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Portuguese writers join forces on episodic lockdown novel

31portugal writersA group of major Portuguese authors have found a way to keep themselves and their readers busy during the lockdown: they’re writing a serial novel, with each writer given 24 hours to respond to the previous chapter.

Portugal’s literary version of “the exquisite corpse game” was dreamed up by the award-winning author Ana Margarida de Carvalho, who challenged her fellow writers to join her in writing a collective, serial novel with her as Portugal went into lockdown. More than 40 responded, their story opening with a group of scientists trying to find a cure for a virus that has caused a global pandemic.

“For us, writers, it is normal and it may even be a good condition to be closed and focused to write our books. But when we are compelled to do so, when we find ourselves under a catastrophe of such an overwhelming scale, I think that what could be an ideal time to write turns into extremely suffocating conditions,” said De Carvalho. “So, instead of dedicating myself to my own book and making a quarantine diary, describing trips around my room as Xavier de Maistre, I thought it might be more interesting to break the walls around us through literature, and bypass the social isolation.”

The writers, who include the acclaimed authors Gabriela Ruivo Trindade, Afonso Reis Cabral and Nara Vidal, are committed to publishing a new chapter every day at noon. The series is to end with a chapter from Camilo Castelo Branco prize winner Luísa Costa Gomes.

“For us, simply making trenches of our sofas was not enough,” say the writers in a collective statement. “In spite of the current apocalypse, we want to demonstrate that we’re still here, in contact with the public. We work without a safety net, with no time for editing, revision, reflection … For now, we wish to offer an escape into inspiration. And one day, as soon as this pandemic is over, go back to inspiring freely. When the world reopens, we will be here to receive you with open arms.”

Known as Bode Inspiratório – a spin on the Portuguese term for a scapegoat – the project is now spreading internationally, with translations into Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch and now English, by a group of leading translators including Margaret Jull Costa, Danny Hahn and Frank Wynne.

Translator Victor Meadowcroft said the project was drawing a huge amount of public interest in Portugal, where the writers are nearing the end of the story, and where the tale has gained almost 15,500 followers on Facebook in a month. The English version, Escape Goat, has been published in daily instalments since 13 April and is up to chapter 16.

“Each author takes a fresh approach to the themes and characters of this story, and one of the things I have found most striking is the way the daily fears and concerns of each individual filter into their texts, creating a fascinating document of life under lockdown,” said Meadowcroft, who assembled the team of English translators.

Recent chapters have featured an android called Reboredo, whose only function is to spread fear among the housebound population, while the virus has mutated to leave its victims highly sensitive to sunlight.

Artists are also creating pieces to appear alongside the chapters. “In these dark times, it seems to me that collaborative projects like this one are a way for us to connect and come together,” said Meadowcroft. “The fact that 46 translators and a handful of editors have given up their time, with no prospect of remuneration, to help bring across this inspiring project from Portugal is a shining example of this lockdown spirit.”

“Portugal, despite having a language spoken by many millions on all continents, has a somewhat insular literature,” said De Carvalho, who welcomed the translations. “It is very difficult to break the borders of the cultural confinement that surrounds us. That is why we were very happy to learn that the Anglo-Saxon world can read us, get to know us, may have, after all, a small sample of contemporary Portuguese literature and contemporary art.”