This article is published in number 10 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until March 9, 2021
On the streets, as always, red lanterns, decorated shop windows, stalls selling candy skewers. The Chinese New Year in Wuhan was an exercise in collective forgetfulness. Nobody wants to talk about the virus anymore: as soon as it appears in speeches, the subject is changed. “It’s like we’ve taken an anesthetic,” one woman, Mary Xu, tells a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She is a therapist; and explains that behind the silences, the evasive ways, there is still pain.
The fear is there. People have built a shell, an armor, but it’s a very fragile defense. The panic attacks, the feelings of guilt, the grief that seems impossible to process. Memories. Everyone would like to cancel them, but how can we – let’s say – with the memory of a sick child who, in the absence of ambulances, is loaded onto an open flatbed truck and travels for an hour in the rain? I imagine the scene as I write about it: it’s brutal, it’s desperate. It cannot go away from the eyes. “I always think of him alone, how he died without anyone,” says Zhong, the young man’s mother. “That kind of helplessness. That kind of fear. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t get over it ». I am reminded of one of the invisible cities told by Italo Calvino: a city called Zaira, which cannot get rid of memories, and is “made up of relations between the measures of its space and the events of its past”. It is not possible to dispose of it (the Chinese government would not mind) as waste is disposed of. Because even if “the city does not tell its past, it contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, in the grilles of the windows, in the handrails of the stairs, in the antennas of the lightning rods, in the flagpoles, every segment in turn lined with scratches, serrations, carvings, svirgole ».
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