From Albert Camus to Orly Castel-Bloom, pandemics have been a muse for non-English writers for decades. The finest non-English writers [note: Albert Camus and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were Nobel Prize winners] have been using diseases and paranoia to connect with readers since time immemorial. As the world grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, we have specially compiled a list of translated pandemic novels to read while social distancing.
1. The Plague
Translated by Stuart Gilbert, French Algerian philosopher-writer Albert Camus’s The Plague (French: La Peste), begins with the sudden death of thousands of rats in the streets and follows with the outbreak of a plague carried by rats in a French Algerian city called Oran. Much of the novel is centred on a dialectic between two primary characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux and Father Paneloux. Dr. Rieux is an atheist, and he struggles to tend to the plague’s victims without thinking much about their suffering. Father Paneloux claims that the plague is God’s way of punishing sinners, and he sees his faith tested when a child dies of the plague.
Based on Oran’s actual cholera epidemic in 1849, The Plague has been regarded as a classic existentialist literature that encapsulates several existentialist questions that we are now asking ourselves as the coronavirus spreads further, shelves in supermarkets are emptied, and fears are channelled into racism against Asians: What is the meaning of life? Why do people suffer? Are humans good or evil? Can humans forge solidarity to fight suffering? How do humans deal with death?
2. Plague and Cholera
Patrick Deville’s Plague and Cholera (French: Peste et Cholera), translated by J.A. Underwood, is a fictionalised biography that recounts the fascinating life of French-Swiss microbiologist Alexandre Yersin, an infinitely curious and intelligent man who discovered the bacillus responsible for the bubonic plague – Yersinia pestis – which was named in his honour. A novel-travelogue that combines intriguing fact and fiction, Plague and Cholera details Yersin’s voyages and adventures from the Paris laboratories to a Hong Kong hospital where he identified and vaccinated against bubonic plague, and describes his keen interest in everything (medicine, agriculture, automobiles) except the arts, business and politics.
We can’t travel right now, but this multiple award-winning novel will keep the wanderlust in you alive and help you time-travel back to twenty years before the first world war, where ‘a plague epidemic in China, creeping closer to Tonkin, reaches Hong Kong in May.’
In Niccolo Ammaniti’s Italian post-apocalyptic novel Anna, translated by Jonathan Hunt, a virus known as the Red Fever kills off everyone over the age of fourteen on the island of Sicily, and leaves the children under the age of fourteen to fend for themselves. A thirteen-year-old child named Anna struggles to survive as she tries to protect her younger brother Astor, armed with a special book that her mother has created before her death that offers instructions on how to take temperatures, how to tell if someone has the virus, and how to dispose of dead bodies. And fate awaits as she slowly reaches the age of fourteen.
If the coronavirus outbreak has shown us the selfishness of adults, Anna makes it clear to us that the Sicilian children in Ammaniti’s novel can be just as vicious and mean-spirited. Anna, desperate and terrified, is not unsusceptible to violence and anger. Anna reminds us of what fear and desperation can do even to the young and vulnerable.
4. Human Parts
Orly Castel-Bloom’s Human Parts (Hebrew: Halakim Enoshiyim), translated by Dalya Bilu, is set in Israel during the Al Aksa Intifada. It is a dry winter and a mysterious and fatal disease known as the Saudi flu is spreading as the economy lies in ruins. The hospitals are on the brink of collapse as the flu epidemic and endless rounds of terrorist attacks send masses of people to the hospitals.
People are dying and buildings are being destroyed, but the characters in Human Parts continue to watch TV, visit the laundromat and train to be beauticians. Life goes on, or at least the characters in Human Parts try to live with some modicum of normalcy, though they can never return to their former lives. Freelancers and office workers who have been badly hit by the coronavirus outbreak may relate to the characters’ struggle and resolve to survive the unusually chilly winter.
5. Love in the Time of Cholera
Love in the Time of Cholera (Spanish: El amor en los tiempos del cólera), translated by Edith Grossman, is a novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When Fermina’s husband Dr. Urbino dies, her former lover Florentino with whom she had fallen in love fifty-one years ago, appears at her husband’s funeral. Florentino, though he has had hundreds of other affairs, has declared his eternal love for Fermina and is determined to win her back. “Fermina, he said, I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”
Unlike other pandemic novels, Love in the Time of Cholera tells of a complex love story that explores the character of life in all its guises, and depicts lovesickness as a literal illness that is comparable to cholera. The title is a pun as ‘cholera’ in Spanish refers to both cholera as passion and cholera as a disease. Love, as Garcia Marquez suggests, is a disease that can outlast time and decades of war and cholera.