(Albin Michel, 272 pages, 2018)
*** LONG LISTED FOR THE 2018 GONCOURT PRIZE ***
Ninety seconds: the time it took for Mount Pelée to erase the port of Saint-Pierre of Martinique, in one of the most deadly volcanic eruptions of the twentieth century. On that fateful day of May 8, 1902, more than 30,000 residents of the city perished under rivers of lava and clouds of burning ash. In Daniel Picouly’s evocation of this dramatic event, it is the mountain itself that tells the story and contemplates from above the city, and the many lives, it is about to destroy. Who will be spared the fury about to be unleashed?
Saint-Pierre may be proud of its cathedral, its theater, its banks, its cobblestone streets, and elegant stone houses with red-tiled roofs. But viewed from above, it is nothing more than a crescent of land stuck between the sea and the mountains. Mount Pelée hates Saint-Pierre, and its pretension of being The Little Paris of the West Indies. The mountain surveys all that it is about to wipe away: the Guérin sugarcane factory, the enchanting botanical garden, the bridge under which all the dirty laundry of the town is being washed, the animals, and, of course, the humans. Do they all equally deserve to die, the innocents and the scoundrels, the masters and the laborers? What is certain is that all, for one reason or another—greed, vanity, cynical political machinations, or blissful indifference—ignore the warning signs so thoughtfully offered by the volcano.
The eruption of Mount Pelée, like the sinking of the Titanic, is a real-life drama that has stirred the collective imagination, and inspired novelists and filmmakers. Daniel Picouly has family roots in Martinique, and it is now his turn to reimagine the last days of Saint-Pierre. With his characteristic baroque verve, he offers us, with Ninety Seconds, a riveting tale that plays on our human desire for miracles, and a flamboyant portrait of a lost city.
Born in France as one of thirteen children of his French Caribbean parents, Daniel Picouly is a prolific author whose books include the autobiographical Le champ de personne (Flammarion, 1995), winner of the Prix des lectrices d’Elle, and Paulette et Roger (Grasset, 2001), winner of the Prix populiste. He was awarded the 1999 Prix Renaudot for The Leopard Boy (University of Virginia Press, 2016). He has been hosting various cultural programs on French television and is also the well-known author of numerous children’s books.