The Decameron Project



It seems inevitable that 2020, that ignominious year, now safely in our rearview mirror, will at least provide fertile ground for the imaginative mind. While we wait for these seminal works of literature to percolate and ripen, The Decameron Project provides an immediate response to these seismic events that have shaped our lives.

This short-story collection was commissioned by the New York Times Magazine in March 2020 and spans a period up to July, ie ‘early pandemic'. The inspiration was drawn from Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century collection of tales written after the Plague of 1348.

While somewhat lacking in the bawdy tales found in the Italian classic, it does capture the zeitgeist of the early months of the global pandemic while simultaneously introducing readers to a variety of voices in contemporary literature.

Some favourite authors are here: Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Rachel Kushner, and Colm Toibin, the latter presenting an amusing lockdown diary in which we learn some interesting details: ‘‘I cannot drive and cannot cook. I cannot dance... I have never willingly used a vacuum cleaner or knowingly made a bed’’ – sounds like the perfect pandemic house guest.

Charles Yu, the recipient of the National Book Award for Interior Chinatown, writes from the point of view of the virus and also appears to use my own Google search history to full advantage.

‘‘They search for things: Why do some people say coronavirus not that bad. News sources trustworthy. Facui . . . Fauci facepalm gif.’’

What results is a perfect encapsulation of all our 2020 anxieties wrapped up in an unusual little story. John Wray pens a piece about a curfew work-around involving dog walking that will be the stuff of Ashley Bloomfield's nightmares.

There is a gratifying diversity of voices in this collection, several in translation. Writers from Mexico, Italy, Brazil, Mozambique, Pakistan, and Israel, stories told from jail, from frustrated parents or lovers, and from the whip-smart mind of Margaret Atwood there is a little doozy narrated by an alien. Some tales touch on the pandemic only tangentially others, do not mention it at all.

Capping off this extraordinary project is a heartbreaking piece written by Haitian-American, Edwidge Danticat. She writes with tenderness about a relationship that ends via a final note: ‘‘words look as though they'd been scribbled . . . with a trembling hand . . . words glide down the paper, degenerating.’’

This story is a gut-punch, serving to remind us what, as a nation, we have been working hard to prevent. The reality painted by Danticat is not yet our own.

In a collection of 29 stories, published relatively rapidly, some submissions inevitably feel a little under-baked, something dashed off during a lockdown writing session. But what this collection lacks in depth it makes up for with an impressive resonance to the time we have all shared facing down a pandemic.

The Decameron Project’s greatest achievement is its immediacy, capturing a small but important window in time. It works on the reader as a soothing balm to help us all begin the process of recovery after a very dark year.

Trudie Bateman is a former scientist and University of Otago student, now avid reader

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