Pandemics in fiction – and their lessons
By Vikas Datta
New Delhi, January 15 (IANS): An insidious, unseen force is out there, capable of striking down anyone to cause sickness and, in some cases, death. The only way to stay safe is to stay away from almost everyone – but that’s easier said than done in our urban, interconnected and interdependent lives.
Panic is widespread as rumors abound and the crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. A description of our world hit by the Covid? No, pandemics hit us earlier too – and are reflected in our literature.
Pandemics/plagues occur regularly in human existence – at the rate of two or three per century, but their dispersion in time and space, their variable impacts and the limits of memory lead them to be forgotten by the future generations. The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic may be beyond the scope of current human experience, but how many can remember the 1957 Asian flu or the 2009 swine flu?
Literary works, ranging from the author of the first modern bestseller to a Nobel Prize in Literature winner and more, offer an insightful account of previous manifestations of life-altering epidemics.
Let’s see half a dozen of them, avoiding speculative thrillers about releasing virulent man-made organisms or the kind where everyone becomes a mutant/zombie, before answering the obvious question: why should -we want to read something are we now experiencing first-hand with all the suffering and disruption that comes with it?
Among the earliest is “The Decameron” by 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 1350-1353), written as the deadly “Black Death”, which devastated Eurasia, was at its peak.
The narrative setting of this collection of a hundred stories is that ten wealthy young noblemen of Florence – seven women and three men – leave the city for a secluded villa in the countryside for two weeks, where they spend all their time tell others these tales.
While the stories are generally about love – romantic, tragic and erotic, they also deal with the power of fortune, willpower, lust, ambition and clever repartee, and the characters include generous nobles, a lecherous clergy and itinerant merchants.
However, one effort to flee disease that doesn’t go too well can be found in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1845).
First published as “”The Mask of the Red Death” (1842), it tells how Prince Prospero, reigning over a plague-stricken kingdom, tries to avoid it by hiding in an abbey, with many other wealthy nobles. Not only that, they also throw a masquerade ball, but in the midst of the revelry, there comes an unwitting guest, and eventually, “…Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held unlimited dominion over everything” .
But, the first account of living amid widespread illness is ‘A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials, Of the most Remarkable Occurrences, Both Publick and Private, which happened in London at the last Great Visitation in 1665’ (which was how book titles ran at that time), by Daniel Defoe, best known for ‘Robinson Crusoe’.
Presented as the eyewitness account of an anonymous resident, who chose to remain in the city, the book published in 1722 gives a vivid description of the sufferings of the people of London (“A window swung open violently just above my head, and a woman let out three chilling screams, then shouted “Oh! Death, death, death!”), as deaths increase week by week.
He also analyzes the fate of certain groups or individuals, the effects on the Church and the government, embellished with a good dose of black humor, bordering on satirical.
Organized chronologically, though without chapters and containing many digressions, it is still systematic and well-researched, leading literary scholars to argue through the ages over whether to treat it as genuine history or fiction.
Mary Shelley, best known for “Frankenstein”, also ushered in the dystopian apocalyptic genre of science fiction with “The Last Man” (1826).
Set in the 21st century, it chronicles how a plague infects and decimates humanity, and how the survivors attempt to continue living, while battling other hostile human settlements.
But with his characters based on her late husband, the poet Shelley, whose family forbade him to write the biography, and friends such as Lord Byron, he also bemoans the failure of their political ideals, as well as the tragedy of human isolation. .
While the earliest modern work on the subject is Jack ‘Call of the Wild’ London’s “The Scarlet Plague” (1912), set in the year 2073 — some six decades after the eponymous plague denuded the planet of most of its inhabitants and reduced the survivors to a difficult existence, which shows how the clock of human progress can be reversed – the definitive work is Albert Camus’ ‘La Peste’ (1947).
Set in the city of Oran, then in French Algeria, it depicts an outbreak of the plague, the resulting quarantine, and the response of the varied characters – a doctor, a visiting journalist, a priest, a mysterious visitor, an official municipal and many others – while providing insight into the nature of suffering and the helplessness of individuals to change their destiny in an absurd existence.
On a deeper level, it can be seen as an allegory for the real political scourge (Nazism) that plagued Europe up to two years before the book’s publication, but also for Camus’ views on the human condition.
There are many others, in all genres. “The Andromeda Strain” (1969), Michael Crichton’s first book under his own name, shows a group of American scientists struggling with a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism. Connie Willis in ‘The Doomsday Book’ (1992) brings together time travel, plague and epidemics of the past and present. And Catherine Ryan Howard’s ’56 Days’ (2021) shows how rather brash romantic choices, in the shadow of a pandemic, can have deadly consequences.
But now to answer why we should read books of this ilk. On the one hand, fiction, for those not totally obsessed with TV or web-streaming, offers a way to understand the scale of the crisis, with stories helping to understand something that may seem too big. and scary to deal with. Second, it shows that our ancestors also faced such crises and how they dealt with them. And finally,
they reassure that life goes on, and it’s up to us to make of it what we make of it with our choices.