As many plagues as wars in history

Both fiction and non-fiction is inspired by the reality around us. And it is fascinating that so much has been written on epidemics that seem to have hounded mankind for centuries

As many plagues as wars in history
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Biswadeep Ghosh

The world is under siege. Loud alarm bells are ringing everywhere. Thousands have been infected by the novel coronavirus. Many have lost their lives. The number of both is increasing with each passing hour. The scenario, in one word, is scary.

Selfless healthcare professionals are attending to patients struck by the virus. Expressions such as social distancing, lockdown, self-isolation and outbreak have implications we must not ignore. Governments are panicking. The global economy is hurtling towards a big crash.

The French author and journalist Albert Camus wrote The Plague, possibly the most influential novel on the theme, which was published in 1947. Camus’s existential classic about a plague that hit the French Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s triggered the novel based on the cholera epidemic that had struck the city in 1849.

After carcasses of rats are found in Oran, the government has to make arrangements for their cremation. That is the beginning of a horror story. A concierge dies of a mysterious illness soon. He is the first person to die thus, and the number continues to multiply until the narrator Dr Bernard Rieux and his colleague Dr Castel start believing that the disease that is killing the townspeople is the bubonic plague. Finally, Oran is placed under quarantine.

The Plague is a reflection on human condition and destiny. The novel has many characters, who respond to their unexpected confinement by longing to interact with their loved ones. In a sermon, the Jesuit priest Father Paneloux insists that Oran’s citizens are paying for their sins.

Joseph Grand, an old clerk, struggles to find the first sentence of a book he aspires to write. The plague would come to an end in the long run. Deep within, however, Dr Rieux is aware that the plague can remain dormant for years, which makes the apparent triumph over the disease temporary.

Camus’s reflections on the epidemic make The Plague a relevant book for our times. He notes, “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” As the world is faced with a new danger, these prescient lines have come back to haunt us once more.

One novel that has invited comparisons with Camus’s classic is Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, a work of historical fiction by the Australian-American novelist-journalist Geraldine Brooks was published as recently as 2016.

The story is set in Eyam, a small village in England. The year is 1666, and a bolt of cloth that arrives from London to Eyam carries with it the bubonic plague. Housemaid Anna Frith, who works for a pastor, and her fellow villagers decide to quarantine themselves to stop the plague from spreading. Eventually, the epidemic consumes many villagers while accusatory fingers are raised and attempts to find reasons for the deaths made.

Written in rich prose and with a flawed but strong female protagonist, Year of Wonders is a captivating portrait of the impact of a disease in a remote village. The book has its share of vivid descriptions that live on in the reader’s mind.

“The day of his death, the strange circles bloomed on him: vivid crimson welts rising in rings just beneath the topmost layer of his skin... It seemed as if the flesh inside of him was dying while he yet breathed, the putrefying meat pushing and bursting its way out of his failing body.”

An extraordinary novel that merges historical fact with fiction, this is a book worth reading while we spend time in voluntary self-isolation, hoping that things shall change for the better soon.

At 823 pages, Stephen King’s

The Stand (1978) is a dystopian post-apocalyptic novel with an unsatisfactory ending that makes us wonder why the author had to go wrong after keeping us mesmerised for the most part. It is about what happens after a dangerous strain of influenza secretly developed by the US Department of Defense gets accidentally released.

More than 99 per cent of the world’s population is killed by the virus, which is resistant to antibodies and vaccines. The pandemic seems unstoppable. Chaos and tragedies rule. The extinction of humankind seems inevitable. Those who survive get united in two groups that engage in a confrontation with each other.

The Stand is King’s most ambitious novel.

One could say that the story’s basic theme -the triumph of good over evil – has nothing new about it. But King is expectedly impressive in his characterisation and plotting, two qualities that have established him as one of the bestselling writers of the world.

One 2018 novel that received less publicity than a few others released in the same year is Severance, a startlingly original science fiction work by the Chinese American author Ling Ma. The novel is the story of Candace Chen, a professionally committed production assistant in the Bible department of Spectra, a publishing house in New York.

Candace goes through her monotonous routine while also creating the content for her NY Ghost blog in secret.

The story tracks her life before the emergence of Shen Fever, a mysterious fungal infection with its origin in Shenzhen in China. While people struck by the infection behave inexplicably, she is the last survivor to flee New York. Much happens thereafter as the script of her life undergoes a sea-change.

Severance is a smartly written bildungsroman that reminds us of the coronavirus disease, the virus in the novel being first spotted in Shenzhen instead of Wuhan. Those infected by the Shen Fever indulge in repetitive routines until they die, which is vastly different from the sufferings of those struck by the coronavirus disease. Living as we are in distressing times, however, this offbeat novel shall give rise to uneasy thoughts about a pandemic’s ability to destroy and terrify.

Written by the Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014) unfolds in the Great Lakes region. A famous actor dies of a heart attack on the stage while acting in King Lear shortly before most of humankind is wiped out by a fictional ‘Georgia flu’. That occurrence might invite comparisons with The Stand in which a deadly virus kills most people.

Mandel, however, has different ideas. Her story seesaws between two timelines, one situated before the end of civilisation and the other after it. The actor who dies is at the centre of the plot, and the story introduces us to people who have some relevance in his life.

The author’s delicious prose keeps things moving, and a journey with the novel is a trek in trance.

Readers on the lookout for offbeat fictional creativity might choose to find time for American author Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), a masterfully written zombie story about what happens after a pandemic has unleashed devastation, and Manhattan needs to be resettled. Among other things, the novel portrays a zombie apocalypse with great distinction, making it eminently readable for those with an appetite for the unusual.

If passionate about graphic novels, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, a twelve-volume limited series published in a collected form in 2005, is a classic you must be familiar with.

Set in Seattle, the story’s engaging plot follows a bunch of teenagers who develop mutations after contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Their physical changes turn them into outcasts and the story of their lives changes in ways they had never imagined. Marvellously illustrated and written, Black Hole is an unforgettable graphic novel that we can return to time and again.

One work of non-fiction that has been applauded worldwide is The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic– and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World (2006), a book with a longish title authored by Steven Berlin Johnson. In his path-breaking work, Johnson writes about the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak that took place in the City of Westminster in London during the cholera pandemic that had spread across the world.

The Broad Street outbreak is described in illuminating detail, and the focus is on the physician John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead, a Church of England priest. Snow came up with the hypothesis that contaminated water led to cholera.

Whitehead’s deep-rooted understanding of his community helped him track down the origin of the outbreak. An informative work of historical value, The Ghost Map is meant to be read at leisure.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (1994) makes for fast-paced reading, but it deals with real events with Preston talking about the dreaded Ebola virus and other filoviruses, which reminds us that humankind is a lot more vulnerable to illnesses and epidemics than it often seems.

Aided by extraordinary research, the author describes outbreaks, particularly in Africa. He also writes about those selfless professionals who dedicate their lives to find cures, often putting themselves in great danger. Reading The Hot Zone is an enriching experience that leaves us with memories of one Charles Monet, the first victim of the Ebola outbreak in Africa – and many others too.

Vaccination, in modern times, is perfectly normal. Living in such times, it is difficult to imagine that smallpox vaccination had triggered a civil liberties struggle. In Pox: An American History (2011), historian Michael Willrich talks about a smallpox epidemic in the United States at the turn of the century, and how the public health officials as also the medical community had to deal with fear and resistance to new scientific developments.

Supported by outstanding research, the book that studies the politics and confrontations is a reminder that acceptance of change takes time. It is a complex, well-argued historical study accompanied by fascinating data that will keep the serious reader engaged until the end.

Dealing with a pandemic has been a challenge for humankind in the past. That will continue to be the case since society is caught unprepared when something mysterious and new assails us out of nowhere. History has enough instances from the past, which is a major reason why books on them get written. Books hinging on the subject will appear periodically in the future, too, since some things never change.

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Published: 29 Mar 2020, 7:59 AM