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from the July/August 2020 issue

A Message to Our Friends on the Moon: The Pandemic of 2020

In this short piece, Milton Hatoum writes a letter from the future chronicling the COVID-19 pandemic in Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil.


I was twelve years old in April of the year 2020. At that time, drones did not yet deliver our food, nor was such a varied menu of pastilles on offer, each of which now holds the flavors, spices, and proteins one once found in a plate of food, and which leave us with the impression that we are eating as well as we ever have. Though it might be puzzling to both robots and people today, in the year 2090, many people still cooked at home in that year, peeling potatoes and fruits, slurping up the juices of their delicious mangoes, today reduced to a mere pink pill!

During the long quarantine that began in 2020, our family followed a strict routine. My father was courageous and rigid, but his bravery and sternness found themselves up against fear. At fifty-five years of age, he realized that courage and the awareness of fear are inseparable. At a certain point, he softened, and in his face—a father’s—I noted a meek sadness. He even discovered, to his secret delight, that he could do his job from home, and that many of the sixty-some trips he took each year were, if not useless, dispensable. And finally, my father began to talk to me that year, and this was one of the rare joys of my youth, put on hold.

Our forced solitude revealed sentiments and attitudes we once guarded behind seven locked doors. In her middle age, my mother rediscovered her matriarchal authority, and no one but my nonna dared contradict her. Together, the two women took the reins of the household, and woe to those who did not obey. My father would put on his mask and head out to the street to get crates of food, and he himself did the washing of food packages, fruits, vegetables. Down below, on limpid April mornings, he took fright at his own shadow, which he was certain had become infected.

All of you, fully adapted to the environment of the Seven Lunar Colonies, cannot fathom what it was to use a mask. Its use was required even when we went for a simple stroll. Schoolwork was done by computer, there was no such thing as microchips inside one’s brain, much less these arrogant robots the size an egg, who think they know it all and won’t stop until we do too.

Oh, how I miss the days of real professors! And of eggs! You better believe it, we actually had such things. I used to eat two or three a day; I’d learned to make them poached, to prepare thirteen different kinds of omelets, with vegetables or jerk meat, seasoned with rosemary or a few drops of cachaça.

This time of reclusion, fear, boredom was devastating for those who lost relatives and friends, and terrifying and grueling for medical workers on the front lines. And yet, hordes of barbarians draping themselves in the yellow and green of the flag heckled and abused these heroes. I say heroes: is risking your own life in the attempt to save thousands not a heroic gesture? 

But the plague led us to a place of contemplation. We thought about ourselves and of others; we thought about the waste, the greed, the consumption of useless things; we thought about the cruelty, the recent tragedies, and the history of Brazil, also tragic.

As the pandemic dragged on, there were numerous predictions, optimistic and not so much, about our future. Everyone was right. The optimists because, a few years after this catastrophe, the economy of our planet began to grow. My father, an unwavering optimist, was a post-plague Pangloss. But the pessimists were right, too, because the wars never ceased, the surveillance and control wrought by our digital world eroded our liberties, unemployment and poverty grew. In Brazil, the crux of our problems remained unsolved: how is it that the economy grows but inequality persists? There’s an enigma for you, my dear lunar friends.

There were also ideological shifts and a blurring of lines. Many ultraliberals became merely liberal. Some on the left joined up with the social democrats. The unclassifiable figures parading as “centrists" found their swagger in the comfort of the symmetry permitted by their position, moving here to the right, there to the left: opportunistic hyenas, always striving for power. Keynesian economic theories were celebrated and applied across several countries; those of Hayek, ridiculed.

A mere twelve years old, how could I decide where to cast my lot? I woke up filled with optimism, but, as night fell, a melancholy came over me, and I would go speak with my nonna, who taught me Italian. In 1939, when she was still a child, she and her parents had migrated from Italy to Brazil. She was not a cynic, but she would often say that human solidarity always came too late, and the kingdoms of selfishness and indifference would triumph.

“Look at what’s happening to the Amazon and the Indigenous right in the middle of this pandemic,” she would protest. “We have learned nothing from the peoples of the forest! Just look at this third-rate Mussolini of ours, and his children . . . Una famiglia di facinorosi di estrema destra. You know the motto these mobsters live by? Eliminate the elderly, the poor, and the Indigenous!"

She was referring to the president of a republic in shambles. A decade later, this vile creature would become nothing more than a footnote in the history books. The cartoonists referred to him by a keen nickname: Captain Chloroquine. But this nickname and millions of tales of the pandemic were also forgotten. Thankfully for readers, writers once again took up their innermost anxieties, their skeletons, and their obsessions.

 

Moments of melancholy were not rare. Each time my grandmother read the news of the country of her birth, she would weep silently to herself. My mother, who had a passion for Italian art and literature, would console her: “Italy is eternal, Mamma.”

But I also remember a great many good things. The stars in the sky shone once again; the Moon (the irony will not escape you!) once again became a poetic metaphor; birds burst with frenetic joy during that long-off year in which I feasted on two novels: The End of Eternity and From the Earth to the Moon. I also read children’s tales from Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Jorge Amado, and Graciliano Ramos. If someone from the Seven Stations of the Moon cares to read the work of these authors, you can activate the Aleph Library in your microchip.

Every night before bed, my mother would read from the Thousand and One Nights. This repertoire of magic and nightmares fascinated me; as I listened to the final fable, I was already take with Scheherazade, who survived because she knew how to tell stories. I dreamed of the East in the West, and vice-versa. I dreamed of these stories that transcended all borders, narratives that formed an imaginary universe.

In closing, a piece of advice from this old man: don’t bother coming here anytime soon. Continue your research there on the Seven Stations. Make the most of your “Bacchus among the Craters” festivities, where you celebrate the love of the cosmos. Drink your famed Bordeaux Lunaire, and see if you can’t send a few bottles to this old Dionysian. And if you can, use your holographic system to send moonstruck demonstrations of love and solidarity to us poor humans on this little planet of ours, for which a cure seems long in coming. 


© 2020 by Milton Hatoum. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.


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