From the translator’s introduction
by Daniel Hahn
The novelist Gonçalo M Tavares is, like most of us, stuck at home. He is in Portugal, from where since March 23rd he’s been writing a daily “Plague Diary”. As each piece is finished, it gets translated – sometimes overnight – into several languages for publication around the world. To date he has written (and I’ve translated) thirty-three pieces.
Gonçalo is one of the Portuguese world’s most critically acclaimed writers. José Saramago tipped him as the next Lusophone winner of the Nobel, saying “Tavares burst onto the Portuguese literary scene armed with an utterly original imagination that broke through all the traditional imaginative boundaries. This, combined with a language entirely his own, mingling bold invention and a mastery of the colloquial, means that it would be no exaggeration to say … that there is very much a before Gonçalo M Tavares and an after.”
But while he has a stellar reputation in many languages, he is as yet frustratingly underappreciated in English. So if he’s new to you, I should say, perhaps, that this writing project is not typical of Gonçalo’s work – but then, I don’t know whether any one piece of his work is typical of his work, come to that. All are extraordinary, as I think this one is.
Each entry from this diary seems to take you through a single day’s experience – stepping-stone by stepping-stone – an observation, a piece of news, a thought that gets followed down a rabbit-hole, a bit of culture consumed, a recurring, niggling worry – in a way that partly recreates the peculiarly time-adrift days so many of us are experiencing, unstructured days filled with tiny moments (another news alert, an e-mail from a friend, stop to pat the dog, time perhaps for another coffee) – but threaded together with some really subtle, almost invisible artfulness.
Today I exchanged messages with many people.
Many people of those many people are breaking.
Many people of those many people after breaking will be strong again.
But some of those many people won’t.
Those some people will break and stay broken and it will be hard to go back to square one.
There no longer is a square one.
Somebody has destroyed that possibility of starting again from scratch.
Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital and the queen recalled parents and children being separated in the Second World War.
The NBA is contemplating cancelling the season and a forest fire is increasing the radiation at Chernobyl.
Close to the Cais do Sodré, in Lisbon, I’m told that the homeless run whenever they see any person.
Because it is very unusual to see a person.
And they ask for money or food.
The dealers that sell shoddy drugs are now also chasing after customers so they can see what their product is.
They no longer whisper, they sometimes shout.
But they’ve got masks on.
An enthusiast called Philipp Klein makes a short movie in his living room, in which he pretends to climb a huge white mountain made of bedsheets.
Some private Himalayas.
In the city you can open your window, but there isn’t a chiropractor like there was in the village.
Who would put a dislocated bone, by force, back into place.
There are a lot of people opening their windows asking for a chiropractor or asking to go back to square one, but there’s nobody outside.
Square one is your parents’ house.
In all games it should be that, I guess.
One head or another is going to break internally.
There is no emergency mental orthopaedics that will be able to put certain bits of the puzzle back together.
“Russia wants to toughen its anti-doping fight”, says one of today’s news stories.
Roma is fine, but now she has a collar around her.
They call them Elizabethan collars because of the stylish ruffs they wore in the time of Elizabeth I.
Calling a transparent funnel a collar is the new-language that’s going round the animal world.
A terrible picture, a dog with a piece of plastic on her head.
She looks like a loudspeaker.
As if Roma were about to make a speech to the world.
But if she does, only Jeri, the golden retriever, will understand.
Alternatively it is a home-made machine for establishing total concentration.
I need a funnel just like it, so I don’t look away to the side.
Brazil is the “land where God walks with his feet on the ground”.
But there too they are afraid.
I don’t have a mask at home, I think about that.
If necessary, a human mask could be stolen from the heads of animals that are forbidden from licking their legs.
I am a human being, and I too should be forbidden from licking my legs.
The only thing to be done with legs is keep moving forward.
In April 2020, on April 5th.
“We will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we will meet again,” said Queen Elizabeth II, today.
For no reason at all I start analysing the structure of a telescope.
And thinking about how suddenly this piece of equipment has been abandoned in recent weeks.
You aren’t going to want to start focusing through a lens on any planet or constellation.
Tokyo records the highest number of cases in a single day and millions of Indians turned off their lights at 9 pm and went out to “windows, verandas, terraces” with candles in their hands.
Light as a thing that saves and unites, but curiously not electrical light but the light that comes from fire.
I am sorry I’m sad today.
Tomorrow will surely be another day.
I pet Roma and Jeri, companions alongside other human companions.
Again the movie “Painted Fire” by Im Kwon-Taek.
“What kind of vases do you want?” the painter asks the pottery owner.
The two men look into the kiln while the pieces bake.
The pottery owner answers:
“painters of your calibre would like the filing to hold so that the designs come to life;
the glassblowers want the glass to be spread evenly;
the pottery owners hope that out of their potteries will come one or two masterpieces.
But things don’t necessarily turn out as we wish.
We are subject to the whims of the fire.”
Many people want many different things, but it’s the fire that decides.
The fire is what we cannot control.
An advertisement on a horoscopes website:
“Escape your worries.
Have more space and security in your e-mail.”
Astronomy wants to be modern and it has become outdated in its dangers.
Morning. An announcement:
“Andrea Bocelli is giving a concert on Easter Sunday in the (empty) Milan Cathedral”
He is going to sing Bach’s “Ave Maria”. 6 pm.
Bach knew things ahead of time.
Music that clarifies – an audible horoscope.
“I went between streets and atmosphere, arriving and taking my leave”.
Between streets and atmosphere there are fearful people walking.
I see out from the window and it is strange.
“Escape your worries.
Have more space and security in your e-mail.”
On the street in front of the house people aren’t trying to escape, but they are accelerating.
You shouldn’t look up too much; the stars are not up to our eyes.
Neither up nor down.
I’m still going round and round this, looking down.
The enormous number called Googol.
And another that is even bigger.
Number 10 to the power of (10 to the power of 100) or 10 to the power of googol
Instead of counting on my fingers, I observe the aesthetics of 10 to the power of googol
It is not beautiful, but it is related to what is beautiful.
It deserves a line of its own.
10 to the power of googol
A terrible line from Canetti: “He took refuge in God. That is where he most likes to be afraid.”
Choosing the places where you prefer to be afraid.
Many people today prefer to be afraid in their homes. Others don’t.
I look at Roma and Jeri. One, looking like a mad thing, Roma; the other, Jeri, looking like someone who’s next to a mad thing.
Having a number on the wall the way you’d have a picture.
As if the number were colour or drawing
Painting the wall in 10 (to the power of) googol.
News that is encouraging, other news that isn’t, others more or less, others are.
“British prime minister Boris Johnson has been discharged and has left the hospital.”
He thanked the doctors and said: they saved my life.
Horoscope, a synthesis:
“Strong ability to externalise ideas and create new partnerships.”
Partnership for one – I say to my father, via telephone.
A pair with one fewer gives you one, he replies.
The stars are totally deranged, I think.
A sudden breakdown happening up there too.
Two pieces of news, one about astrology:
“Saturn leaves Capricorn for three months from March”.
On that site.
And two about the simple surface of things, what is happening on earth.
“India extends lockdown for unspecified time”
And “Argentina extends quarantine until April 27th”.
A line: “the smallest element of nature, a virus,” was enough to remind humanity that it is mortal and that “military power and technology” are not enough to save it.
That was what Father Raniero Cantalamessa said at the Vatican.
On the weekend they had forecast sun, which was why the Turkish government imposed compulsory isolation.
In Ankara, Istanbul: 31 cities in total.
They were afraid a lot of people would forget about the advice and go out to enjoy the heat.
What had previously been in place was a piece of advice.
Stay at home, it’s more sensible.
With sun and with Saturday comes the clear ban.
Compulsory, the staying at home.
We’ve known about them for a long time, the recommendations not to go out at moments of rough weather.
Typhoons and storms, temperatures lower than the lowest that humans can bear.
This has always positioned citizens at the window. Nothing new there.
But now, it’s the good weather that sets the alarm bells ringing.
Everybody back home, it’s going to be a lovely day.
A meteorological report that is also deranged.
Tomorrow the weather’s going to be good: please don’t leave the house.
Adélia Prado, an interview in the Globo newspaper.
“Brazilian democracy is looking like a cripple fleeing from the storm”.
Just gone 6 pm, I’m late.
Bocelli with white hair.
Live on YouTube.
The blind age differently.
Tense, determined and calm.
There is nothing about him that is anywhere else.
Or summarise even more.
(Language deserves to occupy as little space as possible.)
Nothing about him is anywhere else.
Language having good aim is a consequence of its synthesis.
Being a lot in little space.
The same with the voice coming out of a still body.
A lot with little movement.
I go onto YouTube near the end of the concert.
Bocelli is outside Milan Cathedral, a few steps and then he stops.
Outside, he sings Amazing Grace.
“I once was lost, and now am found.”
Pictures of empty cities.
Paris, London, Milan.
New York, Times Square deserted.
Just a policeman with a yellow vest walking quickly.
Was blind but now I see.
I talk to an Italian friend.
We talk about Paolo, a fourteen-year-old boy, from the south of Italy.
I ask him if he knows from what age you can start to be brave?
Ten years old?
Aged ten there are a lot of acts of bravery.
Thinking about this: from what age does bravery appear?
A baby after it’s turned one can be brave, he says.
“In New York, for today alone, the numbers of the dead have reached” . . . and the call is cut off.
Bocelli, an impeccable suit, white hair.
Only afterwards does he need to be led.
When he is singing, it is obvious that he can see.
“Sometimes he feels as if he were wearing false eyes implanted by God.”
A line from Canetti.
I imagine false eyes implanted by God starting to see things that others do not see.
In the movie Nostalghia, the crazy religious man locked his whole family up in their house because he thought the world was going to end.
They stayed locked in there for seven years.
Nobody could get them out.
The police had to break down the door.
A French scientist “claims the novel coronavirus came from a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Former colleagues of this doctor’s say that he’s been talking nonsense for a long time.
Maybe for seven years.
A lot of obsessives in 2020 aren’t going to want to leave the house long after the State of Emergency is over.
Maybe also seven years.
Imagining that the end of the world is coming and they are safe at home.
The apocalypse destroys everything, but the house is still there.
A Noah’s ark that doesn’t move from its place.
The apocalypse: an animal that eats the entire world except the house.
“Why is it only women who pray so much?” asks a character.
The number of dead is much higher for men. Statistics.
Carry out an inquiry: how many prayers are said by women.
How many by men.
The “One World: Together at Home” concert.
Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, Rolling Stones, Billie Eilish, etc 127 million dollars.
The painter David Hockney has written a public letter.
He is soon to turn 83.
He has painted on an iPad.
Geraniums in a blue that does not exist in nature.
Nor does the green.
Thinking about a painter who introduces colour into the natural world instead of doing it outside the world.
Not on canvases nor iPad: colours in nature.
A paint that lasts.
That nature absorbs and reproduces.
The painter who expands the colours of nature.
“Amazon deploys thermal cameras at warehouses to detect sick employees.”
Any temperature will be detected. And punished.
David Hockney, 19 March 2020.
He drew a bunch of daffodils.
Title: “Do remember they can’t cancel the spring”.
In today’s letter he wrote:
“The only things that matter in life are food and love, in that order, and also our little dog Ruby.”
Little dog Ruby in third place.
If they could understand, Roma and Jeri would be pleased.
I hear the line: God is in everything, everything . . . except evil.
News is reported that Bill Gates and his family “have been storing food in their basement for years in anticipation of a pandemic.”
In the United States there is an army of “preppers”: those people who prepare.
Provisions, drinking water; and guns.
I think. Two sorts of humans.
Those who prepare for the worst.
Those who prepare for the best.
And a third too: those who do not prepare.
Those who prepare to help.
Those who prepare to be able to be helped.
Those who prepare to survive.
Those who prepare to attack.
To defend. To flee.
Alert to nuclear disasters, natural catastrophes or financial collapses.
“- What has the Jew studied?
- The Bible.
- What does the Jew seek?
- Merriment.” (Babel)
New gods appear, however.
God has moved outside, he left enclosed spaces.
He’s left the house and gone out there.
That is why the devout are at the window.
Our Lady of the Windows.
In many cities, the new devout. You should see them.
Our Lady of the Windows will not be leaving the city or the century again.
Published by arrangement with literarische agentur Mertin Witt.
Read the entire diary, updated daily, here.