Books, Essays

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A review of Love in the Time of Cholera (in the time of Coronavirus)



“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” he asked. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

Much has of course already been written about this astounding piece of literature; and it has been put upon unwilling students in World Literature classes around the English-speaking World. Both with good reason.  

The first thing I want to add to all that has gone before is this: if you cannot appreciate this novel, then you cannot yet read well; or, alternatively, you have chosen not to read well, which amounts to the same thing, in the end. The former is more palatable than the latter, because it implies that one day you may be able to read well enough, or that you are just the type of person that is not interested in reading well. Fine. You might be a great person. You might a great writer yourself. There are many many things you might do extremely well, and they might be far more practical and more fantastic than reading.  

As for the latter, there’s a chance that you might still come good, one day. The blinkers you have imposed upon yourself may be lifted. And I’m talking here about the many reviewers who have decided to not appreciate the book because of a moral imposition against actions of one particular fictional character in the story, as if there was some kind of encouragement in the story to be-like-him, or that is was advocating his behaviour; as opposed to creating a an all too terribly human tension between how you empathise and despise. I can’t understand how anyone reading this book could possibly read it that poorly, so I’m assuming it’s related to the importance of a Cause versus the reading of the book; in which case, I’d suggest you just stick to simpler literature and focus more on the Cause. You might do very well with your Cause, and achieve great things, and I might have great admiration for your achievements; but you cannot be taken seriously as a reader.  

You don’t get to have this both ways. 

One of the reasons I chose to read this book was in response to the Chinese Flu, the Cholera-of-the-moment (henceforth both shall be referred to as ‘the disease’, interchangeably). People have been reading Camus’ The Plague at a greater rate than normal for this reason, but I’ve read it several times in the past, and I have been meaning to get to Marquez’s Cholera since reading Solitude many years ago … and since all the problems caused in Victoria, Australia, when they put the novel on the HSC reading list. While Camus’ novel is much more actively disease-driven, and deals explicitly with methods of dealing with the disease, both works play with the sense of disease itself, using metaphor and the visceral in interplay with each other. 

Yarra Bend Park, Melbourne, Australia: 12/4/20, courtesy of X.T.

So I’m going to talk about it in terms of the disease that contextualises the story, and in terms of the disease that is contextualising us at the moment. Suffice to say that the book plays with structure masterfully while remaining highly readable; is beautiful in so many ways, both angelically and diabolically, because beauty has an infernal aspect too, its entropic capacity, and can destroy people as easily as create and augment them; and breaks every rule of good writing that you have heard of in the way that only pure genius can. 

By the time she finished unburdening herself, someone had turned off the moon. The boat moved ahead at its steady pace, one foot in front of the other: an immense, watchful animal. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

The disease, remains a peripheral ghost-like thing throughout the story. It emerges occasionally in the background of the action. Death is ever present, and represented in the story in many ways other than the disease, such as through the many civil wars going on, through crime and through sexual violence.  

“The war is in the mountains,” he said. “For as long as I can remember, they have killed us in the cities with decrees, not with bullets.” 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

The warfare is always somewhere else. It’s reported on. But death in the cities comes more by decree, through laws and statements. Each of these things can be accounted for as a kind of disease, and with decrees, it’s a social disease. The pressure of people as a group over the individual drive, which can be seen directly in the relationship choices of the three central protagonists. And we, in the cities with our disease now, we die by decree also: there are running totals of figures, graphs, pie charts … and then the curious cures that keep ramping up. For our own good we must… And now, further, we must… Pie charts change, columns on graphs go down, up and down, and the decrees keep coming. 

There was no one else: the woodcutters had abandoned their trails, fleeing the ferocity of the lords of the earth, fleeing the invisible cholera, fleeing the larval wars that governments were bent on hiding with distracted decrees. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

The economic collapse of the region despite all the advances that had been illustrated throughout the story is marked. But poverty too is a disease, and enough people have fallen under that flag in the region, caused by decree or not. There is maybe something of the nostalgic here, but there are also some quite concrete regressions also. Three conflicts are mentioned here, three forms of violence causing death: the bandits, the revolutionaries; the disease, that has no substance, that can’t be seen; and the legitimate power over the people. The first make demands, the third make decrees … the second is simply unseen, insubstantial, but also having the same effect. So, how to deal with it? 

From the time the cholera proclamation was issued, the local garrison shot a cannon from the fortress every quarter hour, day and night, in accordance with the local superstition that gunpowder purified the atmosphere. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

How quaint it seems, and how unscientific. The good doctor fights differently, of course. And methods come and methods go. The search for the cure, the remedy, the course of pills … the vaccine! Oh, now the vaccine. This is also a purifier. And the announcement that the vaccine is here, this is also a cannon shot from the social media fortress of Somewhere Inc. that will sound like a cannon across so many accounts. It’s a symbolic act of violence against the enemy, which of course is the disease, in case we need reminding, and the many decrees are part of the symptoms, the social symptoms, like pustules or warts. They may leave scars. 

For there were no more wars or epidemics, but the swollen bodies still floated by. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

…but she noted that none of them had the coup de grace in the back of the neck as they had at the time of the balloon. “That is true,” said the officer. “Even God improves His methods.” 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

Even after the disease has gone, and the violence of the bandits and the revolutionaries and the governments (interchangeably, depending on their fortunes) … even so, bodies are still floating in the river. These are the dead for which there have been no decrees, and the novel gives us nothing to explain them. The un-decree-ed dead. What disease must this be? Obviously, not a famous enough disease. Not notable through any decree. Not yet, at least. No-one provides us with a pie chart for these, so there is no protection. No flag to fly under. No cannon to fire.  

…although later the health authorities had obliged the doctors to sign death certificates that called the cases common dysentery. Besides, many times in the history of the river the yellow plague flag had been flown in order to evade taxes, or to avoid picking up an undesirable passenger, or to elude inopportune inspections. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

In the end, the disease becomes something to hide in. The disease is a defense. Not the actual disease of course, which remains just as deadly as before … and if not that disease, then another one, maybe a new strain of something already floating around, insubstantial; or maybe something manufactured in a lab somewhere in China. Who knows?  

After all, everyone knew that the time of cholera had not ended despite all the joyful statistics from the health officials. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

There are many different decrees on the subject, many more to come. But the trappings of the disease, the narrative of it, how the decrees can be used … all these social things become ways to break down and negotiate through other social problems, whether they be state-sanctioned murder, avoiding contact with the state, or even circumventing the social ramifications of a forbidden love, bad or good, approved-of or frowned-on. The morality of it becomes secondary.  

“The only disease my son ever had was cholera.” She had confused cholera with love, of course, long before her memory failed. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

He never had the disease, but he had had a terrible love, a disease-level love, something that diseased his life, and made him infectious to other people too. People died because of him. And he was responsible for that, though the sense-of-disease he experienced mitigated his sense of responsibility, just as it leant to him a strange sense of purpose, that in one place seems beautiful and in another seems terrible. He issued out so many decrees on the disease himself, so much writing writing writing … if he had had Twitter, the storm it might have caused. The commentary. The nay-sayers. The yay-sayers. 

“Death has no sense of the ridiculous.” 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

Social distancing becomes their only recourse, in the end. Self-isolation on the river, where the bodies keep floating up and down despite the decrees and because of the decrees. There’s a strange kind of manic horror in the quarantine where hiding behind the false flag of a true disease sends them. Is it a victory or a defeat? You can’t really know. The diagnosis is unclear enough, let alone the prognosis. The captain of the vessel is going mad.  

For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

And maybe our disease is not this disease, but either way, it will go as it came. But the decrees will remain, though they might change form and shape. And bodies will still float down the river. Either way, we will keep up with the coming and going, even if we don’t know how.

Standard
Books

Tyll

by Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)



On the stage people were themselves, completely true, fully transparent.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

This is a very clever book, a very mischievous book (appropriately) and a very mythic book (somewhat appropriately). The title implies that the book is about Till Eulenspiegel, a semi-mythical ideal-jester figure who may or may not have lived in the 14th century or so. He was a mixture of a kind of Shakespearean fool, slapstick comic, acrobat, circus performer, ribald pervert and shock jock. If you read the 16th century English translation of the German chapbook, it’s often difficult to work out where the gag actually lies, and how it is in anyway particularly notable, as opposed to just mean, nasty, brutish and shortly savage.

You belong to the travelling people, no one protects you, and when it rains, you have no roof. No home. No friends but others like you, who will not like you very much, because food is scarce. That is the price you pay to be free.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

Kehlmann points toward a disruption immediately by setting the book in the 17th century during the Thirty Years War (around a hundred years after the chapbook publication). He doesn’t care for the history of the figure, but more for the mythos. However, he begins the novel in a very traditional manner. He lulls you in. We get a described history, that crashes from view; followed by another described history that also slowly unravels…

And I can see what he’s doing here, and I can see his purpose … and it’s interesting, certainly. And his writing is powerful and often highly effective.

But…

I really wanted more Tyll. The parts of the novel that were more specifically about him (about 20% of the story) were when I was excited as a reader, as opposed to simply interested. When we got into long asides with the Princess Elizabeth (despite the lovely little bit with Shakespeare) and various other figures who encounter Tyll along the way (or maybe they didn’t) I must admit I would glance ahead to see when it was going to end, and if Tyll was going to show up again soon.

“To save time I have already written the chapter in Rome.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

And he does show up (at least in some form) regularly enough to keep you interested. And yes, he’s a mythic figure and so he’s being treated in this mythic clever way etc etc… And there’s a strong dare-I-say postmodern theme throughout the novel of how stories are all stories within stories etc and yes, that’s all been done before, but Kehlmann doesn’t push it on you in an unpleasant way at all. At one point, a person who witnesses a battle uses another account he read of a different battle to describe it, who used another account of a different battle again to describe that battle, by a man who had never witnessed a battle. And of course, we the reader know that Kehlmann has just described the original battle in the usual way we are used to having battles described to us in our era, about the horror and blood and fear and death … and he too has never witnessed one either etc etc. And this all smacks very nicely of Tyll-like trickery and chicanery etc etc.

But…

… I walked away dissatisfied. Is Kehlmann playing me for a fool? As the Reader, am I the King he has the right to mock? Again maybe…

But…

“In front of distinguished lords and ladies I always miss. Then they give more money.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

I gave it three stars on Amazon. It’s a 5 star story with a 1 star focus.

Standard
Uncategorized

The Outsider

by Albert Camus (trans. Sandra Smith)

I wrote this review in 2013. I am now in a German city, but at the moment it lacks a sun. I might squint, but only for the figurative effect. I am a lot closer to reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus (sans translation) now, in that I can read through it, and get the gist when I lack meaning; but it is still hard work, and lacks the experience of reading literature, as opposed to reading a street sign. Literary fluency is still something to achieve.

Writing about the most influential single book of your life (not that that means anything) is a little like staring into the sun, the same sun here in an Australian suburb as that of an Algerian beach: so I shall squint, if you don’t mind.

Firstly, Sandra Smith’s work is excellent. I have read all four English translations of L’Etranger that I am aware of at least once over the years (Stuart Gilbert, Joseph Laredo, and Matthew Ward being the other three. If you know of another, please let me know). Each has its own life, appropriately; which could be just as much to do with me as it does with the translation itself. I am learning French, starting this year, with the express intention of one day reading this book as the author wrote it. It’s a five year plan.

 I have particular imaginings related to Camus writing this story. He wrote it between 1939-40, but it was not published until the Spring of 1942 in occupied Paris. This is a story about how someone lives. Meursault is an ordinary enough office clerk, with a strange kind of anti-social sincerity that the reader immediately encounters in the first two sentences, one of the most famous opening couplets in literature. Meursault talks to us in a candid manner, as if he’s talking to himself. As if, sometimes, he’s trying to re-assure or convince himself of what he’s saying. He’s worried about something foundational, and tries to own his retreat back to first principles.

Some have accused him of being a sociopath. Perhaps there’s a spectrum there, but he is aware of how people react to him, and he genuinely wants people to not be upset. But he also wants to engage with people clearly and openly. He is disinterested in that kind of scientific manner, but not uncaring. His manner of caring is to be honest. Most of all, it is to experience that he leans. He is a caring hedonist, a hedonist who wishes to experience pleasure, but doesn’t wish any more meaning be ascribed to it than the universe offers. Which is none.

When Marie asks him if he loves her:

She asked me if I loved her. I told her that didn’t mean anything, but I didn’t think so.

When Meursault sees her pain in reaction to his response, he softens his honesty as best he can. It surprises him when he answers genuinely and others are so surprised. He is capable of lying, and he does so several times, when someone is bothering him and he realises what they want to hear and so he says it so they will go away and leave him alone. But to people he cares for, as for himself, he is more himself. And that’s the self we are privy to. When he looks at the world his descriptions of a plain Sunday afternoon are almost like a striking impressionist work of art.

He likes smoking. He likes chocolate. He likes swimming and women. He tells the Judge in Part II: One of the characteristics of my personality was that physical sensations often get in the way of my emotions. He shoots and kills a knife-wielding Arab on a beach. Later, in the courtroom, he says it was because of the sun. The ever present heat overhead, the inevitability of life, that-which-cannot-be-avoided-and-beats-down-on-us-all. This was not before he stopped his friend from doing the same thing earlier.

The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down upon me. My whole body tensed as I gripped the gun. It set off the trigger.

…and it was then, with that sharp, deafening sound, that it all began.

Until he is on the way to the guillotine and:

…it might be finished.

That journey is Meursault’s journey towards an acceptance of the Absurd: to put simply, Camus’ notion that human beings live in an essentially meaningless universe where they are compelled as part of that living to search for (and often demand) some sort of essential meaning. It is not until his last outburst at a chaplain purges him of evil, and empties him of hope, that he can finally, for the first time, open himself up:

…to the tender indifference of the world.

This indifference, a tender indifference, is an understanding of how to live in that gap, to be happy, to allow for happiness, within that Absurd gap. He is happy on the path to death, and he is willing the participation of others in it, even if they are hateful. Meursault becomes the ‘…only Christ we deserve.’

Standard