I have a special relationship, as a translator, with the work of Andrés Felipe Solano. My first translation ever published was a piece of his titled “The Nameless Saints,” in the September 2014 issue of World Literature Today. This was my first foray into both professional translation and the distinctly Latin American form of literary journalism known as crónica, which continues to interest me as both a reader and a translator.
Andrés and I struck up an epistolary friendship after this initial collaboration, and I am happy to say I have translated more of his crónicas since. I was especially pleased when he contacted me in June 2020 about his new book, Los días de la fiebre (published by Planeta), which recounts his experience of the first three months of COVID-19 in Seoul, South Korea—a city he has lived in and written about for several years now, cast in a new light by the menacing presence of the virus.
Using Rebecca L. Walkowitz’s term, we might think of Los días de la fiebre—which I plan to call Fever Days in English—as “born translated.” Its author teaches translation from Spanish to Korean students, Korean terms and cultural norms pepper the text, and in addressing COVID Solano speaks to perhaps the most universal and unifying human experience of recent history. That a crónica, a uniquely Latin American cultural product, should capture this global reality from the other side of the world is, in my opinion, a fascinating and wonderful oddity, and one that represents exactly what we are looking for in world literature these days: a reminder that we are all different, but also that we are all in this together.
—Arthur Malcolm Dixon
It has arrived, we tell each other as we get into bed, not looking each other in the eyes. It’s here, among us. It was brought by a 35-year-old woman. They detected it at the airport. She was burning up with fever, coming from Wuhan. She had no direct contact with wild animals and she will be kept under quarantine until she recovers. That’s what they tell us. That’s what we know. Soon it will be the lunar New Year, Soojeong reminds me. I nod. We have no plans to celebrate, but if it gets warmer perhaps we’ll go to a Buddhist temple in the mountains, then out for some drinks. We want to check out a new bar. Concorde, it’s called. We like the name. It sounds like a world we said goodbye to long ago.
When the other one arrived, five years ago, we bought a load of masks at the pharmacy. There must be a couple left in some drawer or another. I had to use a few when I was taking the train to Busan to teach classes. The next year, they made a zombie movie with that name, Train to Busan. The usual fare: hordes of living dead, deserted stations, people looting stores. When it arrived, some people were afraid. Others didn’t care. At the radio station, where I sometimes work as a Spanish-language presenter, I remember announcing that an escaped inmate turned himself over to the police out of fear of contracting the virus. He had been on the run for three years. Three years in hiding. A bad flu, they said at first. People complained, information was scarce, nobody knew anything about the infected patients, the response was slow. The death rate hit 30%. Back then, we were all waiting for the summer. They said the summer would take it away. Now a new one has arrived, and it will be a long time until summer.
The alert has changed from blue to yellow. We’re confident it won’t go from yellow to orange. It’ll never get to red, of course: that’s impossible, we tell each other with one of those smiles that get tangled up in your teeth.
We heard today that they shut down Wuhan. Nobody can get in or out of the city. Eleven million people; nobody knows for how long. Three hundred thousand managed to escape on the last departing trains. On the other hand, Concorde is a nice spot. Second floor, small, not too many tables, a church organ in one corner, a painting of a tiger above the entrance. It has the look of a bachelor pad. Unbelievably, they have pork head cheese here too. It reminds us that every country was a peasant country once. The owner lets us try a little, free of charge, and looking each other in the eyes, we drink a toast to the New Year. The Year of the Metal Rat. Happiness, good fortune, health.
At the supermarket, doing the shopping, I find out they declared an orange alert after confirming two new cases. Both men in their fifties. They too had been to Wuhan. We didn’t know before—now we know—that the virus can be passed from human to human. Saliva, bodily fluids, but there’s no evidence that it’s in the air. They tell us we must sneeze or cough into the inner fold of our elbow: that spot we only notice when we’re having blood drawn; we must wash our hands frequently (my mother’s voice echoes from far away: “Did you wash your hands? Wash your hands before you sit at the table,”); we must call a phone line if we show any symptoms. And what are the symptoms? The same as a bad flu.
They have told us that one of the infected men did exactly what must not be done: he carried on with his normal life despite showing symptoms and having been to Wuhan. I wonder what a normal life is, if anyone really has a normal life, if one can stop having a normal life. Everyone has a life that is only their own. That’s what they mean, I suppose.
They have told us that, on Wednesday of last week, this man visited the Glovi plastic surgery clinic in Gangnam, south Seoul. He went there in a rental car. After that, he had dinner in a restaurant near the clinic and spent the night in the NewV Hotel, also in Gangnam. On Thursday, he took a walk by the river at lunchtime and bought something at the GS convenience store in Jamwon, outlet #1. He had dinner in Yeoksam. On Friday, he went back to the clinic along with another person, then stopped by a café and a restaurant before going to sleep at his mother’s house in Ilsan, a satellite city half an hour from Seoul. Seventy-four people came in contact with him. Only one of them has developed symptoms. They gave him the test and he came up negative. He is isolated anyway. The rest have been encouraged to stay home for two weeks. Every place the man went was disinfected. Online, people are already wondering why and with whom he went to a plastic surgery clinic. Did he go for treatment, or just a consultation? I check the procedures offered at the clinic. It looks like the website of a clothing store. A shiver runs up my spine when I see the options for jaw surgery. Models’ faces blend in with graphics and X-rays of skulls.
No private detective agency could ever have such precise data, but then I remember this is a country where there are still spies, North Korean defectors, emergency laws in case of national security breaches. In any case, I look into how it can be possible to know so much about a person who is not suspected of having committed any crime. First of all, the newly diagnosed person is interviewed by the health authorities. It’s not an interrogation under a lamp in a basement, but it might be just as intimidating, facing them in their head-to-toe protective suits. Where have you been in the past few days and with whom? The Infectious Diseases Control and Prevention Act obliges officials to publish every patient’s itinerary from the days preceding their diagnosis, the bus, taxi, or subway routes they took, and the doctor’s offices they visited. It is vital that doctors and nurses should not be infected. This information is matched to videos captured by closed-circuit cameras, credit card payments, and cell phone tracking systems, thanks to authority granted by the same law. If there are holes in the story, they ask again. Where were you and with whom?
Why do I have to answer? Isn’t this a violation of my privacy? Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter at the moment, because the proceedings are authorized under an article of the law approved by the National Assembly. And since when has this article existed? Allow me to remind you that five years ago it was amended in view of the panic unleashed by the other virus. Or have you forgotten that this country was second in case numbers and the death rate was 30%?
And if I say no? There is no choice but to answer: your secrets, or the possibility of the virus multiplying in silence among the population; the chance of an eventual death. So, contacts are established, people who were within two meters of the patient at least fifteen minutes after they began to show the first symptoms. A face-to-face encounter, or an exchange of fluids, is considered a definite contact.
Once the contact list is complete, detectives and agents of the KCDC (the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) go out in search of each and every one, to give them the test. They make phone calls, send text messages, scope out alleyways, knock on doors. Meanwhile, the complete itinerary—including the sex and age of the infected person, but not their name—is published on an official website so members of the public know, if they were close and they show symptoms, to call the emergency line. Someone is always watching us. But we are also eager to see without being seen, to know about other lives while revealing nothing about our own. How about that hotel where that man went before he showed symptoms? Is it really a hotel, or one of the so-called “love hotels” where certain couples meet?
I go out to get a sweet bean bun for breakfast. I count the closed-circuit cameras between my apartment and the minimarket on the corner. In two hundred meters, I identify an official police device—if I get close, a voice reminds me not to litter in this sector—and four cameras at the entrances to restaurants and shops. In Korea, robberies are so rare you could count them on a child’s abacus. In the minimarket, with my sweet bean bun in hand, I pass my debit card to the lady at the register. It costs just 3,000 won (less than three euros). I’m just like any Korean in that I almost never pay in cash. I go weeks without seeing a single paper bill. Really, the KCDC investigators have easy jobs. We leave breadcrumbs in our path and don’t know it.
The cubital fossa. That’s the name of the fold in your elbow where you have to sneeze. I search for it on an engraving we bought on a trip, one of our little treasures. It was once part of an old anatomy treatise by Juan Valverde, dating from 1608. Now it’s hanging in the corridor between the bathroom and the living room. Every time I walk past, I spend a few seconds looking at it. In the engraving, some of the muscles of a man’s extremities are peeling off like the wilting leaves of an aloe. A couple of them fall from his legs and blend in with the plants and rocks on the ground. It’s as beautiful as it is terrifying.
I have to start planning my translation classes. Soon, the government institute I work for will be starting its semester. I think about possible lectures. I remember City of Ash and Red by Pyun Hye-Jeong. On the first page I read, not untroubled: “The man figured the news back home was right: no matter how strong the virus was, he had nothing to worry about as long as he kept his hands clean.”
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon