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from the October 2009 issue

From “The Burning of the Chiado”

It goes quickly. Lisbon burns. The Frenchman has followed the fire's progress since morning. He was sleeping in his pension, Rua do Ouro. A roar outside, he pulled the curtains back. It should've been day out already, a summer's day, and not this gray fog, almost blue, August 25, 1988. Through the bluish gray, from the far side of the street, he made out reds, yellows, the back of the Grandella department store. The colors swiftly climbed the floors, an old store, wood paneling, stacks of cloth and linens, it goes quickly.

He found himself in the street: cries, sirens, unrest. A violent wind drives the fire, stirs men up. To inhale is to suffer: face north and the wind snatches your breath away; turn around, gasping for air, the smoke beaten back, and you choke even harder.

The Frenchman is there—he should go—but he stays. The pressure of the crowd forces him forward, ever closer to the heat. To think he'd landed an interview at the café A Brasileira, his first serious lead, the very moment he was ready to give up, to leave Lisbon. And this fire had to start. Utter pandemonium, Rua do Carmo: a ped mall without emergency access, the trucks of the Sapadores de Lisboa packed one behind the next, the firemen finding no hydrants. The fire flees them, spreading on the wind, one street after another. The Baixa is affected, the Chiado swallowed whole. Lisbon burns: flames of six or seven stories, pillars of smoke joined on high to form an oily cloud weighing down the day, pouring forth a suspension of dust and ash.

Exhausted, poisoned by fumes, lungs burned, airways blocked, firemen are evacuated. Then a collective cry, the Frenchman drawn by a rumor stronger than the sirens: a civilian casualty, the first to be found. Yet hardly anyone lives in this neighborhood. Offices on every floor and stores below, it's true, but there are people in the garrets. An entire impoverished world: the elderly, mostly, stowed away by the hundreds under tiled roofs.

Just like that, they're seen emerging through the smoke, wandering, limping right by the flames. They shake their heads, dazed; they stop, anaesthetized by the heat. Shouts ring out for them: this way, this way. They don't seem to understand; they seem frightened. The police gather them, comfort them. Even those whose buildings are intact receive orders to evacuate. You'll sleep in a shelter tonight. There are buses at the ready; there are cots in city elementary schools and borough halls.

They are two hundred, three hundred, five hundred, heads lowered, kept away from onlookers. They can't bear the heat anymore, the blur, the constant wind that wears at their nerves as yet again they're asked their names, addresses. The buses have a hard time making headway. Unrest is winning out, exasperation from waiting, fear, where are you taking us?

In one of the lines formed before the buses, right as they're giving the order to board, a man starts waving his hands, threatening to break everything: you don't have the right to chase us from our homes. Your schools—look at us! Do we look school age to you? And when will we be allowed back? I'll tell you when: never. There's no coming back, you can kiss your furniture good-bye. They'll loot everything. Don't go down without a fight! I won't get in your damn bus!

The inferno's roar seems muffled; there's nothing but his voice. Men surround him. Still forceful at seventy, a maniac, he menaces those who draw near, a void around him.

The man I was supposed to meet was probably his age, thinks the Frenchman. I should be so lucky, coming across him just like that . . . Most of the evacuees are of the same generation. Why him, and not someone else? He's got guts. If you're going to do an interview, might as well be with a diehard. If it is him, he won't be around for long: he's gotten on the crowd's bad side, they're letting him have it, maniac who'd rather die than give in. An opening behind him, a poorly mounted barricade, he heads straight for the buildings in flames. A photographer holds his Canon over his head, shooting blind. If the old guy dies strung up or burnt to a crisp, he'll be the last to have him living, on film.

He's already cleared the mounds of rubble, the heaps of charred beams. Call out after him, go and find him, he's crazy. He's shrouded in a cloud of powder stirred up by the wind; he grazes flames. The street lets loose a cry. He's going to wind up a human torch. His clothes are already on fire . . . Some see his legs give way, others think he's fallen to the ground, choking on fumes. The photographer focuses his telephoto lens: he's not the one people see burning. He's made it through the smoke, he's hit the open sea, he's reached the far shore already, look at that! But who'll bring him back? You can't strong-arm him. He'll be back in five, you'll see. C'mon, into the buses, we'll take care of everything else.

The Frenchman feels an upheaval inside, a blend of energy and panic, the desire to cross over himself. Nothing to lose. He needed an answer from Lisbon, and Lisbon is burning. So he might just have a chance of finding his answer over there, where the flames are hottest.

He slips toward the gaping barricade. A public safety officer grows concerned. Tudo bem? Tudo bem? Play it cool, tudo bem, stay calm. He gabbles in Franco-Portuguese that he knows the old man, the one who broke through. He offers to bring him back, fifteen minutes tops.

Too risky. Leave it to the professionals. Stay out of it.

I get where you're coming from, but what about friendship? Friendship. Friendship, of course.

Let me over there. With all these people, trucks, buses, no one'll notice. I've got 1000 escudos in my right hand, take them, 2000 if you want.

Twenty if a day, this boy officer, thoughts racing in his head: follow the wall, bearing left, it's been extinguished there, but watch out, it's smoldering. The Frenchman soon finds himself in a block of buildings collapsed but for their façades, smoke still rising behind them. Heady, feeling drawn toward the Chiado. He slips on rubble soaked by the fire hoses, borne along as if down a funnel, unstoppable.

The only one who's noticed his little ruse is the photographer. He aimed his telephoto lens: the bills changing hands, getting past the barricades. This gets under his skin. That's a photographer's place, isn't it? He should be closest to the fire if he wants a good shot. But things take an unhealthy turn on this street: the boy officer gets spotted. Maybe farther up, along Largo do Carmo or Calçada do Sacramento. . . Things look quiet up that way, no maniacs trying to throw themselves into the fire.

Say, can I take ten steps into the street? Just ten, for the Diário de Notícias . . . The angle's all wrong here. Ten steps would change everything, that's what photography's all about . . . danger? C'mon, you'll read the paper tomorrow, and when you see the photos you'll be able to say, that was all thanks to me. Ten steps. I swear.

Ten steps, not twenty, or fifty, hey come back, you can't—Damn journalists! It's like they love disasters.

Now it's a woman's turn, a troublemaker: have you seen my daughter?

You don't think we might have something else to do besides look for your daughter?

Have you seen her? My daughter?

Sure—sure, we saw her, she's out taking a walk like everyone else, in the middle of those burning buildings over there. He's had it with these people.

She crosses the perimeter, they're about to grab her arm, but a big guy in a blue suit shouts at the officers, long sentences, they listen. She takes advantage of the distraction. She's already beyond their reach.


The man's not running anymore, blood pounds at his temples, pouring sweat, a dizzy spell, blackness.

He comes back to his senses, not totally, a halfway state of consciousness: he wants to be able to say everything's normal. Temperature too high? Normal, it's a hot time of year, August 25, a dry time. A thick, dark gray cloud hiding the sun? We'll get a storm; nothing unusual about that on August 25. In front of his building, Rua Nova do Almada, everything's fine, the barest shadow on the façade, soot black more pronounced than usual; negligible, after two centuries without a cleaning. Across the street, at number 90, five stories are missing, and the Livraria Chiado's last books go up in a fine yellowish pillar. No point in trying to hide from the truth; he knows quite well what's happened, and his legs won't stop trembling.

He spots a man running into his street, further down. So they've decided to pursue him. Sad to have escaped for nothing. He won't let them take him. Just one man? Wait and risk confrontation? Or take shelter instead, go upstairs and home, barricade himself in, hold out. He leaps into action. The wooden stairs have been damaged, no more banister, one whole side blackened. On the second floor, the banister survives.

He hears steps in the rubble on the street, can tell the man is struggling to keep on, it doesn't keep him from getting closer. He doesn't want to find himself trapped on the last floor, with no way out but emptiness. He can't manage to calm down.

The door's still there; he locks himself in his apartment. No one will force their way in: that's illegal, he knows the rules. You can't force a free man to let himself be evacuated. He listens, all he hears is his heart racing. The other man must've given up, bunch of cowards all of them, how well he knows them. He beat them, in the end.

He sticks his head out the window, has to close his eyes, the dizziness, his eardrums, his temples; the smell of smoke especially, sickening, and Lisbon at his feet like a crypt. Firemen have surrounded the neighborhood; they spray all around, they undercut, they empty the tanker trucks. But inside the barricade—they leave that alone, and the fire winds up devouring everything.

He's the last to remain. He doesn't feel right deserting his city, even amidst desolation. He keeps watch; it's his profession. Where's his cap, anyway? Nothing's burned up in the room but his cap? At night he sets it down, well brushed, right over there, on his chair. Under the bed? The table? Think. You must've grabbed it this morning when you had to evacuate the Chiado. In front of the bus, was it on my head or in my hand or didn't I have it at all? My hat, trimmed with gold braid.

He goes back to the window. What's that crackling from the street? He leans over: a balcony has torn loose and is swinging, one of the countless wrought iron balconies on historic façades. A screech of twisted metal, a six-story fall, enough to make him dizzy, forty years of his life wrecked just like that.

He gets a hold of himself, but a figure moving below, the running man, emerges from the building and looks up. The face on high pulls back, disappearing in the half-light of dust and ash.

But the voice rises, won't let go: senhor, senhor, with a funny accent. No way will he reply. If only he had his trimmed cap . . . it impressed people. He won't show himself till he finds it. The man below will soon lose heart . . . . The old man slips to one side, a bit too far. The man's still calling him.

Senhor, senhor, don't be afraid, we're the same, you and I. Como você, todos os dois . . . he speaks as best he can. Estranho, não, sim, estrangeiro, estrangeiro, estranho . . .

Clever ones like him, the watchman knows their type, freeloaders and line jumpers. No one's getting in on his watch. If the foreigner wasn't sent by the police, then he's a looter.

Are you going to wait till the building collapses?

His voice is buried by the din of another cave-in. The city is fragile, giving way. And with all those holes for drafts, the wind whistles through on every floor, making a mess of things. More crumbling, whole sections of wall, Lisbon slips away, borne on the wind or sucked down into the depths. How to be anything but afraid? Why come into this barricaded quarter? He doesn't know anything anymore. It's all fogged up in his head, and a thief who'll stop at nothing is trying to get his attention down below in order to rob him, to empty his apartment and the entire city.

Look, the Frenchman says, I'm not trying to hurt you. I need your help, actually. I followed you on impulse, and now I'm lost. I thought I knew Lisbon, but with all these fallen buildings, I can't put names to streets anymore. And now I'm worried. I shouldn't have done it. You can help me. If you don't want me up there, come down.

An arm appears in the window gap. The old man is throwing things, rocks, bottles; ladrão, ladrão, he shouts. The Frenchman almost gets hit in the head with glass; bastard's got good aim, he won't go down without a fight. He wouldn't have minded interviewing him. But not right now, things aren't going well.


The hail of objects forces the Frenchman back. He'll come around again to make sure this isn't the guy he's looking for. That would be just his luck, to be this close. But unlikely: it was a stupid idea to dash headlong into this ruined city. It's not complicated: head straight back up the street and you'll run into the police, a guaranteed welcome, a miraculous survivor. They'll pat you all over to make sure you're not hurt. It'd be so easy.

Except that, as he heads back down the Rua do Carmo, he realizes he doesn't feel like leaving. Inexplicable as his desire to come in.

It's raining dust and ash, gray flakes, particles. His nose, his throat, he could die choking, it's oppressive and thrilling all at once. The fall of suspended detritus intensifies. Soon true night will join this eruption's gloom. Streaks of embers gutter out in the middle of the Rua do Carmo, debris escaped from windows and storefronts. It's hard getting around: low walls everywhere, newspaper and lotto stands, a whole circuitous trail. He'll have to stop, spend the night on one of the benches lying across the street, sheltering by a charred shrub, in the wind.

On the theatre posters, affixed one after the next, red, barely touched by the flames, the title of the play: Emfim sós! Emfim sós! Alone at last! As though the disaster had been foretold. Does sós really mean alone? It wouldn't be, say, SOS? Help? Help, I'm all alone? He's been alone a while now, in Lisbon and elsewhere too. He lies down on the rounded slats of a bench covered in ash, protected by its seat back, invisible to onlookers or rescue workers at the end of the street. He's panting, he can't catch his breath, even at rest. He closes his eyes, breathes deeply; he'd like to master his own body, it's no use.

A pang in his right eardrum, almost nothing, like a quick fingersnap: the telltale sign of another fire starting? This close? No, nothing bright around. It starts again, above the wall, by the shrub. He has just enough time to catch a round reflection and the sound of a shutter: a camera lens. The police fear looting; they're tracking suspects. The photographic evidence falls on him.

His limbs suddenly stiff, his head empty, his breath getting away from him, he sits on the edge of the bench, feeling its support, ready to run. He no longer sees a thing. A voice comes from the half-wall: press. The photographer looks around, hands up, waving his camera over his head, it's okay, harmless.

A man lying on a bench, maybe dead, in a burning city; tempting, you have to admit. Best story I ever had. But you got up a bit too fast.

I'm not here to make the front page.

The photographer replies in French. Humiliating, trying to speak a foreign language. French it is then, and good French too.

I'm not into the sensational. I'm a witness, that's all. Besides I already got a shot of you, from when you were trying to get through the barricades. I got you buying your way in.

The Frenchman wonders how to take this photographer. He should grab his camera and expose the film. But the other man tries to calm him down, taking care to speak French.

You almost have no accent.

My wife's French, so . . . Don't be afraid. Lost French tourist?

I'm not a tourist.

Do you live here?


Then you're a tourist.

He doesn't know what he really is anymore. All he knows is that he came into the barricaded neighborhood to follow an old man.

The one who wouldn't get in the bus? He interested me too. More than you. The only one to put up a fight, the local who hung on to his neighborhood. Did you find him?

Our old man's holed up in his one-bedroom. His building's about to fall down, he doesn't even know it. He almost killed me. He thinks I'm a thief.

You're not?

No more than you.

Show me where he lives.

Eduardo and the Frenchman reach the foot of the building on the Rua Nova o Almada, they call out, raise their voices over the wind, threaten to climb up. Finally the old man shows up at the window to bawl them out, not so loud, you're making too much noise. Who's the new guy? What's that in his hand?

See for yourself.

There's nothing left to take a picture of around here, everything's fallen down.


Exactly what?

If you don't want your picture taken, says Eduardo, I respect that.

I know you photographer types. You're all thieves.

Look, we're kind of hungry, you must have some food stashed away, right?

None for you.

We'll climb up and go through your cupboards. I'm sure they're full to bursting.

He sees himself robbed already, murdered. How can he fight off two young men?

It's all burned up, you won't find anything.

Exactly. We're coming up to help you clean.

I don't need help. Wait, I'll throw you a few slices of dried ham.

From up there? If you don't want us stealing the rest, you better come down with your ham instead.

He grabs his pointiest knife, slips it up his sleeve. If only he'd found his cap.

He shouldn't go down, but he's even more afraid of them coming up. Down below, he hands them cuts of dark red ham with his arm extended, telling them to stay back. He protects his stairwell: no one better set a foot on that first step. They watch him from a distance and wolf down the bits of raw, oversalted flesh.

All that salt makes a man thirsty. Got anything to drink up there?

The water's off, or the pipes didn't hold, the city's a disaster area, don't get your hopes up.

If you don't have any water, says the Frenchman, you've got wine or beer at least. I bet you've got some Sagres socked away, or Super Bock . . .

You'd drink my Super Bock?

He spoke without thinking.

Just give us one, and we could reach an agreement. We won't ask you for anything else, we promise.

Promises are cheap these days. But it's true—that dust settling in your chest, your whole body drying out, the wind stiff as ever, no one'd last another three hours. He brings them down two cans, if they swear to leave right after.

He retreats backwards up the steps. The knife blade almost slips from his sleeve, he catches it just in time.

Eduardo and the Frenchman linger a moment with their thirst, worse than ever since they thought to slake it. And if they went upstairs? Given the state of the building, his door wouldn't keep them out long.

The screech of rent metal starts up again, in several stages, a prolonged tearing apart. Quick, to the middle of the street. It's no balcony, it's coming from inside: a rumble of massed debris in the stairwell, all the way down to the ground floor, or rather the landing of the second. The banister's left hanging, the stairs too, the steps sagging just where they turn, the old man seated a bit lower down, frozen, waiting for the walls to fall on his head.

It's their fault, they made him go up and down the weakening stairs. The fool wants to go back up. The stairs are impassable. Suddenly he realizes he's condemned to stay down here, his panic visible, animal. The other two feel bad for him.

Calm down. We won't hurt you. And look, this way your things are safe up there. No looter would dare venture up those fallen stairs.

Sure, but what about his stores? And his Super Bock? The only intact bottle rolled into the rubble. They throw themselves on it, savages. They pass the bottle around. It settles them some, but they still have the hardest time breathing normally. A roar from above, a gust, they flatten themselves on the ground. They regroup under the stairs, sick to their stomachs, truly afraid. A surveillance helicopter: if the pilot's spotted them, they don't have a chance. They stay that way for a long moment, together, paralyzed.

Read more from the October 2009 issue
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