Three days from a week of Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares’s coronavirus diary.

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.

27 March

I raise my heels, then the tips of my toes.

A Grêmio-Flamengo football match.

‘Stop living with joint pain’; teleshopping on television.

I press a button.

The Pope’s prayer for humanity, Channel 1.

Vatican square empty.

The Pope talking to a huge empty space.

I hear people in many houses kneeling down.

There are things that you can hear at some times and not at others.

Nowadays you can hear everything.

Even the noise of someone bending down many kilometres away.

The bells ring out in St Peter’s Basilica.

The art of bellringing, an art of the hands, of controlling the strength.

Bells that do refuse to be played by mechanisms.

Bells of a human metal.

But these days it has sometimes been the machines that have remained at their post, fulfilling their duty, without fear.

Sometimes we need to pay tribute to the machines.

They stay.

Somebody said to me there was nobody to ring the bells.

Only the machines.

Auden: ‘[…]they are and suffer; that is all they do’.

He wasn’t talking about the machines.

Cartoons, Channel 2.

On the evening shows: What do you think of all this? somebody asks somebody.

I don’t know what they were talking about, but one of them replies and the other hears.

Information channels: one, two, three, four, five. I stop counting.

Bergamo, a city hit terribly hard.

Help us, says the director of a hospital in Bergamo.

A thirteen-year-old girl dies in France.

The French luxury perfume industry is producing protective alcohol.

There is no better smell than the smell of a human being who’s alive.

Four nurses raise up a body at the hospital door and transport it resting on their shoulders – a sick man, he’s alive.

In the United States, there are thousands and thousands of people infected.

Lorry drivers making their way across a deserted Europe.

A programme about dogs who can’t go to any home because they don’t yet have the papers they need to be adopted.

Dogs with mental problems, a lack of company.

Dogs with elbow fractures, x-rays of dogs’ legs.

After we’ve seen so many x-rays of lungs it feels strange seeing x-rays of dogs’ legs, or people’s legs.

These days, it feels like the human body only has lungs.

We are startled by the presence of the rest of the body.

It’s like an invasion. An insult.

TV, next channel down.

A programme called Love Island, in which men and women covered in tattoos and in swimsuits pretend to look after a child who is actually only a doll.

The doll, which imitates a baby, cries and I believe that each muscular couple is given points for how they treat it.

Covid-19, doubts on a channel: how to bathe and at the same time keep a distance from somebody who is infected and who is unable to move.

50 elderly people go from a home to a hotel.

Here comes Everton, let’s see what he does. The Grêmio-Flamengo commentary.

A pre-recorded game playing on a channel.

I didn’t see what Everton did.

I get up to go fetch an apple.

A knife, an apple, a black aura around.

We need to eat.

A girl, in Italy, blows on an apple as if she were blowing out the candles on a cake, she blows to put the virus to flight.

There’s a ritual.

Eating an apple becomes symbolically a birthday.

Birthdays become daily.

Auden: ‘Here war is simple like a monument’.

A friend sends me a text. He asks after my angel, my cloth angel.

I answer that I haven’t seen him in days. That I have lost sight of him.


1 April

Almost all the shops have closed, except for food, pharmacies and other essential goods.

State of emergency.

In some countries, flower shops open.

Emergencies need flowers.

But nothing at all to do with beauty: the flowers are for the dead.

Those who no longer see or smell.

The dead can no longer be infected by the love of the living, someone says.

Don’t forget beauty, not ever – another friend says, with his beard a wreck, his shirt crooked.

Flowers at funerals are not aesthetic, but useful.

They are not pretty; they are working.

I am a human, said the signs some black people in the 1960s carried around their necks.

Imagining thousands of people on the streets with that sign in 2020.

I am a human.

‘U.S.A. hits a new record for fatalities. The dead exceed those caused by September 11th.’

From the other side of the window, I am told that a neighbour is holding onto a Bible or the Bible is holding onto the neighbour.

Because he says, this neighbour, talking to the Bible: I’m in your hands!

Sometimes he reads aloud.

‘Jerusalem, be of good heart. He who gave thee that name will comfort thee.’

‘Children who have suffered ill-treatment will no longer receive routine visits from social services.’

‘The risk of flight or abuse increases in foster homes.’

‘Car purchases down more than 50% in March.’

A synthesis for expressing death: jobs are over.

‘The passion for consumer objects has to be replaced by a passion for common affairs.’

Cornelius Castoriadis, old interview.

Common affairs.

For the first time, on the map of the world: from bottom to top, from left to right, common affairs.

Information as an object of the hungry.

An anxious consumption. How many dead?

What to do?

Careful with your feet, with your shoes, with your trousers, with your shirt, with your skirt, with your clothes, with your socks, with your gloves, with your hands, with your mouth, with your eyes and your hair.

A crocodile can go many months without eating.

‘Russia has sent a medical shipment to the United States.’

Suddenly, an awareness of your hands.

They’ve existed much more the last few weeks.

We are all artisans.

Taking care with your hands touching things.

An artisan faced with vegetables: wash them, disinfect them.

Attention aimed at things.

Each thing is shining, sometimes with a shine that is dangerous.

Everything is existing more strongly.

Food and objects.

Hygiene in relation to things and to one’s own body.

The body turned sacred once again.

That which must be protected.

I have a collection I call the city of the world.

Miniatures of houses and buildings from different cities.

It’s all packed away.

Imagining it might be possible to pack up the world, like when moving house.

Put it away into storage.

For many people, the outside is put away into storage.

Line from a poem: ‘I await God gluttonously’.

Rimbaud and syphilis around him.

Illnesses change their names. Maybe it’s a disguise.

A friend from Spain, a translator, tells me he has a friend in intensive case.

He’s 51 years old with no associated illness.

The speeches, putting your hands over your ears.

‘Some spirits are such fast trains that we don’t have time to see they’re empty.’

We must make the train stop.

With a sock in her mouth, here’s Roma.

Shepherd of lost objects.

Jeri sees, in wonder, that same thing she saw five minutes ago, in wonder.

She is fascinated by the shadows.

I pull my jacket tighter; it’s raining too hard.

Sometimes even the surrounded army is glad not to be able to go out.

Learning to lose, one day then the next.


3 April

Boris Johnson tells everybody to stay home this weekend.

Even if the weather’s nice and everyone’s going crazy, best to stay home, says Boris Johnson.

Please, please, he repeats.

In Brazil, some masks are being distributed with lines of poetry.

A kind of resistance, they say.

One of them has the words: ‘I believe in the world like a daisy’, and the initials: F.P. (Pessoa).

I remember initials on the grandchildren’s bedsheets embroidered with trembling hands by their grandmothers.

It was a custom in the villages.

An initial that said simultaneously: affection and ownership.

But I think the correct line is: ‘I believe in the world as in a daisy’.

Small differences.

The grandmother who sewed the words onto the mask added a nice typo.

All mistakes by grandparents will be forgiven.

Flower, grasses, tree.

It’s an interesting idea, having a belief the way a tree does.

I believe in trees – or I believe like trees.

Trees don’t grumble, and they don’t rationalise.

Believing like a tree does seem a possibility.

In the Washington Post and in Estadão, the newspaper of the State of São Paulo: aerial picture of the largest cemetery in Latin America.

In this cemetery, Vila Formosa in São Paulo, they are already preparing hundreds of graves the right size for a human being.

They have taken on 250 gravediggers.

Seen from above it looks like an agricultural field for the strangest fruits in the world. The least wanted.

At a certain distance, not too close, as if they could still be contagious.

Graves the shape in which a body is finally arranged.

I think about the shape-game for twelve-month-old children.

Slot the cube into the empty space that corresponds to the shape of the cube.

Slot the sphere into the empty space corresponding to the sphere.

The parallelepiped in the empty space corresponding to that shape.

From two and a half onwards, babies start doing this with ease.

But, seen from above, the preparing of the cemetery in São Paulo looks like an adult game too much to be borne.

There is no greater weight than the weight of a dead body, Heidegger once wrote.

I am imagining the weight that the gravediggers have carried already.

Washington Post: the picture.

A space is opened up for the shape of the human body to be slotted in.

All games have been suspended.

There is nothing else but seriousness – in this empty shape waiting for the respective filling.

Vila Formosa is 763,000 square metres in size.

763,175 m2.

I remember the artist Rachel Whiteread.

She fills the interior voids of space with concrete.

She filled the inside of the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna with concrete.

We cannot go inside; we can only stay out here.

We cannot have the experience of being in there.

The opposite of the plague days.

Now, outside is occupied by an invisible concrete that doesn’t allow us out.

I click on a link that shows Rachel’s Vienna Memorial among the city’s great attractions.

They are talking about the duration of a tour that includes a visit (to its outside) etc. etc.

What should you wear to visit a place you can’t go in to? I don’t know.

Dialogue from a character in a movie:

‘It is said that the plum blossom must not sell its scent.’

A Korean movie.

I wrote the line in my squared notebook.

Queen Elizabeth II is speaking to the country next Sunday, from Buckingham Palace.

She is 93 years old.

In an interview, Amyr Klink says he prefers sharks to boredom.

I’m going to find out who Amyr Klink is.

The internet isn’t working, I try and try again, and then forget about it.

We must continue working at belief.

Getting up early to have time to work at belief.

Translated by Daniel Hahn.

Published by arrangement with Literarische Agentur Mertin Witt. This text, by Gonçalo M. Tavares, was originally published in Portuguese in the Expresso. All rights reserved by the author and translator, Daniel Hahn.

Gonçalo M. Tavares was born in Luanda in 1970 and teaches Theory of Science in Lisbon. He published his first book in 2001. Until today, translations in 50 countries have been authorised. Tavares’ work has received literary awards in several genres, among them the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger 2010, which has so far been given to authors like Robert Musil, Philip Roth, Gabriel García Márquez, and Elias Canetti, the Prix Littéraire Européen 2011, and the Prémio Portugal Telecom in 2007 and 2011. Other awards are: The Saramago Prize, the SPA Author’s Prize, and the Grand Prix of Romance and Novel of the Portuguese Writers’ Association APE.

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator with sixty-something books to his name. His translations include six novels by José Eduardo Agualusa, with whom he has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. He is on the board of English PEN.

Photo credit: Joana Caiano.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s