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What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us

Friday 24 April 2020, by siawi3

Source: The New York Times, April 23, 2020

What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us

People have always responded to epidemics by spreading rumor and false
information and portraying the disease as foreign and brought in with
malicious intent.


Mr. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.

ISTANBUL — For the past four years I have been writing a historical
novel set in 1901 during what is known as the third plague pandemic,
an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions of people in Asia
but not very many in Europe. Over the last two months, friends and
family, editors and journalists who know the subject of that novel,
“Nights of Plague,” have been asking me a barrage of questions about

They are most curious about similarities between the current
coronavirus pandemic and the historical outbreaks of plague and
cholera. There is an overabundance of similarities. 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.

The initial response to the outbreak of a pandemic has always been
denial. National and local governments have always been late to
respond and have distorted facts and manipulated figures to deny the
existence of the outbreak.

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 of plague and contagious diseases presents the
carelessness, incompetence and selfishness of those in power as the
sole instigator of the fury of the masses. But the best writers, such
as Defoe and Camus, allowed their readers a glimpse at something other
than politics lying beneath the wave of popular fury, something
intrinsic to the human condition.

Defoe’s novel shows us that behind the endless remonstrances and
boundless rage there also lies an anger against fate, against a divine
will that witnesses and perhaps even condones all this death and human
suffering, and a rage against the institutions of organized religion
that seem unsure how to deal with any of it.

Humanity’s other universal and seemingly unprompted response to
pandemics has always been to create rumors and spread false
information. During past pandemics, rumors were mainly fueled by
misinformation and the impossibility of seeing the fuller picture.

Defoe and Manzoni wrote about people keeping their distance when they
met each other on the streets during the plagues, but also asking each
other for news and stories from their respective hometowns and
neighborhoods, so that they might piece together a broader picture of
the disease. Only through that wider view could they hope to escape
death and find a safe place for shelter.

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.

The most common rumors during outbreaks of plague were about who had
brought the disease in, and where it had come from. Around mid-March,
as panic and fear began to spread through Turkey, the manager of my
bank in Cihangir, my neighborhood in Istanbul, told me with a knowing
air that “this thing” was China’s economic retort to the United States
and the rest of the world.

Like evil itself, plague was always portrayed as something that had
come from outside. It had struck elsewhere before, and not enough had
been done to contain it. In his account of the spread of plague in
Athens, Thucydides began by noting that the outbreak had started far
away, in Ethiopia and Egypt.

The disease is foreign, it comes from outside, it is brought in with
malicious intent. Rumors about the supposed identity of its original
carriers are always the most pervasive and popular.

In “The Betrothed,” Manzoni described a figure that has been a fixture
of the popular imagination during outbreaks of plague since the Middle
Ages: every day there would be a rumor about this malevolent, demonic
presence who went about in the dark smearing plague-infected liquid on
doorknobs and water fountains. Or perhaps a tired old man who had sat
down to rest on the floor inside a church would be accused by a woman
passing by of having rubbed his coat around to spread the disease. And
soon a lynch mob would gather.

These unexpected and uncontrollable outbursts of violence, hearsay,
panic and rebellion are common in accounts of plague epidemics from
the Renaissance on. Marcus Aurelius blamed Christians in the Roman
Empire for the Antonine smallpox plague, as they did not join the
rituals to propitiate the Roman gods. And during subsequent plagues
Jews were accused of poisoning the wells both in the Ottoman Empire
and Christian Europe.

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.

As with those old plague pandemics, unfounded rumors and accusations
based on nationalist, religious, ethnic and regionalist identity have
had a significant effect on how events have unfolded during the
coronavirus outbreak. The social media’s and right wing populist
media’s penchant for amplifying lies has also played a part.

But today we have access to a dramatically greater volume of reliable
information about the pandemic we are living through than people have
ever had in any previous pandemic. That is also what makes the
powerful and justifiable fear we are all feeling today so different.
Our terror is fed less by rumors and based more on accurate

As we see the red dots on the maps of our countries and the world
multiply, we realize there is nowhere left to escape to. We do not
even need our imagination to start fearing the worst. We watch videos
of convoys of big black army trucks carrying dead bodies from small
Italian towns to nearby crematories as if we were watching our own
funeral processions.

The terror we are feeling, however, excludes imagination and
individuality, and it reveals how unexpectedly similar our fragile
lives and shared humanity really are. Fear, like the thought of dying,
makes us feel alone, but the recognition that we are all experiencing
a similar anguish draws us out of our loneliness.

The knowledge that the whole of humanity, from Thailand to New York,
shares our anxieties about how and where to use a face mask, the
safest way to deal with the food we have bought from the grocer and
whether to self-quarantine is a constant reminder that we are not
alone. It begets a sense of solidarity. We are no longer mortified by
our fear; we discover a humility in it that encourages mutual

When I watch the televised images of people waiting outside the
world’s biggest hospitals, I can see that my terror is shared by the
rest of the humanity, and I do not feel alone. In time I feel less
ashamed of my fear, and increasingly come to see it as a perfectly
sensible response. I am reminded of that adage about pandemics and
plagues, that those who are afraid live longer.

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.

I first began to dream of writing a plague novel 30 years ago, and
even at that early stage my focus was on the fear of death. In 1561,
the writer Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq — who was the Hapsburg Empire’s
ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Suleiman the
Magnificent — escaped the plague in Istanbul by taking refuge six
hours away on the island of Prinkipo, the largest of the Princes’
Islands southeast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. He noted the
insufficiently strict quarantine laws introduced in Istanbul and
declared that the Turks were “fatalists” because of their religion,

About a century and half later, even the wise Defoe wrote in his
London plague novel, “Turks and Mahometans […] professed
predestinating Notions, and of every Man’s End being predetermined.”
My plague novel would help me think about Muslim ‘fatalism’ in the
context of secularism and modernity.

Fatalist or otherwise, historically it had always been harder to
convince Muslims to tolerate quarantine measures during a pandemic
than Christians, especially in the Ottoman Empire. The commercially
motivated protests that shopkeepers and rural folk of all faiths
tended to raise when resisting quarantine were compounded, among
Muslim communities, by issues around female modesty and domestic
privacy. Muslim communities at the start of the 19th century demanded
“Muslim doctors,” for at the time most doctors were Christians, even
in the Ottoman Empire.

From the 1850s, as traveling with steamboats was getting cheaper,
pilgrims traveling to the Muslim holy lands of Mecca and Medina became
the world’s most prolific carriers and spreaders of infectious
disease. At the turn of the 20th century, to control the flow of
pilgrims to Mecca and Medina and back to their countries, the British
set up one of the world’s leading quarantine offices in Alexandria,

These historical developments were responsible for spreading not only
the stereotypical notion of Muslim ‘fatalism,’ but also the
preconception that they and the other peoples of Asia were both the
originators and the sole carriers of contagious disease.

When at the end of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,”
Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the novel, dreams of a plague, he is
speaking within that same literary tradition: “He dreamed that the
whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had
come to Europe from the depths of Asia.”

In maps from the 17th and 18th centuries, the political border of the
Ottoman Empire, where the world beyond the West was considered to
begin, was marked by the Danube. But the cultural and anthropological
border between the two worlds was signaled by the plague, and the fact
that the likelihood of catching it was much higher east of the Danube.
All this reinforced not just the idea of the innate fatalism so often
attributed to Eastern and Asian cultures, but also the preconceived
notion that plagues and other epidemics always came from the darkest
recesses of the East.

The picture we glean from numerous local historical accounts tells us
that even during major plague pandemics, mosques in Istanbul still
conducted funerals, mourners still visited one another to offer
condolences and tearful embraces, and rather than worry about where
the disease had come from and how it was spreading, people were more
concerned about being adequately prepared for the next funeral.

Yet during the current coronavirus pandemic, the Turkish government
has taken a secular approach, banning funerals for those who have died
of the disease and making the unambiguous decision to shut mosques on
Fridays when worshipers would ordinarily gather in large groups for
the week’s most important prayer. Turks have not opposed these
measures. As great as our fear is, it is also wise and forbearing.

For a better world to emerge after this pandemic, we must embrace and
nourish the feelings of humility and solidarity engendered by the
current moment.

Orhan Pamuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, is
the author of the forthcoming novel “Nights of Plague.” This essay was
translated by Ekin Oklap from the Turkish.