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The reader’s and viewer’s guide to pathogen literature

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2020-03-16 J Brooks Spector
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They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may

not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him

and to his offspring throughout their generations.”

              — Exodus 31:20

Amid some vast administrative bungling and bureaucratic chaos, the incumbent American president clearly mishandled a national crisis until well past the moment when decisive action might have helped head off some of the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in America.

Other nations — China, South Korea, Italy and Singapore, among others — have had better leadership.

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Nevertheless, the current global public health crisis is now forcing everyone — leaders and ordinary citizens alike — to fundamentally change both thinking and, increasingly, behaviour. 

Now that more and more people around the world are being quarantined in their homes or locked down within their cities and provinces, perhaps it is an opportune time to drop back a step or two and read what writers said about plagues past — or, at the very least, dial up some of the movies about such themes. Accordingly, here is a mix of some of these books and films to help while away those hours and days in our new, collective public health lock-downs.

First, of course, there should be a good read — or re-read — of the Book of Exodus. Do it, yes, of course, for its narrative grandeur — but also do it for some clarity on how an ancient people chose to depict plagues and pestilences as concrete demonstrations of the wrath of a seriously angry deity. Or you could also look at the Cecil B de Mille film, The Ten Commandments, and wonder at the wilful arrogance of Yul Brynner as the pharaoh, in the face of Moses’ warnings, as delivered through the acting of Charlton Heston.

But, of course, back then, there was no indication of the germ theory of disease. The first intimations of that would have to wait some 2,500 years. So, perhaps seeing a jealous god as the cause was as good as anything else.

Then you could pick up that great early Renaissance classic, The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio.

To avoid the ravages of the Black Death then inflicting death on their city, seven women and three men hole up in a villa outside of Florence where they tell their tales of love, lust, and loss. To pass the evenings, each member of the party tells a story each night, except for chores days or religious holy days. As a result, there are 10 nights of storytelling over the course of two weeks. And by the end of that fortnight, collectively, they have told one hundred tales.

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Now, move ahead a few centuries, and pick up a printed or electronic version of A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe, the author perhaps better known for one of his other great classics, Robinson Crusoe. Presumably drawn from the diaries of one of his uncles who had actually lived through the great London plague of 1665, Defoe’s book is replete with the intimate details of a city’s life, deeply disrupted and nearly destroyed by a dread disease.

Many critics actually consider it a more vivid source of understanding about this plague than Samuel Pepys’ famous diary that covers the same epidemic. True, Pepys’ record was first-hand, but Defoe’s book, published half a century later, is both richer and more systematic for the student, or virtual tourist, of epidemics.

Of course, for the lover of the gothic horror tale, there is always Edgar Allan Poe’s haunting The Masque of the Red Death. In this 19th-century novella, the progenitor of all future gothic fiction relates the tale of Prince Prospero of Otranto, who in an effort to escape from a mysterious red plague, takes refuge in his abbey. Then, to entertain his guests at the abbey, he hosts a masquerade ball. A mysterious stranger arrives at the party and begins to kill off each of the guests — and, inevitably, the prince himself. The most famous, classic film version of the story inevitably stars actor Vincent Price, the most ghoulish of them all.

More recently, one of the 20th century’s great philosopher-writers, Albert Camus, in his novel, The Plague, chronicled life and death during a deadly cholera epidemic, amid the locked-down city of Oran, then part of the French colony of Algeria. Though based in part on a 1849 epidemic in Oran, as a novel, it is placed instead in 1940. Partly a philosophical meditation and partly a story that follows the lives of characters ranging from doctors to fugitives, the novel poses hard questions about destiny and the human condition. For most readers and critics, The Plague is a thinly disguised description of the circumstances of the French under Nazi German occupation during World War II.

But there is also a veritable universe of science and speculative fiction that embraces the terrors of disease and this literature can draw upon various potential narratives. These can be the rise of a new, but deadly invasive disease; or perhaps a deadly disease let loose from the laboratories of evil (or thoughtless) scientists. Or, there can be the unanticipated entry of an extraterrestrial disease that lays waste to humankind (or at least threatens to do so). Then there is nature’s retribution through the collapse of crucial plant species from genetic exhaustion — or simply a new parasite/pest/bacteria/virus or fungus. Either way, humanity’s future hangs in the balance. 

Probably this writer’s first encounter with this form of horror was the John Christopher novel, No Blade of Grass (The Death of Grass, in the UK), a British novel from the 1950s that was an early environmental terror tale that posited the collapse of all commercial grasses and related crop species used for food — wheat, rice, sorghum, millet, rye, barley.

As this is happening, the story follows one desperate family as they migrate through a chaotic Britain to a would-be safe haven in an isolated valley where potatoes are the main survival crop. But their survival comes as the migrating folk must kill or be killed to save themselves from starvation. Implausible? Perhaps not so much. Much of humankind actually does depend on just a few crops for most of its caloric intake, and Ireland’s history and the great potato famine in the mid-19th century should be a real cautionary tale. Think of this novel as an early version of what we can call “Gaia fiction”?

Meanwhile, the more recent Christopher Nolan film, Interstellar, follows much of the same ground. Dust storms and mass crop failures point to the likely collapse of human civilisation unless something extraordinary can take place before the last few minutes. Nature can really be unpleasant when provoked. Or as it comes out in the film Jurassic Park (based on a novel by Michael Crichton), scientist Ian Malcolm (played so wonderfully by actor Jeff Goldblum as a kind of scientific but Old Testament prophet), Malcolm reminds everyone, “Nature finds a way”, while the film’s cast is dodging those artificially conceived, but very hungry velociraptors.

But then, along with so many others, like Dean Koontz’ now-cult classic, The Eyes of Darkness, a novel that offered readers a Wuhan virus forty years earlier, there is Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, as both the novel and then as a film directed by Robert Wise. There are also films like Contagion, Twelve Monkeys, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or at least the last five minutes of it to provide a vivid graphic explanation of how a disease spreads from a single point to the entire globe by virtue of modern air transport. 

Quite obviously, this writer is not the only one thinking about pathogen literature. The Guardian recently reported that such literature is virtually flying off the shelves of bookstores, and that is not counting the numbers who are downloading them as ebooks. 

Describing, this phenomenon, that newspaper noted:

“More than 70 years later, the global threat of the coronavirus is sending today’s readers towards novels about epidemics in droves. Publishers around the world are reporting booming sales of books including La Peste [The Plague], as well as Stephen King’s The Stand and Dean Koontz’s ‘frighteningly relevant’ The Eyes of Darkness, which has become the subject of conspiracy theories online owing to its prescience.

“The 1981 novel about a fictional virus called ‘Wuhan-400’ – ‘China’s most important and dangerous new biological weapon in a decade’ – leapt into third place in Amazon’s charts this week after a description of the illness was widely shared online. Ebook sales are up by an extraordinary 3,000% in just three weeks, according to the publisher Headline, which credited Koontz’s ‘extraordinary imagination and masterful storytelling’.

“One online reviewer wrote: ‘It coincides with events happening today to a spooky degree and made my blood turn to ice in my veins.’ Another said: ‘How could a writer possibly know about man-made viruses in 1981 that are now killing people in the same way that is described in this book? A great read but totally baffled.’ ”

The article went on to explain Amazon has sold out its stock of the Camus classic, even as its publisher is rushing a reprint of its English translation. The Guardian added:

“Sales of the book have tripled in Italy, reported the literary magazine ActuaLitté, putting it in the country’s top 10 bestsellers. Sales of The Plague have also risen sharply in France, according to the French books statistics website Edistat, peaking at more than 1,600 copies sold in the last week of January – an increase of around 300% on the previous year.” 

But to look through the whole vast expanse of what we might call pathogen literature, the villains are always germs, bugs, viruses, bacteria, swampy mists, mysterious visitors, evil scientists and malevolent meteors. The germs are never the hero. Well, almost never. But there is one. 

In 1897, HG Wells had written his novel, The War of the Worlds. Since it was first released, it has never been out of print — and a quick look in a local book store this past weekend had four different editions of it on offer. The book has been turned into films, a television series, a Halloween radio broadcast that panicked half of America, and a “Classics Illustrated” comic book with some really eerie-looking Martians. 

Various critics have tried to explain it as Wells’ commentary on evolutionary theory, imperialism, or late Victorian superstitions, fears and racial prejudices. But Wells himself had explained that his plot arose out of a discussion he had had with his brother about the catastrophic effect of the British colonisers on the indigenous population of Tasmania. Wells pondered what would happen if Martians did to Britain what the British had done to the Tasmanians?

As Philip Ball wrote in The New Statesman:

“In depicting the vastly superior technology of the conquering Martians, Wells was commenting on British imperialism. In one retrospective account he [Wells] mentioned how he had been walking through the Surrey countryside with his brother Frank: ‘Suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly,’ said he, ‘and begin laying about them here!’ Perhaps we had been talking of the discovery of Tasmania by the Europeans – a very frightful disaster for the native Tasmanians! I forget. But that was the point of departure.”

But what is seemingly unique in this resulting story is that the bacteria are the saviours of humankind. By the end of the novel, as the narrator/hero wanders through a devastated London once the Martians have stopped their attacks and depredations, he discovers the invaders’ weapons are stilled, the invaders have died, and their flaccid carcasses are being fed upon by birds. 

As Wells had written, “….”In another moment I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians — dead! — slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

“For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things — taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many — those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance — our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.” 

The bugs as heroes! In our own time, of course, we have learnt that our bodies are actually vast colonies of symbiotic microbes living in our gut and elsewhere, and that our very cells are the site of an ancient symbiotic relationship between primitive cellular organisms and bacteria — now the mitochondria that release the energy all cells need for virtually every function. 

Now, of course, we are all awaiting the outcomes of research around the globe; urgent research to understand the nature of this newly encountered coronavirus, its mechanisms, weaknesses, and, crucially, the development of a possible vaccine or treatment.

In the meantime, though, we must follow medical advice to isolate ourselves if we discover we are contagious, to adhere to quarantines, to adjust to the new realities of growing restrictions on travel, activities in crowds, and every other bit of advice flowing at us in print, on the internet, and via electronic media. And, crucially, avoiding the kinds of panics that literature provides examples of in abundance, and that can become the downfall of civilisation. DM

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