Fed up with the tsunami of coronavirus related posts on social media, some of us have turned back to our bookshelves and made up our mind to read books bought over the years and left untouched. There is actually a Japanese word for it. Tsundoku. It’s the habit of buying more books than one can read.
Now there are high chances that many readers, looking for some relief from this paranoia in their rich collection of books, have actually picked up a book that deals with epidemics. Those who filled up their shelves with coveted classics might have run into Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) or Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947); while the ones who went for bestsellers might just encounter a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), or Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M (2018).
‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and Some Insomnia
When I think of the most moving portrayals of epidemics in literature, the two authors that come to my mind are Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Bertolt Brecht. In One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), Marquez talks about a highly contagious insomnia plague that strikes Macondo, the fictional setting of his novel. The resistance mechanism that the town comes up with is eerily similar to our present context. It does, quite literally, ring a bell.
When the insomnia epidemic strikes Macondo, its inhabitants are initially happy because they think by not having to sleep they can draw much more out of life.
It spreads fast. Soon, the entire town is awake at the oddest hours. ‘They could be found at three o’clock in the morning with their arms crossed, counting the notes in the waltz of the clock.’ Relatable, isn’t it?
When Arcadio realises that the plague is highly contagious, he puts two guards at the entrance of the town to stop outsiders from coming in. That’s a total lockdown. As Plan B, he takes the bells off the goats and leaves them at the gate of the town. If an outsider defies lockdown orders and enters Macondo, he will have to constantly ring the bell (no, only at 5pm won’t do) so that the affected people know that he is healthy. Besides, the outsiders are not allowed to eat or drink anything during their stay because the illness is transmitted by mouth. Macondo, unlike today’s civilized cities, is actually successful in keeping the epidemic restricted to the perimeter of the town.
Marquez Saw it Before the Neuroscientists?
Just like we have by now grown used to lockdown life, Marquez writes, ‘so effective was the quarantine that the day came when the emergency situation was accepted as a natural thing...’
Soon, however, the inhabitants of Macondo realise that the most lethal side-effect of the insomnia plague is gradual loss of memory, a kind of cognitive impairment. Starting from Aureliano, the novel’s unforgettable hero, the villagers start forgetting the names of things and animals.
They literally cannot call a spade a spade, or a hammer a hammer, or even a cow, a cow.
So what they do is; they put labels. Table. Chair. Clock. Door. Pan. They hang a placard from the cow’s neck with the word ‘cow’ in block capitals. The problem doesn’t end there. After a few days, they can remember from the label that an anvil is an anvil, but they forget its usage. So, this time they come up with larger and more detailed placards. From the neck of the cow, they hang a signage that reads ‘this is a cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.’ They even put up a signboard on the main street which reads, ‘God exists’. Surely, neither they nor we can afford to forget this.
I am, of course, not the first person to be moved by the realism of Marquez’s epidemic fiction. Five neuroscientists, K Rascovsky, M E Growdon, I R Pardo, S Grossman and B L Miller, wrote a paper in 2009 on the clinical aspect of Macondo’s dementia, which is archived in PubMed Central, the highly regarded repository of biomedical literature at the US National Institutes of Health. ‘Remarkably, Garcia Marquez created a striking literary depiction of collective semantic dementia before the syndrome was recognized in neurology,’ they conclude.
Religion-Science Conflict is Not New
German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo (1939) partly revolves around the conflict between Galileo Galilee and the Church regarding the former’s scientific discoveries. In Galileo’s revolt, the Left-leaning Brecht saw a parallel to his own lifelong opposition to Hitler’s Fascist regime.
The epidemic described in the play is both historical and metaphorical.
The second outbreak of bubonic plague in human history started in 1347 and ended in Marseilles in 1720 (the first one was in 6th Century and the third in the 19th). It ravaged various parts of Italy from 1630-1633. And much like in the case of COVID-19, 17th century physicians did not have any cure for the disease. We know from the correspondence between Galileo (1564-1642) and his daughter that the onset of the disease was signalled by flu and a chill. In the letters, she asks her father to live happily, pray, and avoid contagion. In Florence alone, the plague killed 9,000 people, about 15% of the city’s population.
In Brecht’s play, Galileo slams the town authority’s failure to act in time and their practice of isolating the victims without care. Soldiers are out on the streets to enforce a lockdown. They force Galileo in. He laughs at the unscientific theories about stopping the epidemic. Sample this excerpt:
(A rattling sound is heard.)
GALILEO: What’s that?
OLD WOMAN: They’re trying to make noises to drive away the clouds with the plague seeds in them.
(Galileo roars with laughter.)
In Brecht’s wonderful drama, the civic authority’s efforts at keeping the plague in check and its eventual outbreak becomes a metaphor for the way the religious authorities try to suppress Galileo’s findings about cosmology, which, they fear, would strip the Church off its glory, and encourage a spirit of inquiry. In spite of their best efforts, the play ends with the prospect of Galileo’s theories soon becoming ‘viral’ all over the world. It seems inevitable.
All this is why reading books is the best thing to do during this lockdown rather than forwarding dubious messages and watching the same news bulletins repeated hourly. And classics are your best bet. They may help you see your predicament in a new light and give you hope for a better tomorrow even in these trying times.
(Indradeep Bhattacharyya is a former journalist based in Kolkata. He now teaches literature. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)