CHAPTER 33 – All Alone in my State of Banishment, by Helena Vasconcelos

©Julião Sarmento, Bode, 2020 www./

Translated by David G. Frier

Edited by James Young

“(…) and right from the beginning of the pandemic, as they shut themselves up in the cave, as they continued to hollow out ever deeper and darker passageways, had forgotten that all they were seeing were shadows that deceived them and clouded their reasoning.”

Lúcia emerged from her dream, and in an instant reached the entrance to the cave. She moved forwards swiftly but carefully, without making a sound. Not even her breathing, quickened but steady as a result of her daily cardio workouts, gave away her presence. She allowed herself to be guided by her instincts and made her way through the labyrinthine web of galleries, paying no attention to any disconnected arrows and signs that might lead her astray.

Having found no difficulty in reaching the imposing laboratory door, she paused to check that nobody was trailing her and used a long-expired key card to open the automatic lock. She smiled on seeing that her talents as a fraudster were still of some use. She would never have been accepted for the lead team if she hadn’t forged her CV, her qualifications and her letters of recommendation. The ostracism to which she had initially been subjected – whether because of the colour of her skin or her lack of that sophistication that was so prized amongst learned men and women – had relegated her to a secondary, at times humiliating, role. For someone who had learned and explored all the intricacies of quantum physics, molecular biology, epidemiology, infectious diseases, chemistry, and genomics, in addition, of course, to robotics, serving teas and coffees, going back and forth along the corridors when one of the bigwigs had forgotten something, or simply carrying folders and boxes around, had hardly been stimulating tasks. And, yes, unlike the others, she had also studied philosophy, and right from the start, Plato’s Republic had been on her mind. However, those people had dismissed the allegory, and right from the beginning of the pandemic, as they shut themselves up in the cave, as they continued to hollow out ever deeper and darker passageways, had forgotten that all they were seeing were shadows that deceived them and clouded their reasoning.

She could still remember, with a bitter taste in her mouth, the doors closed in her face, the gestures of rejection and the indifferent looks directed towards her. But she was not somebody to bear a grudge. When Cacilda had taken charge of the project in her typically dramatic style, presenting her now famous ‘box’ which contained absolutely nothing – so long ago now! – Lúcia had resorted to her talents as a seductress. She had not particularly liked Cacilda, nor had she been keen on the erotic tensions which arose amongst that mass of people hemmed into such a small space. But she had done what she had to, with no hesitation, such as when she had given in to the advances of that tedious Teresa: Teresa, who had pursued her like a goat in heat and with whom she had had a brief and fiery affair; Teresa, who always went around on tiptoes, sniffing out signals like a bloodhound, but who, if she was honest, was as sexy as the devil.

“I only went to bed with her to try to get information out of her,” she said to herself by way of an excuse. (But it really hadn’t been like that at all!)

She would always be an outsider. She stole and cheated only for the thrill of it and as a bad habit, not for profit or to ingratiate herself with this or that person in power. She had never had any intention of honouring the commitment she had made to the authorities – yes, she had been in prison and they had offered her a deal when they realised they needed her – and all she’d wanted was her freedom. There would be a lot to do, or, more accurately, to undo. She was anxious to get into action.

She had no problem in finding her way around the sophisticated, antiseptic laboratory, which was like a crossover between a nuclear power station, a satellite control centre and a chemistry laboratory. All around the room the video monitors were still there, going up the walls as far as the ceiling. ‘Warning’ and ‘Danger’ signs shone dimly in the watery light, and on the security door one could still see the slogan ‘Restricted Area’ written in huge, rusting letters.      

She went to her old workstation and gained access to the secure archives. They were encrypted, obviously, but what difference did that make to her, an experienced hacker, the supreme artist of digital piracy, who could slip like an eel along all the pathways of this intricate web? She was filled with nostalgia on seeing an old note which she had left in the margin of a sheet of calculations: ‘The Kantian motive is not totally alien to the psychological theory of art; equally, to Freud, works of art are not primarily the realisation of desires, but rather they transform an initially unsatisfied libido into a socially productive outcome…’ She stopped reading. What did all of that really mean? Critical thinking had disappeared, contemplation was now a crime, books had been burned, museums ransacked, music banned, and dancing abandoned. There was no purpose anymore in wasting time on words.

All it had required in order to change everything was for her, Lúcia, to introduce a virus, an insidious worm, into the complex equation. From the very moment when her surreptitious interference had spread throughout the system, the direction of the research project had been changed utterly. She had not anticipated such a disastrous outcome, nor such ham-fisted attempts to solve it. They had thought that the light of the sun would solve everything, that snail slime would eliminate the virus, that reading tarot cards would reveal the future to them, that light was the antidote to darkness, and vice versa. They had started to undertake time travel, they had created beings like Alberto and Reboredo, they had followed the hoarse voices of supposedly enlightened leaders. Now was the time to put right her previous actions. There was no remorse on her part, not least because she knew that it had been those learned men and women who, by fanning the flames of the plague with their petty arguments, by overlooking other diseases, by banning art, by reducing human interaction to power struggles and deadly duels over love and sex, by creating replicant beings like Alberto or poor old Reboredo, had brought the apocalypse down on their heads. The world had become dull. Cacilda, the once splendid figure of Cacilda, languished somewhere, submerged in dementia, Teresa continued with her scheming manoeuvres, provoking rancour, carrying out bold experiments with no ethical basis, while Ricardo, the powerful and disquieting Ricardo, was a mere shade in the depths of hell. She, Lúcia, had tasks to carry out: to reverse the deadly direction of the decline of humanity and nature; to win Reboredo back to her side (she loved his ingenious prostheses and had taught him to use them as sex toys); to connect with the fiery Valéria, and, of course, to get to the bottom of the murder of Maria, which had been virtually forgotten, with the case being shelved as unsolved.

She placed the headphones in her ears and switched over to a playlist which she had had for years. Calmly, she switched on the central computer and began to work. She, the criminal, the outcast, now held in her hands the possibility of putting past mistakes right. There was no cure, they were all wrong. However, there were other ways of fighting back. And she was ready to get on with it.

With her music playing loudly, she did not hear the sound of footsteps, of hobnail boots marching down the corridor, or the sound of the door being violently pushed open…

Read the original chapter in Portuguese

Helena Vasconcelos (Lisbon, 1979) is an author and literary critic, and a regular contributor to the Portuguese newspaper Público. She also works as a promoter of literacy at public libraries, universities and foundations. She wrote Não Há Horas Para Nada, winner of the Prémio Revelação do Centro Nacional de Cultura (short-stories); Mário Eloy, o Pintor do Desassossego; A Infância é Um Território Desconhecido (Essay); Humilhação e Glória (Essay); Não Há Tantos Homens Ricos Como Mulheres Bonitas Que os mereçam (Novel) and Agenda Literária, 2020.

David Frier is Honorary Research Fellow in Portuguese at the University of Leeds and a Researcher at the Centre for Lusophone and European Literatures and Cultures at the University of Lisbon. He has published widely on modern Portuguese literature, including monographs on Camilo Castelo Branco and José Saramago, as well as numerous articles and chapters in edited volumes on nineteenth- and twentieth century Portuguese literature. He is also the editor of Pessoa in an Intertextual Web: Influence and Innovation (2012) and most recently co-author (with Pat Woods) of We’ll Always Have Lisbon: Celtic’s Glory Year 1967 (2017).

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