Literature in the time of Coronavirus

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Coronavirus pandemic has blindsided us, with the pandemic sweeping across the world like a wildfire. With nearly 678,000 infected and more than 31,000 deaths, parallels have drawn to the Spanish flu 100 years ago. This makes 2020 an annus horibilis-horrible year.

Most countries are under partial lockdown with a total shutdown looming ever so close. Suddenly, we find ourselves with lots of free time. Many are meditating, many are going through moments of self-introspection. For some, it is time to catch up with the movies or books. We did a list of non-fiction books to get you started the lockdown gets into its second week.

Here is some good fiction you can try, to read or re-read.

Metamorphosis –Frantz Kafka (1915)

Have you ever wondered what will happen today if you are suffer terminal illness or in some way, you are unable to provide for your family as you have always done? Maybe Kafka’s novella is the answer to your question.

Metamorphosis is the story of Gregor Samsas who has been working as a travelling salesman and is struck with a strange illness, and his attempt to adjust to his new condition. He wakes up to discover that his physical body has been turned into a giant cockroach.  As a result of this ‘illness’, he is unable to wake up and go to work as usual.

His family is at a loss on what to do with him. They are probably going to suffer financial loss since Gregor will no longer be able to work. His parents and sister, whom he has been supporting all along, abandon him at his greatest hour of need.  In this novella, Kafka’s shows the meaning of family and the ultimate pointlessness of life especially in the face of an epidemic such as the coronavirus.

Love in the Time of Cholera-Gabriel García Márquez (1985)

This is probably the book that most people will want to read with the hope that they may find some resonance with the coronavirus. This is the story against the background of a cholera outbreak in Paris that swept across the world including to cities in Columbia.

Marquez uses the metaphor of an epidemic to explore the love and passion about two lovers, Florentino and Fermina. Florentina falls in love with Fermina at the age of 18 though are not able to marry. His love for her is like an epidemic; it is incurable, grows with time and does not have any natural relief. He waits for her for about 50 years when they eventually meet and rekindle their old love.

The novel presents love as timeless, which crosses boundaries and which spreads like the deadly cholera epidemic. And just like an epidemic in perfect, love leads its patient toward death where everything gets a sense if fulfilment. This, Marquez conflates love and sickness, and shows that love, like that of Fermina and Florentino does not follow societal rules, so it is appropriate that the social guidelines allowing the sick a certain latitude to break boundaries.

The Plague-Albert Camus-1947

Albert Camus’s The Plague is a story written against the background of a plague sweeping through an Algerian town. In the novella, Camus follows the conditions of the inhabitants of Oran, an Algerian in the face of the quarantine that was imposed on them. In addition to the existentialist philosophical questions that Camus explores in the novella, the novella shows a similarity to the current situation of most people around the world: What it feels to be quarantined within the borders of the city for months.

How to Write About Africa-Binyavanga Wainaina-2006

The epidemic started in China and first hit the developed country, before reaching Africa. Still, the coverage of the pandemic in the Western countries has been dignified. In Africa, we are yet to experience the worst, but already, Western reporters are filing reports with their usual biases.

Binyavanga Wainaina’s notable 2005 essay “How to Write About Africa” satirized clichés and served as a lesson to writers covering the continent. “Among your characters, you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West,” warns the piece, which was

If you haven’t read this story, at least you should read it now. It will challenge you to evaluate how Kenya and indeed Africa is represented in the media especially as the number of Coronavirus cases have strated to increase exponentially in most African states.

When Breath Becomes Air-Paul Kalanithi (2016)

How would the knowledge that you will probably die in a year’s time or even less, impact how you live the rest of your life? Probably, this corona thing is still far away; it can’t affect you; you know, you feel, you are still young. You can probably fight it.  This is what happened to Paul Kalanithi as he recounts in his autobiography, When Breath Becomes Air.

At the age of 36, Kalanithi was about to complete his residency. His life thereafter was already planned out, probably become a professor at MIT, continuing with the research he had started, settled down with his fiancé who was completing her residency as well, and then start off to a great career and marriage. But this was not to be. He was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

And instead of his world crushing down, he completed residency requirements, graduated as a neurosurgeon, fathered a baby girl and wrote this memoir. Even in such a short life, he seems to have found the meaning of life. He died in March 2015, 22 months after his diagnosis.

What is most enduring about this text is that it shows the fortitude and resilience with which Kalanithi confronted his personal experience with a terminal illness, a slow but sure kind of death. He seems to suggest that once you have found the meaning of life, it doesn’t really matter at what age you die.

Meja Mwangi 1970’s trilogy: Going Down River Road, Kill Me Quick and Cockroach Dance

Whereas the Last Plague could probably be more in sync with the current condition, in the Last Plague Mwangi conflates disease, romance and death. In it he shows the HIV/ AIDs epidemic transformed the human interactions for good. And the understanding that there are some cultural norms that may change forever in the aftermath of this pandemic.  Instead, I recommend his urban trilogy-Kill Me Quick (1973), Going Down River Road (1976) and The Cockroach Dance (1979), a compelling and innovative set of texts dealing with what is arguably the most pressing contemporary social problem in Kenya. Although they are set in the 70s, they are still reflective of the anxieties of living in the city of Nairobi. Although these texts are not about illnesses, they have the potential to inspire you to understand that Kenyans with less financial resources have less options as they navigate the corona virus curfews, and layoffs. Even as they confront their personal experiences, they still have to contend with police brutality.

We- Yevgeny Zamyatin-1920-21

When it comes to totalitarianism and government surveillance, George Orwell’s 1984 usually comes to mind.  But I am going to recommend Zamyatin’s We. The novel explores the life in a far way country. The authoritarian ruler of this country believes that the freedom of individuals is secondary to the welfare of the State. He therefore institutes a decree that puts everything that everyone does under the observation of the state, in the form of the Bureau of Guardians, or secret police, while all activities are proscribed by the Table of Hours.

This equivalence of individual freedom and state welfare is all too familiar now as countries fight the coronavirus epidemic.  Sseveral governments have already deployed technology surveillance tools. Therefore, populations have to follow the states directives, and in some countries like China, they do not have to unleash the police upon the people, rather, the government will (through technology) monitor people and punish those that break the rules.

Whereas this may seem as something good in the short run, especially in the face of the corona epidemic, think about what may happen if this surveillance now becomes the norm in the post-epidemic period?

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