• Posted:

    29 November, 2013

  • In:A palavra mágica e outros contos

All my friends write. Great. All my friends love to write. Fantastic. Even I don’t dislike writing, though I no longer do it. Ah, to write! To write words. To write things. To write the world. The world inside us. And the world outside us. All my friends write. All my friends are writers. All my friends produce books.

And it’s not just my friends, it’s everyone else as well. My neighbors write poems, the waitress at the café writes detective novels, the bank employee writes love stories, and the grocer writes historical romances. The man who used to deliver my mail has also taken to writing – travel books, I think it is. My mother writes science fiction, my brothers write comic books, and even our distant cousins write – best-sellers, if I’m not mistaken, or maybe they’re just essays on neo-ecological hermeneutics.

Only my father doesn’t write, because he’s already dead. If he were still alive, he’d write for sure, and I know just what – picaresque novels. In hospitals all the patients write, and the doctors who give them prescriptions write too. Even the nurses, the ambulance people, the police on duty and the employees at the reception desk are forever writing literature, even if it’s just medical literature.

Only my father doesn’t write, because he’s already dead. If he were still alive, he’d write for sure, and I know just what – picaresque novels. In hospitals all the patients write, and the doctors who give them prescriptions write too. Even the nurses, the ambulance people, the police on duty and the employees at the reception desk are forever writing literature, even if it’s just medical literature.

The situation is dire. The government has already announced that it’s going to take measures. It’s possible, admitted a government spokesman, that a national state of emergency will be declared. The spokesman no longer speaks – he himself contracted the disease. I happened to read what he wrote, but I don’t know if what he said – if what he wrote – was serious or if it was just another chapter from his new (and utterly fascinating) political novel. In fact I was probably the only person to read it, or rather, one of the few, since there must be others like me. I mean, I have to hope there are. The fact that I don’t know anyone else like me shouldn’t be confused with the fact, still unproven, that there is no one else like me.

The disease is highly contagious. It makes Ebola seem like child’s play, so fast does it reproduce and spread. The incubation period is three to six hours, after which the victim suddenly goes from being a normal person to a… a writer. The hospitals, bursting at the seams, are glutted with people aching for their next dose of pen and paper. And they have to write more and more, increasing the dosage, since they have ever more ideas, more and more love for Literature, for Beautiful Words, and for the Secret Poetry lurking behind the Beautiful Words – and even behind ugly words, say the terminal patients.

Scientists have yet to isolate the virus or find an antidote, and they can’t even identify the disease’s origin or describe its pathology, since… That’s right, they’re all too busy writing. There are even people who’ve wasted away and died from starvation. It’s shocking but hardly surprising: they write, they don’t eat, they die.

The number of traffic accidents has soared. Countless cars drive right off the road. Taxi drivers will be all set to switch into third gear when they remember a phrase, start writing, let go of the wheel and… Yes, it’s frightful.

Even children are writing. Those who still haven’t learned the alphabet invent one, or they scribble symbolic figures, and invent stories, stories, stories. One-year-old toddlers, even babies of just a few months, grab pens or pencils and move their tiny fists back and forth with unheard-of dexterity. Of course they end up tearing through the paper and scribbling beyond its white borders all over the floor, but they don’t care, they keep on going, writing the Symbols of the World. And their parents don’t care either, since they themselves are busy writing. Besides, what does a scribbled floor matter if the scribbles are a brilliant children’s story about a princess who, by offering a strand of her beautiful golden hair, is able to help a knight not get lost in the black forest where he has to fight an evil dragon? Well?

Nothing like this has ever been seen before. The situation is catastrophic and shows no signs of letting up. I’d like to say this in another way, but there’s no other way to say it: the world is in danger of collapsing under the weight of so many novels, novellas, short stories, essays and poems. Poems in particular are like a plague of locusts: odes, palinodes, elegies, eclogues, epigrams, epodes, quatrains, couplets, dithyrambs, pentameters, hexameters, alexandrines, ballads, rondels, rondeaus, sonnets, sonatinas, sestinas.

I’m not exaggerating. The Earth has already shifted slightly out of orbit. And the number of writers and poets keeps growing each day. Along with the number of written words. And innovative sentences: short ones, long ones, sentences of just one word (“He. Said. To. Her.”), sentences without commas that run on for two hundred pages (“There’s no point in providing an example here it would have to take up two hundred pages but this little sample may give some idea or better yet I’ll waste a few more lines on this idiotic sentence so that the point I was trying to make will become clearer and more convincing and I think that’s enough now the point has been adequately conveyed I think”), caprices and labyrinths of syntax we wouldn’t think possible or reasonable.

One always wonders: “What will they invent next?” Or: “Is there still something else to invent?” At least that’s what I always used to wonder – before the epidemic. For if there’s one thing the disease has proven, it’s that the possibilities of invention are endless, along with our inventive capacities. It’s sad but true: the human imagination is in continual expansion, like the universe. The human imagination is a black hole that consumes everything, that swallows everything. And humanity runs the risk of extinction precisely for that reason. For having too much imagination, too much talent, too much creativity.

There’s a limit, for heaven’s sake, to how much artistic and cultural production we can take. Or there should be, since there evidently is none.

And, what’s more, it’s quality work. Yes, who am I to deny it? Not only are people writing obsessively, they’re writing things that are actually quite good, interesting, solid, worth reading, with a personal style, filling a space in the space of literature that hadn’t yet been filled since no one knew that the space existed or was fillable until it was filled. Each person creates his or her own niche with the same anxiousness and the same millimetric precision observable in the swallow when it builds its nest. And if it’s true that one swallow doesn’t make a summer nor one writer a literature, many swallows together – thousands, millions, billions of swallows together – can make not one but a whole slew of summers, which will include, like a free bonus, a generous helping of spring, fall and, of course, winter. And there’s the rub.

There’s the rub, and the genius of this virus. It makes people write – and write well. If it gave them the urge but not the talent, we could rest easy. A doctor who discovers, after hundreds of pages, that he’s merely produced a bad parody of Robin Cook may well go back to practicing medicine, which is what he’s really good at. And a lawyer who realizes that not every woman can be Agatha Christie has a good chance of coming to her senses and going back to helping her clients. But what about an obstetrician who writes original, beautiful pages? Or an attorney who can keep us in suspense about the killer’s identity until the very last paragraph? What then? It’s sad. It’s tragic. It’s unbearable. Well-constructed stories, with perfect control and believable characters, embodying the essence of genuine literature – which isn’t in the words but beyond them, and which makes a piece of writing beautiful.


At first there was a kind of collective euphoria. The newspapers spoke of a “New Renaissance”, the critics of an “Unprecedented Moment” in our literature, the political powers of a “new, exuberant generation of creators”. Before long there were some small signs suggesting that this new flowering of talent wasn’t without its problems, but no one could grasp – or wished to grasp – what was happening. The fact is that many people were already contaminated and had begun to write, hesitantly and with a sense of responsibility at first, then ever more furiously – until the inevitable novel.

And now? Now the world is a dreary place. Yes, these are gloomy times, and they’ll get worse when winter arrives. In summer we don’t notice the absence of ants, only of grasshoppers. But when winter comes… The marketplaces are deserted, bread and other basic foods are no longer distributed, nor is bread even baked. The shops are empty – with their doors wide open to the street, but empty. With no one to look after them, no one at the cash registers, no one to turn the lights on and off. In the supermarkets you can take away whatever you want in the shopping carts, but if you don’t have a coin you can’t get a cart, since there’s nowhere to change money.

There are, to be sure, some positive aspects. Televisions have stopped working, so that there are no more soap operas or “reality” shows. And the irony is that they ended precisely when the number of scriptwriters increased a thousandfold, such that there would at last have been some variety in the industry. The problem is that there’s no one to make scripts into films: no actors, no cameramen, no makeup artists, no directors, no assistant directors, no producers, no lighting crews, no wardrobe personnel, and no one to do postproduction or editing. They’ve all gone off on their own to write the novel of their life. There are also, less positively, no more weather reports. I shudder to think of boats setting out to sea with no idea of the bad weather that awaits them, but I immediately realize what an idiotic thing I’ve just said. There’s nobody left to set out to sea. The fishermen have all abandoned their nets, harpoons, decks and baits. They’re busy setting down on paper their tales of shipwrecks and adventures with fish whose names are unpronounceable, sequels to Moby Dick, improved and updated versions of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Did I say earlier that I’m perhaps not the only one to have read the government’s latest communiqué? Perhaps I’m really not, but I don’t know where the others are – the others who weren’t affected by this collective insanity – nor if they’re like me or if they’ve suffered some sort of mutation. I can’t say why I’ve remained immune to the virus. Something to do with my DNA, with my genetic code, with my blood type, with a shortage (or excess) of cholesterol in my blood? I lack the scientific data to venture an explanation without running the risk – to be especially avoided, given the present situation – of lapsing into science fiction or into a delirious fantasy passed off as objective knowledge.

If I’m not the only person in the world who at this moment – perhaps the final moment of humanity – reads what other people write, then where are my comrades in arms? Is there a chance we can join together and create a bastion of resistance, an underground movement to fight against the epidemic, to search for a cure – through study, reading, theory and experimentation – that will restore health to mankind and get the world working again? I don’t know, but I confess I’m not too optimistic.

I know what I am: I’m a reader. I read what other people write. I do it compulsively. It’s a habit I’ve had for many years. In the morning, at breakfast, even if I don’t have the pages of a newspaper with their still fresh ink alongside my cup of coffee, my eyes instinctively scan the table in search of words, letters and phrases to read: “Corn Flakes”, “rich in vitamins and minerals”, “Shop 18 – Rua Camilo Castelo Branco, 15-A”, “Margarine – 100% Vegetable Oil, 250 grams”. Going about the rest of my day, I read everything: all the newspapers, all the signs, all the numbers on all doors, all the names of all the doctors on the plaque outside the clinic on the street where I pass by – and my eyes pass by – every day. I read all the novels and poems that pass through my hands and as many essays as I can during my lunch hour while gobbling up the daily special at the counter of the snack bar near where I work, and my job at work is to read all the documents placed on top of my desk for that very purpose – for me to read them.

I don’t know by what miracle I stayed immune to the virus. And the funny thing is that I wasn’t always this way. When I was young I myself tried to write. Yes! Not even I managed to get through life without having tried my hand at writing! But the fact is that, back then, a lot less people wrote. The times were different, illiteracy was still widespread, life was mostly spent working. Later on I realized that I preferred reading to writing. It was easier, more relaxing, less time-consuming. Superior in every way. But in the past I myself, I confess, was hooked on writing. A few poems, a couple of short stories, two or three scenes for plays – nothing special. But there’s no use hiding the fact: I was convinced I knew how to write.

Perhaps that’s how I gained immunity. Perhaps my youthful folly – I wanted to be a writer! – functioned as a vaccine. Yes, that may be what has protected me so far, but I’m not sure if this is a blessing or a curse. I’m a reader in a world of writers, and that makes me feel – poor me! – all alone. Because everyone writes, but no one reads what others write. No one but me. They don’t have time. They’re so engrossed in telling their story, in conceiving their monument of Art and Imagination, that they have no time to read. In fact it’s not even a question of having time, it’s that they’re incapable of making themselves do it. They can’t make themselves sit down and read. And soon they won’t even know how to read. Thus languages will come to an end, even before the world does, because everyone will write increasingly in his or her own language, in his or her own private code, forgetting that communication is a two-way process and that, to be understood, one has to use elements that both parties understand. No one reads. They just write. They die. Such is the potency, the demented perversion, of this virus.


And you, my fellow survivor? I don’t know if you exist in this world that’s collapsing. If you read this, then evidently you do, and now you’ll know that somewhere on the planet, perhaps in your own city, there’s someone else who shares your fears and anxieties, but also your hopes. And perhaps we can meet. It would be great to exchange ideas on the subject, to join forces and to search for other people like us: readers with immunity to the writing bug. I know that your initial reaction will probably be to think: “This guy is trying to pull a fast one. He himself is a writer, not a true reader. He himself was contaminated and is trying to convince me otherwise, probably for some devious purpose.”

You have every right to think that way, and it’s what I myself would think if I ran across a story like this one. We’re not suspicious by nature but we learn to be so, and a certain wariness vis-à-vis our neighbor is probably not a bad thing. All I ask you is to give me the benefit of the doubt. Ask you? No, I beg you. Here I am on my knees, begging you to believe in me. This isn’t a story, it’s not a work of fiction. I am merely, genuinely, trying to make contact with someone who exists on the other side of the page. I’m reaching out my hand to you. Please consider the possibility of reaching yours out to me.

One last thing. Don’t respond in writing. I realize you’re probably immune, but you never know. Just show up. I’ll know how to recognize you, and you’ll have no problem in recognizing me. We’ll be the only ones – in a public square, in a park, on a street, in a café, or wherever it is we meet – who will be peacefully sitting there with a smile on our lips and a book, open wide, in our hands.


Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith, 2005

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