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Plague Diary

Editor’s note: What follows is a three-day selection from an ongoing project, one which has—in near simultaneity—been translated into several languages and published around the world. As Gonçalo M. Tavares’s English translator Daniel Hahn has remarked, the result looks “far outward as much as inward, so the diary ends up being global as well as intimate,” an accumulating and cumulative poetic form, “something weirdly engrossing, at times distressing, at times strangely comforting.”

(by arrangement with literarische agentur Mertin Witt)


14 April
Some of the elderly are going out onto the streets in an ostentatious fashion.

People are talking about a kind of crazy bravery.

An almost-suicide, a para-suicide.

Among the older people on the streets, a clarity – but with their eyes bigger than their bodies.

A greed that is unusual, dangerous. The old want to live.

“U.K. domestic abuse helplines report surge in calls.”

Crimes go up at home, go down outside.

A need for violence that transfers from the inside to outside, from the outside to inside.

India extends lockdown at home for an unspecified length of time.

And Argentina extends quarantine until April 27th.

Doing the sums: maybe overall violence in the world is a fixed variable.

If we add up the crimes, indoors and out, we always get the same results.

It’s a theory. Look into that.

Homeopathy expert assures us that “vibration stimulation improves coronavirus symptoms.”

In quarantine maintain the usual number of meals, but reduce the portion sizes.

Or: maintain the portion sizes, but reduce the meals.

In Rio de Janeiro, an elderly soldier, a general, was walking along the cycle lane with a gun in his hand.

He had interrupted his isolation at home. Maybe he couldn’t take any more of it.

He was having a breakdown, they said.

He was shouting that he wanted to talk to his children.

Later one of his children arrived and calmed him down.

Orwell: “the object was not to stay alive but to stay human.”

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in the Hitchcock movie Notorious.

A two-minute-long kiss, pursuit and mutual suspension.

One of the longest kisses in cinema.

Somebody comments on this scene:

You have three options: either you kiss me, or I kiss you, or we kiss.

A friend from Mexico tells me that the young people from the middle and upper classes are having corona parties.

18 to 20 years old.

But some of them are dying because they are obese.

Our eating has become unbalanced, she says.

We’ve been eating badly for years, she says too.

An interview from 2017 with Pope Francis.

A bad temper is not an example of sanctity, says the pope.

And he says: People ask me, “give me an example of simple everyday beauty, with which we can help others feel better and be happier.”

And the pope raises two fingers and murmurs: a smile and a sense of humour.

A smile, especially when it’s free, he adds.

“Governor of Rio de Janeiro infected.”

The number of dead in New York passes ten thousand.

Global economy going through the worst crisis since the Great Depression, I.M.F. warns.

The word problem comes from the Greek.

In Greek próvlima also means promontory.

A platform that sticks out into the sea. And also an obstacle.

Around the problem, there’s no ground, there’s no place to put your feet.

You can make a speech or shout, but you should not move.

Stay still until you come up with a solution.

The solution is having ground beneath your feet.

Not to fall as you walk.

I balance on a 15 centimetre high wall.

Jeri nods in agreement with I don’t know what, and Roma’s wound is getting better.

I then stand and wait.

Not falling is good already, these are not days for accelerations.

“I make a personal confession,” said the Pope in 2017. “Every day, after my morning prayer, I recite the prayer of the martyr Thomas More to ask for good humour.”

It starts in a way that makes you laugh, says the pope, smiling:

“Give me, oh Lord, a good digestion, But also something to digest.”

“Roger Waters gets emotional covering a song by John Prine, the musician who died of COVID-19.”

“Miss you, brother”, says Roger Waters.

Praying to God to ask for a sense of humour.

The fire near Chernobyl is under control.

China promises not to discriminate against the Africans who live in the country.

China begins clinical testing of two vaccines on humans.

“Why countries led by women seem to be responding better to the coronavirus crisis”, a news report.

Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, etc. as examples.

The repetition of I love you, I love you, is absurd—says Barthes.

But it’s not absurd, says Barthes, because language for people in love is not language, it’s a touch of the skin.

They seem to be talking, but they are touching.

These days, that is obvious.

South of Italy. Naples: really long queues of poor men.

A queue in front of a church, they are met by men protected top to bottom and dressed in white.

They hand each one a bag of food.

The church in difficult times stops being a building and moves outside.

It increases in length, breadth and height.

I like these lines from Nicanor:

“17 subversive elements

were surprised yesterday

near the outside of La Moneda

transporting oranges”.

May the day give us good digestion, but also something to digest.


15 April

Things are a bit hard here, writes a friend. Everything’s scattered, between the goings-on outside, the pots and pans, the writing, the neighbour’s building-works and motherhood. Fascination gets all muddled. For that reason I thought it best not to shave my eyebrows. I really want to go out on the bike, but even that takes courage.

France records more than 1438 deaths and African Americans are scared of using masks because the police might mistake them for muggers, and shoot.

Editorial report with recommendations for journalists, Brazil (extract):

“Focus on conveying information, not analysis.

Take care with the headlines that you give to your news stories.

Remember: not all numbers are exact.

Talk to as many people as you can.

Avoid racist tones.

Do not neglect those reports that are not moving.”

Sunny today and then rain and then sun and then rain and then sun.

It is hard to know what comes before or after.

I put on a presentable shirt to watch the news.

A chart with numbers, some living, others dead.

Others almost in the field of the resuscitated.

Statistics are often the model for what is not moving.

But not these days.

Take care with the headlines that you give to your news stories.

And again: not neglecting what is not moving.

“Luxury hotels share recipes for making at home.”

“From the Dar El Sadaka hotel, in Morocco, you can learn to make an orange salad with fennel seeds.”

We are fed up with procedures, I’m told.

Six steps to putting on a mask.

Five to keep in shape as if a shape were the shape of a precious jug that mustn’t be broken.

And when we return home after going out: seven steps until you wash your hands.

And washing your hands also has five, six or seven steps.

And if you miss one, you die or kill.

Nine steps too for making “chef’s cataplana of fish and shellfish . . .” at home

1. Julienne-cut the onions and the peppers and dice the cloves of garlic.

2. In the cataplana, sauté the ham in oil, add the onion, the garlic and the peppers, the chillis and . . .”

There are nine steps, by the fifth I’m already crying, someone murmurs.

In Colombia, “erotic webcam models have been reinventing their business in the face of a boom in demand”.

They’re getting more and more psychological, they say.

Rebecca from Medellin says she’s been much more sought-after these days.

As if it were a miracle.

She undresses “in front of the camera for web users in the United States, France and England, three countries severely hit by this illness.”

In a video from another country, a father plays guitar badly and the baby is happy.

The worse he plays the more the baby laughs.

Again the prayer from Thomas the martyr.

In addition to asking for good humour, digestion and something to digest, he prays:

“Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called ‘I’.”

I remember this piece of news.

In Vigo, an elderly couple with Alzheimer’s.

He is German, she Spanish.

He’s forgotten his Spanish.

And now they don’t understand each other.

They are left just with the first of their languages.

One talks, the other can’t understand.

But they are still together.

There must be something they can understand.

He at night-time plays a harmonica at the window while at the other windows, at an agreed time, people applaud the country’s doctors.

He thinks the applause is for him.

And she, well I don’t know what she understands.

Three pieces of news and an ad in more or less the same visual space:

“The domino effect: the story of the nurse, her husband and their 11 children, all with coronavirus.”

I.M.F. forgives six months of debt service to 25 of the poorest states.

Ukrainian president offers 1 million dollars to whoever develops a vaccine.

And an ad for a new car. It does I don’t know how many seconds to sixty.

And right after that, two messages in a row from the same person:

[15/04, 7:03 p.m.] I just saw online, on John Oliver’s programme, that Amazon workers are having to keep working without any protection and that all essential goods are out of stock. They feel disgusted at having to work to send dildos and things like that.

[15/04, 7:04 p.m.] The only person I’m sharing this house with is turning into an ogre.

Things are getting tough.

“We regret the decision of the president of the United States to order a halt in funding to the World Health Organisation” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Some are saying it is a rebellion of nature.

We thought it was all ours, but it’s not.

Karl Kraus: “it is not only machines that exist, but also storms”.

We forgot the storms.


16 April

Caligula was a bloodthirsty emperor.

But he would lie in bed afraid at the sound of thunder.

When he kissed one of his lovers, he used to joke: “I need only give the command and this lovely head of yours would be cut off.” (D.)

“He declared himself Jupiter” and ordered that the statues of the gods be decapitated and his own head put in their place.

He wanted to be master of the sky too.

He ordered a machine to be built that imitated the rumble of the lightning.

And that he was not afraid of.

Caligula often had insomnia.

At night he would walk up and down through his palace “shouting demands that the day appear.”

The reason is not the same.

But today there are many who also cannot sleep.

And in the middle of the night, at two in the morning, they shout demands that the day begin.

But it has not begun.


(In memoriam: Rubem Fonseca, Luis Sepúlveda, and Maria de Sousa)


Gonçalo M. Tavares is one of Europe’s most translated and awarded European writers, published in over 50 countries. Among his recent works published in English translation are Jerusalém and Learning to Pray in the Age of Techniqueboth with Dalkey ArchiveOther excerpts from his Plague Diary project can be found at, and Words Without Borders.

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor, and translator with sixty-something books to his name. His work has won him the International Dublin Literary Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the Blue Peter Book Award and been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, among others. His most recent book is a translation of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me. An updated list of his Tavares Plague Diary translation can be found here.

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