What a week! It feels as if we started with the first glimmers of possible economic recovery to finish with plague looming. Today I coughed in a bookshop (I have hay fever) and watched the shop assistant jump four feet back. Having researched the plague for my novel and attended a lecture at the London School of Economics which was a briefing on bird flu for businesses a couple of years ago I am well aware of all the ramifications of such an outbreak – and they ain’t pretty. In fact the epidemiologist giving the lecture (with a certain amount of relish I might add – I meant, hey these guys sit around all their working lives praying that they might get to witness an actual pandemic – a little like the seismologist in California predicting the big one) used the analogue of the British movie 28 Days Later sans zombies (not the US remake) – which was a brilliant depiction of an city emptied out because of plague with the obligatory satellite fortress communities of survivors. Actually this was the writing premise of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio – young Italian aristocrats having fled plague-ridden Florence to their country retreat warning off boredom through all sorts of decadence and story telling. Blitz mentality – and I’m sure when the chips are down – and I sincerely pray this won’t be the case – it will all be orgies and religious epiphanies.
For those history buffs it’s worth picking up any biographical literature written during the plague years (I’m talking black plague here) to glean the kind of behaviour humans resort to face with their mortality. I wrote about the plague hitting Cologne – same year it hit UK. Samuel Pepys covers this in his diary – in his case plague broke out in London on the 25th of April 1665 (two cases) and by the 30th of April it was panic time (interesting synchronicity here – re: the current cases of English Swine flu) and the famous plague village of Eyam has a whole museum dedicated to the plague and the voluntary quarantine of the villagers – (no doubt contributing greatly to Brooks’s research of the same scenario in her book The Year of Wonders) – an action that resulted in a third of the village population dying, with one woman – Elizabeth Hancock burying her husband and six children within eight days. More recently I was both fascinated and shocked to read a letter in the museum in Julian, California written during the 1919 flu outbreak from a local woman to her brother describing the deaths of young people she knew and how quiet the streets were of Los Angeles. Much of the 1919 flu pandemic has been overshadowed by the horrors of the First World War, which just preceded it – but that strain was virulent, brutal and swift. Accounts like this are extraordinarily moving and really make real the ramifications of a pandemic: both social and economic. The good news is that we now have WHO and a far greater understanding of the need for global responsibility.
On a more upbeat note I am now in the closing pages of 2666 of Bolano’s extraordinary novel – the final section covering the fictional obscure German novelist Archimboldi’s experiences as a soldier on Russian Front in 2nd WWW and finding his voice as a inspired (but self-educated) writer in post war bombed out Cologne. This is really a book for writers – Bolano’s plot is sprawling, messy as all —-, and, at best, operates as a multi-faceted prism on the same scenario. However, as a reader, you just don’t care. This is because his prose is utterly magical, wise and philosophically uncompromising. He too was faced by his own mortality when writing this epic tome (he was dying) and I can’t help wondering whether this was a contributing factor to the clarity and passion of his voice.