The number of cases in Portugal is as high as 1035, and we are still in the middle of the day. If this is our darkest hour, nonetheless, the day seems surprisingly quiet. It's been a rainy weather since yesterday, I'm not sure if it makes any difference to the virus; now the sun gets back. There are few people in the street, but they seem to enjoy the sun. The cars still go up and down, and the busses, and the bombeiros, sometimes putting their sirens on, but usually in silence. Anyway, they have the road mostly to themselves.
Yesterday I bought a notebook in the Pakistani shop downstairs (still open, immigrant shop is always open; it would be a sign of the end of Europe if it were closed), with the firm intent of learning a language, any language, Dutch, Arabic, whatever. But my brain feels like cotton inside my skull. It's mostly "Gazeta Wyborcza" that puts me in this state, offering daily updates of the chronicle of our demise. Over and over again, they menace the members of the government with prison sentences to come. The situation brings to my mind that old Spanish joke, tasting so bitter now: Canta, puta, canta, que te queda poca vida. Meanwhile, the utter political collapse is closer than ever; apparently, I am the only person to see it, among a chorus of voices repeating solemnly Canta, puta, canta like some sort of healing incantation. But it heals nothing at all, of course. Hungary is done already; they gave up to dictatorship with barely 500 cases and 16 dead; it will stay on the pages of History as Velvet Epidemic.
This is why I bought this notebook to learn Dutch. I still have my KLM ticket to Amsterdam, on 2nd May. I need to make order in my life, step by step. Find a place to stay, anything to do. Paris-Seine apparently still considers hiring me for their excellence program in October, but be that as it may, my affairs in the Netherlands must be clarified and preserved. I must acquire a citizenship. Auf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke stehen. Be on the right side of History.
PS. Later in the afternoon, the tonality of the articles in "Gazeta Wyborcza" suddenly changed, providing the readers with complete scenarios of the authoritarian takeover of Poland, to come true over the next six weeks or so. No one can say we did not see it coming.
They seem to have lost appetite. The supermarket is full of food, but very few people come to buy it. For sure they eat from the abundant provisions already accumulated in every home. It would be hard to take us by hunger, at least here in western Europe. I eat my grão-de-bico one by one, stabbing the grains with the tip of the Swiss knife I brought from Ukraine, an old gesture inherited from by-gone wars that I had learned from old males in my remote childhood.
I believe the situation is stabilising, although stabilising on a level that... that what? That is much lower than the worse scenario. If we see a true Apocalypse, like on the movies, it will be in the United States, not here.
Lisbon keeps up its brandos costumes, nothing like highly restrictive measures. People stayed at home, I suppose, because they got an excuse to do so, and gladly spend their time in the company of their smartphones. The Nepalis here where I stay unanimously decided to quarantine their days under their colourful Asiatic blankets, as if they all had a strong infection already. Only in the evenings they seem to recover to intone scraps of old songs that will stay in my mind as a symbol of this emergency.
Confronted with a catastrophe, we all return to old songs, old gestures, ancestral behaviours, magic practices that will effectively grant our survival. At least in terms of our mental health. Incense burns on the tiny domestic altar that accumulates a figurine of Buddha and a plastic miniature of St. Peter's Square. Myself, although it has never been my religion, murmur over and over again the Gayatri mantra: oṃṃṃṃṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ suvaḥ... tat savitur vareṇyaṃ... bhargo devasya dhīmahi... dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt, just for sheer antiquity of the sound sequence, with a greater proficiency of the ṃ that I might ever expect, taking into the account the usual state of my nasal tract and my limited linguistic talents. The sun over Lisbon is bright, the sky intensely blue; let's contemplate its purity, let's celebrate the great Breath of the earth.
I do change my outlook on culture under these circumstances. I do see how these obsolete contents, that I used to consider as parasites of our minds, actually help us to navigate across the strait.
Overall, nothing happened. The missiles over Riyadh had been neutralised once again before they hit the ground.
"Za to u nas to koronawirus ugina się pod złowieszczym ciężarem Polski" - an expression found in a reader's comment in the electronic edition of "Gazeta Wyborcza".
Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ suvaḥ...
It starts to be difficult. In fact, it is since a couple of days that I have great difficulties in concentrating. I try to read the only book I brought, Olga Tokarczuk Flights, but I just cannot understand its content. I struggle through obscure, meaningless sentences, and the only sense I get is the impression of a stifling atmosphere of all her travels. Is it true that the book simply misses a larger breath?
I wish I could write. Writing is the only thing that kept me upright these days, although I'm not sure if I went such a long path in it. I wrote only a bit, at the beginning, before the habit of constantly refreshing the tables with numbers of deaths and new cases took over.
I need a discipline. It's sad to see what the Zauberberg made of me in only ten days. It's hard to believe that it was only the last Monday that I came up to Entrecampos, enthusiast and expectant, only to see that the National Library had been closed. I tried to write a chapter for a publication projected in Silesia. A peer-review of my last paper in Polish came, but I was strangely stressed even to read it. Everything crumbles into dust. And I try to close my eyes, imagine myself in Leiden, in Oxford, in my future home and library, among new books, not yet written. Old Arabic poetry in sumptuous editions, insightful essays, travel books, but not like that one of Olga Tokarczuk. Describing Syrian journeys not before, but after the war, climatic strolls through Damascus, shadows and patches of light under quince trees. Ruins, paintings, theological treaties, glass tesserae of mosaics, glittering with golden foil.
The plague will be over. The books will be recovered unscathed. The dust will be removed. Hungary was lost even before the first case of infection, it never ceased to be lost. The old people who are dead now only lived on a borrowed time. The Bloemenveiling in Aalsmeer will sell flowers again, by millions. Damascus will be a fashionable destination. And I will be in the middle of all that, slimmer, more elegant, wiser, and better writer.
I get so slowly to the idea that my little world will circulate now somewhere between Paris, Amsterdam, Oxford and Heidelberg. A walking distance.
I start to dream again about mahogany bookcases, and new books to put on them, not those that remained in Kraków. They were tiny old things; I deserve better. It doesn't make sense to read them all in Polish, while I need to make my English expression slender and elegant. There are also other languages to cultivate, French, Dutch, Arabic. Truly I have no more time for my Polish books.
Books, books, books, the last thing that remains to care about, as if the virus could bite at them. But they give me the feeling of normalcy on an occasion in which my horizon hardly stretches beyond the end of next month, and I have with me only a bundle of old clothes, a pair of shoes, as if I came straight from Bissau.
They say anosmia is an early indicator of contagion. I'm still healthy, 36,8, and I open a flask of cosmetic jelly to feel its smell. I close my eyes, and I'm back in Leiden, in the Breestraat, in the Haarlemmerstraat, searching for little items in Hema and Normaal. Everything in such a great abundance, colourful and fragrant. And the Saturday market, with such a profusion of fruits and flowers. My husband sent me a clip on WhatsApp, how they were removing tons of unsold flowers from the auction in Aaalsmeer. It made me suffer more than any glimpse of the current pandemic. I have fruits also here, in Lisbon, oranges and pears and tomatoes. I'm not missing anything, the events have left me unscathed. I just miss to be back in Leiden, in that suspended time, among books and dreams, in the Garden.
Des meubles luisants,
Polis par les ans,
Décoreraient notre chambre ;
Les plus rares fleurs
Mêlant leurs odeurs
Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre,
Les riches plafonds,
Les miroirs profonds,
La splendeur orientale,
Tout y parlerait
À l’âme en secret
Sa douce langue natale.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté...
Vois sur ces canaux
Dormir ces vaisseaux
Dont l’humeur est vagabonde ;
C’est pour assouvir
Ton moindre désir
Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde.
– Les soleils couchants
Revêtent les champs,
Les canaux, la ville entière,
D’hyacinthe et d’or ;
Le monde s’endort
Dans une chaude lumière.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté...
Is the country and the city still there, with its channels and its water lilies? I've only heard Hungary is no more...
This is my 8th day on the Zauberberg, with its rituals of temperature measuring several times a day. I've been miraculously healthy, even my eternal catarrh disappeared, temperature between 36,6 and 36,8. I'm also loosing weight, quite naturally, on a miraculous diet of oranges, grilled chicken and fear.
I use my time to revise my past, my memories, my life as a Lusitanist. I never had a very high opinion of Portuguese literature, its intellectual depth, its power of saving the world. Nonetheless, there is one item that should catch my attention. Saramago, the writer I've studied so thoroughly. His diptych of Ensaio sobre a cegueira and Ensaio sobre a lucidez. He was already a Nobel Prize winner when he wrote these books, but if otherwise, it would be a proof of his genius. The sequence of plague and its political consequences; it seemed so abstract at the time, just a fictional story; I did not even delve very deep in these two books in my Saramaguian readings. Yet I took them seriously, learned something from them, internalised them to such a degree that they became one with my animal instincts. And now, I do not doubt this plague will be over, we will drink crystal clear water again. 28 days, I keep saying, even if it dawns on me it might be up to two years. But what about the second part of the diptych, especially in countries like mine? 50 years is my prediction. That means, I couldn't reasonably hope to live long enough to see it over.
This is why I'm glad to be here, and slowly break my mind to come back to the Netherlands when the time is over, to rebuild everything from nought. I'm not sure if I still manage to find a job as a university professor in the future, perhaps I will do some menial work as I never did in my life. There will be less of those research projects I was counting on. But one day, I shall be an intellectual again. Leiden, Oxford, these places survived many plagues. Except one. There is one plague that never came to them. The one in the second part of the diptych, the one of the dog howling over silence of men.
I'm in Lisbon. When I felt the unique smell of the city, I felt like one of those salmons who can distinguish the taste of the river of their birth, where they come back to reproduce and perish. I've rented a room for six weeks in one of those cheap little places where I used to stay in order to write my books, and I'm planning to do it again. And here I am, on the brink of the continent, trying to imagine how Europe may look like when these six weeks are over. I suppose it will be kind of consolidated, seeing more clearly who belongs where. The salmons will come back to the rivers of their birth.
Things will start all over again in a new configuration. The broken order will be restored, fitting more closely the nature of each river. And I, a western salmon, follow westwards, leaving all my possessions behind, leaving all my memories behind.
My husband says he is worried about me. He is worried I might die, because my lungs have always been weak. But perhaps this is not true. My lungs are strong, they only used to have bad memories. Memories of my neglected childhood, chronic catarrh, cold water entering my winter shoes. It was the part of my body where all these memories were accumulated. The place that had never became sane since my childhood. Till perhaps my last trip to Egypt, a sudden panic of asphyxiation, a burden over my chest. Finally I took care of them, paid attention to them, to the accumulated stories my lungs wanted to tell me. And now I start to breath as I never breathed before. In full possession of my lungs.