Pandemic literature: why do we need it, and what can we learn?

Several authors and writers have wondered on the reason for the growing interest in so-called pandemic literature – and more generally pandemic fiction – which we have witnessed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As reported by Kathryn VanArendonk, one reason may be that

The fictional version lets us feel some small piece of what the real version could feel like. And then, because it’s a story, it gives viewers the comfort of turning the fear into an arc.

Reading stories that talk about pandemics or big disasters, can help to build a narrative, a sense, in a moment of strong destabilization: the stories, the fiction, have a form, and a resolution, somehow.

There are different models of pandemic stories, and in many of them, the contagion and the pandemic are a symptom of something different, something more profound:

In Camus’s The Plague, it’s the absurdity of all life; in Ling Ma’s Severance, it’s consumerism and capitalism. Or, like zombie stories, something else becomes the metaphorical embodiment of the pandemic (see: Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”). But in each case, the pandemic story is some iteration of helplessness and agency, and the fiction of it means that the worst of the helplessness is contained in some way. Sometimes the containment comes by focusing on competent characters who save the world, and sometimes the thing that keeps the helplessness in check is the simple promise of being a story. It’s the same terror, but it’s set inside an enclosed narrative frame. One of the oldest plague stories is The Decameron, published in Italy around 1353, about a small group of people who flee Florence to escape the Black Death and spend two weeks telling each other stories to distract from the horror around them. Their stories are not about the plague, mostly. They’re love stories and tragedies and political commentaries and jokes. But the premise relies on the same central idea, that one of the first responses to helplessness is to find a way to tell stories about it.

But let’s try to go even deeper. In an insightful article on the New York Times, Orhan Pamuk, who is writing of a historical novel set during the bubonic plague pandemic in 1901, addresses what centuries of pandemic novels can teach us. First of all, Pamuk notes several similarities between the current COVID-19 pandemic and the historical plague and cholera epidemics, but in particular

Throughout human and literary history what makes pandemics alike is not mere commonality of germs and viruses but that our initial responses were always the same.

Denial, in other words. The delay with which governments deal with epidemics is often accompanied by distortions and manipulations of facts – an infodemic, to use a recurring word in recent months – and phenomena of stigmatization and social exclusion that further postpone the implementation of effective measures.

As Pamuk argues, retracing some masterpieces of literature:

In the early pages of “A Journal of the Plague Year,” the single most illuminating work of literature ever written on contagion and human behavior, Daniel Defoe reports that in 1664, local authorities in some neighborhoods of London tried to make the number of plague deaths appear lower than it was by registering other, invented diseases as the recorded cause of death. In the 1827 novel “The Betrothed,” perhaps the most realist novel ever written about an outbreak of plague, the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni describes and supports the local population’s anger at the official response to the 1630 plague in Milan. In spite of the evidence, the governor of Milan ignores the threat posed by the disease and will not even cancel a local prince’s birthday celebrations. Manzoni showed that the plague spread rapidly because the restrictions introduced were insufficient, their enforcement was lax and his fellow citizens didn’t heed them.

Much of the literature on pandemics – the plague in particular – often describes the neglect, incompetence and selfishness of those in power. But, following Pamuk’s reflection, in this literature, we can also find something else, something intrinsic to the human condition. And this “something” brings us back to information and awareness.

In a world without newspapers, radio, television or internet, the illiterate majority had only their imaginations with which to fathom where the danger lay, its severity and the extent of the torment it could cause. This reliance on imagination gave each person’s fear its own individual voice, and imbued it with a lyrical quality — localized, spiritual and mythical.

We too have experienced a similar situation: think of the episodes of xenophobia that occurred in Italy and other Western countries when COVID-19 was identified with China (and consequently, with all people with Asian somatic traits). COVID-19, like the plague, was painted as something that came from outside, from abroad, brought with the intent to harm. As in the conspiracy theories we have heard in recent months:

Rumors about the supposed identity of its original carriers are always the most pervasive and popular. […] The history and literature of plagues shows us that the intensity of the suffering, of the fear of death, of the metaphysical dread, and of the sense of the uncanny experienced by the stricken populace will also determine the depth of their anger and political discontent.

According to Pamuk, however, what we are living can be different from the epidemics of the past: if the fear of death makes us feel lonely, recognizing that everyone, globally, we are living the same concern, can get us out of this loneliness, embracing solidarity, mutual understanding:

Eventually I realize that fear elicits two distinct responses in me, and perhaps in all of us. Sometimes it causes me to withdraw into myself, toward solitude and silence. But other times it teaches me to be humble and to practice solidarity.

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