Reading in the Times of Coronavirus

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Is there a way to explore reading to make sense of life in lockdown? What is certain in these times is uncertainty, and as we explore this through books, is there a way ahead? Thejaswi Shivanand writes.



The times we live in befall on people around the world once every three or more generations. While we struggle to feel the pulse of the world, Imre Kertesz is able to capture the quality of such times — when quantum uncertainty extends to the macroscopic world of daily experience — in this commentary from his Holocaust novel Fatelessness,

As we pass one step, and as we recognize it as being behind us, the next one already rises up before us. By the time we learn everything, we slowly come to understand it. And while you come to understand everything gradually, you don't remain idle at any moment: you are already attending to your new business; you live, you act, you move, you fulfill the new requirements of every new step of development. If, on the other hand, there were no schedule, no gradual enlightenment, if all the knowledge descended on you at once right there in one spot, then it's possible neither your brains nor your heart could bear it.

While it would be ill-advised to draw parallels between now and the Holocaust, it is striking how this statement set in the darkness of that time, might very well describe any individual facing the crisis today. It helps us imagine what might be going on in the mind of the migrant worker, hungry and thirsty, but resolutely walking home. Knowing the destination, and being propelled by an urge to safety and certainty in the existence of family and community rather than face urban hostility. The fear of the virus seems, in many ways, farthest in their minds. Where does the virus figure in our minds, when we are far removed from from the cares of the migrant worker?

There is a pandemic of information on the coronavirus available, such is the nature of our times. When information is inaccessible, incalculable or unfathomable, the present often invites the past to tell stories. The impact of the invisible virus can  be looked at with the lens of history with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which adds several dimensions to understanding the role of pathogens in shaping human societies. On the other hand, Laurie Garret’s 1995 book, The Coming Plague closely looks at reasons that have led to the explosion of new viruses in the last few decades of the 20th century. Garret’s book is a more relevant account than the many popular, sometimes excessively speculative, micro-histories chronicling the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic that felled millions across the world in the span of a few months.
There is a pandemic of information on the coronavirus available, such is the nature of our times. When information is inaccessible, incalculable or unfathomable, the present often invites the past to tell stories.
The stories shared in Diamond and Garret’s books are similar — viruses emerge from nooks and crannies of the world, spread out due to our physiology evolved over millennia, and aided by the elements that comprise the world including air, water, soil and living creatures. Socio-politico-economic philosophies, phenomena and processes — population clustering, globalisation of modes of travel, interdependencies on resources and products, political persuasions regarding the role of the state versus free market economics — and a myriad other factors add layers to the varying patterns of proliferation, rates of infection and death in different populations. The bugs end up affecting everyone, but people at the margins of society are particularly hit, with staggering loss of lives and livelihoods. An observation also echoed by Camus in his masterly philosophical novel The Plague. Books like these ask us deep questions about what could be the right response to the world around us in such times.

Any question of right action brings the question back to the realm of the personal. It hangs above your head like the proverbial sword, with tough consequences no matter what your response. How does one navigate in such circumstances? In cases of hunger and lack of shelter, the response seems obvious — forage and look for safety. For those of us who are well fed and self-isolating at home, however, confused feelings around right action are not uncommon. Guilt of not doing enough to support people in need often clashes with the Fear of catching the bug when thinking of ways of reaching out to the neighbourhood. While it is perhaps best to seek counsel from a trusted person, sometimes it can be the incisive clarity of The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker that can help us break out of our muddle, with a little laugh at ourselves. There are enough flu funnies in this collection of over 70,000 cartoons to light up the world with smiles.

The New Yorker cartoons pack a punch in a single frame, inimitably and seamlessly combining humour with social or political commentary. Genuinely humorous novels with a similar tone, on the other hand, are hard to come by, and a series of them is quite exceptional. The tussles of Don Camillo, a catholic priest, and Comrade Peppone, the communist mayor of a small town in post second World War Italy are a satirical laugh riot, chronicled in a series of short novels by Giovanni Guereschi. In Comrade Don Camillo, for instance, Guereschi sends Don Camillo and Peppone on a trip to Soviet Union and the unfolding grumbles, tumbles and close shaves, which includes a possible intercession from the Great Hand Above. The visit to Mother Russia frightens the nonbeliever Peppone, and in tackling this tension between the dictatorship of the proletariat and religion, Guereschi is at his satirical best.

Don Camillo can sometimes be a time warp for the readers of today given its time setting, but it can still tickle and cogitate. Since this particular title is set in the Soviet Union which collapsed nearly three decades back, we can recommend Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov, Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich, Stalin and The Scientists by Simon Ings and Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick as companions for perspective of the place, people and time. These books present snap-shots of Russia and the Soviet Union at different points in time, from a remote corner of Tsarist Russia (Chekhov), children growing up during World War II (Alexievich), the clash between the principles of science and communism and the role of scientists in branding the image of Soviet progress while living a life in fear and secrecy (Ings) and finally the circumstances surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union (Remnick). The authors blend in skills of keen observation (Chekov and Alexievich), scholarship (Ings), sharp analysis (Remnick, Alexievich, Ings) and foresight (Chekov, Remnick) with some of the best writing on Russia you can find beyond recognizable names likes Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn.

Humour can surprisingly enlighten these hallucinogenic times, but being under lockdown can cause you to waver and question the nature of reality. Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations, a gentle guide through the workings of the brain when people actually experience hallucinations, reassures me that perhaps the world exists after all. In his many decades of practice as a neurologist, Sacks came across numerous people who could see, hear, and smell hallucinations due to circumstances as diverse as brain damage arising from accidents, acute or terminal illness, birth conditions, drug use and tricks that you can play on the brain! You listen to the musical hallucinations of a young boy who is traumatized by the incessant playing of a full choral orchestra at all times, you see the blind woman who was totally blind due to cortical damage but insisted that she could see perfectly well, you even encounter Sacks’ own experiences of hallucinatory drug use in his youth! Sacks’ empathy and vision of approaching all of these people as individuals, indicating closeness and warmth, and not simply as patients, which smacks of a sterile distance makes him a seasoned campaigner for challenging normative definitions of the world.

Our love for the normative is deep, and as the ground beneath our feet seems to shift at an ever-increasing and uncertain pace, a slowing down of the mind becomes an insistence, a compulsion, under lockdown. We discover the infinitesimally small divisions of time, and suddenly realize that there are further infinities of time lying within those invisible slices. Suddenly, the madness of Cantor, the mathematician who realized the infinities lie within infinities, lies well within our grasp. Robert McFarlane’s Underland: A Journey in Deep Time may come to your rescue. In this marvellous tome, McFarlane essays a conversation between the past and the present of humankind, between the deep past before humans when life was very different and unrecognizable and a future that is perhaps also without us. This is a journey of many millennia of landscape and life form, vistas and event horizons, layered and embedded with stories and characters, and put together they can suddenly make the most opulent mansion cramped with space. This book is a meditation on time, almost poetic in its scope and ideation. Szymborska’s image of Time as a courier bearing urgent news comes to mind, but as she cautions us, “Time’s character is invented, his haste is make-believe, his news inhuman.”
Our love for the normative is deep, and as the ground beneath our feet seems to shift at an ever-increasing and uncertain pace, a slowing down of the mind becomes an insistence, a compulsion, under lockdown.
The magic of poetry is invented in the hands of Wislawa Szymborska. She can comment with authority on the existential essentiality of a tarsier (“Who else could bear such witness if there were no creatures unworthy of death?”) or the intriguing innards of an onion (“Onionymous monomania, unanimous omninudity”). She can effectively converse with a stone (“You may get to know me, but you will never know me through”), participate in a Palaeolithic Fertility Fetish (“The Great Mother has no feet. What would the Great Mother do with feet.”) and castigate a Large Number (“My choices are rejections, since there is no other way, but what I reject is more numerous, denser and more demanding than before.”). A very good selection of her exceptional poems was published as View with a Grain of Sand, made exceptional also by the masterly translations from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. An act of translation is a difficult task with any writing, but it comes close to impossible in poetry. Baranczak and Cavanagh’s translations are recreations of Szymborska’s lines and capture the beauty of the language, the humor and the wisdom in the lines. There are editions available with each of these translations appearing adjacent to the original. Even if you could decode the alphabet in Polish, the meaning is lost if you aren’t familiar with the language, but the translation present right across the page easily passes the test of appreciation as one can only appreciate and celebrate the existence of such abstract yet tangible beauty.

The world is still a beautiful place. Coronavirus keeps the streets empty and the air and water clean. We can hear birdsong and beebuzz in the heart of every city. This particular beauty is surreal and ethereal since it will vanish once the lockdown ends. Annie Dillard, writing on a total solar eclipse that she witnessed says, “The sun was going, and the world was wrong.” City life seems ‘wrong’ sans the traffic, dust and din. Dillard describes the sweeping shadow of the eclipse as it races across the hills and arrives on the unsuspecting watches, catching their breath and stunning them to silence as it did with birds. The writing is beautiful, “Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The heart screeched. The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself.” I am in the midst of a total solar eclipse now, that is the convincing magic of Dillard’s writing. A selection of her essays, collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk represents some of the best nonfiction writing there is today.

There is a different beauty in the essays of John McPhee. The magic here is in the ease of language and flow; the purposeful placement of an intriguing fact after a cryptic statement in conversation that urges you to turn the page and the next one, and before you know it, there lies the end of the essay. McPhee is the master of the long form, a genre he helped redefine in the late 60s with his book-length essays that often took a substantial chunk of a magazine’s issue even when it was published in parts. He has explored the possibilities in long form across an exhaustive list of subjects - geology, horticulture, wilderness, headmasters, sports persons, truck drivers, boat drivers, Russian painters, rural doctors, the Swiss army. A classic example of his writing is Oranges, his first book that was published in 1967. In 150 pages, you encounter everything you are likely to be interested in about oranges — from the etymology of the word, the botany of the plant, it’s domestication, the taste of the fruit, horticulture, cultural significance, its place in commerce, and the people who work with the fruit - the farmers, the fruit pickers, the juicers, the retailers, the consumers. You are always engrossed, savouring the descriptions as they go by, but in the heart of all his writing are people. And you can’t encounter a more diverse set of people on your own. You live their lives, warts and all, through his writing. They help you recreate the complexity of the world and glorify its connectedness.

Comfort reading takes all forms and to each their own, as they say.

John McPhee can represent comfort reading, which we all look forward to in such times. Comfort reading takes all forms and to each their own, as they say. Patrick White’s The Eye in the Storm is a grand tribute to storytelling, cultivating characters and sheer beauty of language. Quotes of favourite passages would yank them out of context. They need to be savoured where they stand. Vilas Sarang’s writing may not see many comfort lists, when they do as with The Women in Cages here, it is because of the ease of reading, the inventive and intuitive jumps you make between the real language of the characters, Marathi, and the story writing in English, and the absolute unpretentiousness of the stories. They shine brightly and rarely as stories shine. Ned Beauman’s Boxer Beetle is an exhilarating novel of time travel, entomology, boxing, eugenics and nazi memorabilia that defies fitting in a genre. In The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, Robert Van Gulick transgresses the boundaries between fact and fiction by interpolating translations of three historical cases handled by a celebrated seventh century Chinese judge with fictional details of his life. The judge-detective makes for a refreshing break from classic detective fiction.

Non-fiction can also have a place in comfort reading lists. Salim Ali’s autobiography The Fall of a Sparrow spans nearly the whole of the 20th century from the days of the shikar with bags of a few thousand waterfowl or a dozen big cats, to shooting with cameras and surveying with binoculars on jeep safaris. Salim Ali saw them all, experienced all. He writes with great felicity of prose and evokes a sense of lost time in Morris Minors, Maharajas funding wildlife surveys, jungles in Pali Hill, dense forests in Central India and Travancore, clouds of migrating flocks of starlings in Afghanistan, travel by ship liners through the Suez Canal, preparing boxes of bird skins for taxonomy, writing the first comprehensive and authoritative book on birds by an Indian. Lost time.

Time. Days go by. Work happens. People Starve. People Help. People Sicken. People Help. People Die. People Survive. More work happens. The Virus spreads. Cooking happens. Some more work happens. Time. Days go by.

The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz is about lost time, a series of thoughtful, snapshot portraits of fourteen people, each experiencing an act of forgetfulness in their lives. Polina for instance is a ballerina. She has a fall and is not able to create new memories and lived believing every night was the opening night. Pavel on the other hand, keeps forgetting what he just did and because of this, he rehearses the same melody on the violin over and over for a year, after the entire neighbourhood has left. It is tempting to think the neighbours left due to Pavel’s playing but one is also tempted to think otherwise. The muted tones of the illustrations capture the mood of the book and speak for Polina and Pavel and everyone else. People are not a statistic in this book, as they often end up being in ticking dashboards of the coronavirus body count, but real individuals brought to life in a swoop and a dash of a pen, happy and sad in their forgetfulness. In invoking the transience of memory in individual and collective consciousness, The Book of Memory Gaps speaks to the frailty of the human condition, coming full circle back to the uncertainty of the times.


 

When Thejaswi Shivanand began reading in childhood, the Indian tectonic plate was farther away from the Eurasian plate by 66 cm. He likes to track the consequences of this plate movement during annual hikes in the Himalayas while continuing to read history, geology, natural history, music, picture books and much fiction while in Bangalore.


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