plains here), then, for 25 km, take the forest road in a cool landscape where heavy ruminants move about, then zigzag on a hardly marked track between filled-in craters and a sea of sand, before reaching the rampart of Bellecombe which firmly pushes back the assaults of the present-day offspring of this respectable geological family, among them this Piton de la Fournaise (2525 m) which serves as an eruption chimney. It’s beautiful, it’s moving, and the young doctors Da and Du challenge each other as to who can get closest to the fire of the Earth ; soles scorched, they rapidly turn round and generously award each other a draw. A gentleman who observes the scene, kindly assures me that mount Cartala, on the Comores, is quite a different matter : “the biggest of all”, he swears, and he tells me how this fire-hole began to spew out in 1961 and that an 8 mm film apparently exists which, until recently, one could still buy on the Island (before the following eruption ? for there, like everywhere, one does not stop progress ...).
Be that as it may, I don’t feel far from the cult of the Goddess Kali, celebrated by the fire-walkers of the little town Ste-Rose, such as I watched them at the hot ending of yesterday’s afternoon.
When passing by car in the morning, an enormous log-fire was aflame on a neat and tidy little square, swept clean again and again by moustachoed Hindus, brown-skinned and grey-haired. On our return from an outing to Hell Bourg (waterfall, mountains, fog, heat), a procession was making its way through town, with its ever larger and impressive crowd. At 5 pm, in the rectangular enclosure where the embers were waiting, everywhere incense, water, offerings. An autochthon was overseeing the ceremony with the meticulous attention of an undertaker’s ordinant from the good parts of town. Another one, in a green jacket with white stripes, went round the ember-filled trench, moistness on his somber face (perhaps fear ?). During this time, the beating of the tambourins gave rhythm to the interior preparation of the volunteers who begged for favours for their families or for themselves. At 6 pm, the first faithful launches himself barefoot into the trench, face immutable.The second one called up changes colour and begins to run : one might almost expect encouragement from the crowd or jeers. There is silence ! The others take the opened-up path in their turn, and it must be noted that the Goddess Kali does not blind them to the point of preventing them from putting their soles exactly where their predecessor put his. However, flower-tiaras on their head, many nearly collapse before reaching the little water-filled trench which receives the survivors : water is poured on the face, on the shoulders of these unfortunate who suffer at the ... armpits.
Green jacket with white stripes traverses five times, eight times, ten times, victorious winner, supremely happy. I had not expected that much from this fat-bellied priest who, in Spain, would have been awarded ears and tail***** (but here, we are nearly in India !).
Among the coloured spectators, a whole range of “Petits Blancs” from the Heights, who escaped from their native Brittany in the XVIIIth century, face shrivelled with ancestral bitterness and celebrating their Easter by watching these strange Vespers. On the tin roof of a neighbouring house, clusters of spectators are weighing on the timbers which creak.
We pick up the twisting road again, endlessly winding along the coast.
The Boeing 707 has just left Gillot and dips a wing. One can see the lights of Saint-Denis in the night of the Indian Ocean, while the plane is heading for Madagascar. Bye-bye, km 12, and km 14 ... Bye-bye, Piton des Neiges. Bye-bye, people from Saintonge, Bretons, Normans, almost naked colonists who, from the beginning of civilization, ate tortoises and yams, in order to better cling to this rock which sticks out of the ocean. Bye-bye, Malagasies, Indians, Casfres (and Casfrines, much prized by the connoisseurs, according to the neighbour of Dr Destouches in rue Girardon). Bye-bye, Bourbon Island, bye-bye, “zamants” et “zézères” (lovers, in the Creole language), and long live the ségas******, for “plaisir d’amour only lasts for one moment !”, according to Prof. Debré, who works at the Cochin Hospital (France), and everybody, one day or other, will have to join the cemetery Ste-Katherine in Touraine.
* Tournefeuille, a borough in the south western outskirts of Toulouse (Hte Garonne) France.
Previously the village was situated in a forest surrounded by leaves "Entornefeil", "whence "Tornefeil" in languedocian (a dialect of the langue d"oc). Device : "All forward in the Languedoc" = "Tostems a l’ "endavant"
** Petits Blancs : the first inhabitants, light-skinned, of the Heights of La Réunion; of low social status, as opposed to the “Grands Blancs” who are the land-owners.
*** Zoreille : White person from The Metropolis (France).
**** Leconte de Lisle
French poet of the Parnassian movement. Saint-Paul, Réunion 22 October 1818-Voisins (Louveciennes) France 17 July 1894. Nell, poem by Leconte de Lisle, music by Gabriel Fauré op.18 n°1 ; Les Roses d’Ispahan, poem by Leconte de Lisle, music by Gabriel Fauré op.39 n°4 ; Lydia, poem by Leconte de Lisle, music by Gabriel Fauré op. n°8.
***** Ears and tails : In Spain, at the end of the corrida, after the killing of the bull (estocada), the Matador receives ears and tail of the animal.
****** Sega : traditional dance originating in the malagasy Salegy, more european than the Maloya.
Translation : Dagmar Coward Kuschke (Tübingen)
Claude d’Esplas (Les Merlufleaux)
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