26 April 2020

The Plague by Albert Camus

The PlagueThe Plague by Albert Camus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the start of the restrictions on "social distance" intended to prevent or at least slow the spread of the corona virus, I recommended some books to read during quarantine and social isolation, and this was one of them. And since it's about 60 years since I read it, I thought I ought to take my own advice and read it again.

When I first read it as a teenager various people told me that though it was ostensibly a story about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city of Oran in Algeria, then a French colony, which led to the whole city being placed under quarantine, it was really a kind of allegory of the Nazi plague that had devastated Europe a few years before it was published. I didn't really see it at the time. Sometimes a story is just a story, and that is what I thought this one was.

But now I am older I have read many more books and many more literary genres and have greater knowledge of history and experience of life, so perhaps I would see the allegory that had escaped me before. But I have to confess that I didn't. I thought it no more an allegory than The Lord of the Rings is an allegory.

Yes, a lifetime of experience enabled me to see things that I did not see before, so I was looking through different eyes.

One of the things I saw for the first time was that at the beginning of the book a journalist, who is trapped in the city by the quarantine, had come to write about the conditions under which the Arab population of the city were living, and that was practically the last mention of the Arab population at all. We are told nothing, absolutely nothing, about how the plague affected them. But when the Nazi plague came to France, the Jews did not cease to exist. I am sure many of them would have wished to be as invisible during the Nazi occupation as the Arabs are in Camus's book.

Camus himself was trapped in Nazi-occupied France, and when he writes of the plague as "exile", he writes from real experience. It makes little difference whether the exile is caused by political conditions, war or disease, the effects are the same. And it is not just those whose homes are outside and who are trapped in the plague-ridden city who are exiles; those who have homes in the city experience exile too, and exile, in Camus's view, is essentially separation from people you love and who love you.

Between 1966 and 1972 I experienced something like such exile four times in my life, and twice in one year. The first was when I had to skip the country to study in England in 1966. Of course I was planning to go anyway, but the haste of my sudden departure (on the road to Bulawayo within five hours of a phone call from a Security Policeman) left loose ends and unfinished business in relationships that made it feel like exile to me. Then after  my return when Bishop Inman kicked me out of the Missions to Seamen in Durban when I had only been there for six months, and I went to Namibia. After a couple of years there I was beginning to feel at home and was then deported by the South West Africa administration. I went to stay with my cousin in Pietermaritzburg and four months later was banned to Durban. But out of each of those events good things eventually came, lessons were learned, and I met people I would not otherwise have met (including my wife Val), so I would have been poorer for not having met them.

After the last of these exiles, in 1972, I read The Anatomy of Exile to help me to interpret the experience, and coming to The Plague with some experience of exile enables me to see a bit more of what Camus is getting at.

The other major difference between my first reading and now is that we are now in the middle of a "lockdown" because of an infectious disease, and it is interesting to see how what Camus describes compares. Many things he described are very similar, but in The Plague there is little social distancing. People are still allowed to walk the streets, frequent cafes and attend church services. Even when the pneumonic variety of transmission of Yersinia Pestis appears, no one seems to be required to wear face masks. Only sports fixtures are cancelled, though not so much for fear of contagion as because in Camus's book they have been requisitioned as quarantine centres for those whose family members have been hospitalised with the plague. In Camus's book there is a vaccine, though supplies are inadequate because no one had envisaged an outbreak on such a scale. And of course the plague is bacterial, not viral, so antibiotics are more effective against it nowadays.

At some points I thought I might give it five stars on GoodReads instead of my original four, but a couple of things put me off. One is the invisibility of the Arab population mentioned earlier. The second is a small boy, the son of a rather strict magistrate, who is taken ill. His name is Philippe, but later his father refers to him as Jacques. Not remembering the names of the people you love doesn't seem to be a good thing in a book about love and exile.

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20 April 2020

The Questions people ask...

When I have a few minutes to spare I sometimes go to the Quora Question and Answer web site and see if there are any questions I can answer. One can learn quite a bit about popular culture and conventional wisdom from the kinds of questions people ask.

In this time of corona virus and stayhome injunctions there are quite a lot of questions on those topics, but one that rather surprised me was how many questions there were along the lines of Why did the South African government ban the sale of liquor?

The answer seems pretty obvious to me -- the government doesn't regard liquor as essential, like food and medicine, and so they banned the sale of liquor for the same reason that they banned the sale of books, toys, clothing and sporting goods. Why question the ban on the sale of liquor? Some people made comparisons with the era of Prohibition in the USA, and commented that it wouldn't stop people drinking. so the prohibition was ill-advised.

Do the people who ask such things think that the ban on liquor sales was bad? How does it differ from banning the sale of books? The aim is not to stop people reading, but to stop the congregating in book shops and bottle stores. It makes little difference whether you congregate in a book shop or a bottle store -- the physical proximity to other people is more likely to spread the corona virus, and that is what the government is trying to prevent, not drinking or reading. There is no ban on the sales of e-books over the internet, because that does not require physical contact.

But perhaps the liquor conspiracy theorists do have a point. The government wants us to stay at home to avoid spreading the corona virus. The last thing they want is people heeding the Hennessy brandy injunction to "never stop, never settle". Maybe that's it.

Just stop, settle down at home, and curb your wanderlust by pouring that Hennessy brandy down the drain.

Another question on Quora was Why are they rioting in South Africa?

I wondered who "they" were. It was news to me, so I watched one of the South African TV news stations instead of Al Jazeera, in the hope of learning who "they" were. News item about the police arresting people for buying and selling fake informal trading and travel permits as exceptions to the lockdown. Another on the Waterberg Welfare Society making its hospice available as a quarantine centre. Looks like those exciting events have driven boring stuff like riots right off the news pages.

Not to mention all the questions about all the things that got left out of the Bible.

14 April 2020

Into an Old Room: Edward FitzGerald

Into an Old Room: The Paradox of Edward FitzgeraldInto an Old Room: The Paradox of Edward Fitzgerald by Peter De Polnay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Peter de Polnay lived for a couple of years in a house that had once been occupied by Edward FitzGerald, a minor Victorian literary figure known mainly for his translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which I haven't read. I'm not even sure how it got on our shelves, though I suspect that my mother may have bought it an auction about 65 years ago. But in this time of "social distancing", when bookshops and public libraries are closed for fear of the corona virus, I've been scanning our bookshelves at home for books I haven't read, or might want to read again.

FitzGerald was a country gentleman of independent means, and so had the leisure for literary pursuits, and some of his friends and contemporaries, like Alfred Tennyson and William Makepeace Thackeray, achieved more literary fame than he did.

Perhaps the best comment on FitzGerald comes from Tennyson's son Hallam, who wrote after a visit to FitzGerald in his old age,
The views that Fitz expressed to me on literature were original and interesting, but the old man never got off his own platform to look at the work of modern authors. He had always wanted men like Thackeray and my father to go along with his crochets, which were many. He had not been carried away by their genius out of himself and out of his own of Cambridge critical groove, and had not, like them, grown with the times...

Into an Old Room is not really a biography, however, but rather a criticism of biographers for portraying FitzGerald as a less interesting character than de Polnay thought he was.

I am learning some things from it, one of which is that I am gaining an inkling of the meaning of the word "snob". I had never really understood it properly. At school we used it of a person who held himself aloof from others and would not speak to them, because he thought them beneath his notice. My friend John Bolton used the word in that way, and so he taught it to me, and it meant someone who had withdrawn into a slightly offended silence. Then at the University of Natal we had English writing classes and Professor Christina van Heyningen asked our group to come up with definitions of a snob, a prude, a prig and a bourgeois. I was reasonably clear about the last three, but found it difficult to grasp the meaning of "snob". It clearly meant more than simply retreating into an offended silence. I got even more confused when Sir Garnet Wolseley (in his diary) referred to my great great grandfather, Richard Vause, as "an offensive snob", who like most of those he had met in Durban, was inclined to be "weak in his aitches". Rather than being offended, it seemed that snobs were the ones who gave offence. Now I read Into an Old Room and it describes Thackeray as a snob because he liked rubbing shoulders with those of high social status. When someone invited him to dinner, he couldn't go because he had promised to go home, and the person who invited him thought he had turned it down because there wasn't going to be a lord there. At last I begin to get the idea. But some years ago I bought a book on a sale, homing to gain enlightenment on the topic. It was called The Book of Snobs, but unfortunately it was by none other that William Makepeace Thackeray. No wonder I was confused.

Another word I leaned about from reading this book was "crotchets". I was rather surprised to learn that a "crochet" means "a whimsical fancy". I  know of the word as referring to musical notation, or a kind of knitting with one needle, and tended to think of it in this context as meaning something like a pet peeve, from association with the adjective "crotchety". But a whimsical fancy is something different.

A third thing I learned fits with my missiological interests. Peter de Polnay observed that in late Victorian times the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám seems to have been regarded as the agnostic's Bible. De Polnay noted:
It is, I believe, less read today than it was twenty years ago. Too many people have quoted it for their own purposes and too many ribbons of too many colours have been attached to it. It might at some not quite distant date find a temporary obscurity. The trend today is towards Christianity, the stand-by of troubled ages, and nowadays, having so proudly strayed from it, man finds himself an a pretty deep morass. The cross in a Scottish mist will become preferable to the sun on the Ganges.
De Polnay was writing immediately after the Second World War, when it had become rather more difficult to believe in the perfectibility of man by secular means.

Another contemporary book, long out of print, that dealt with that theme in more depth, was The Good Pagan's Failure by Rosalind Murray. I wonder whether, in this age of the corona virus, we might see such thinking come full circle again.

I'm not sure if the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám experienced an increase in popularity as World War 2 faded from living memory but if the decline of Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th century was fuelled by works like Rubáiyát giving expression to popular agnosticism, its decline in the late 20th century was fuelled by Christians themselves, who hi-jacked the charismatic renewal of the 1970s contextualised to fit the secular neo-liberal ideology of the 1980s, by producing the prosperity gospel, which has profoundly influenced the popular image of Christianity. So as we enter another troubled age, perhaps Christianity will make a comeback, if it can be found among the dross.

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13 April 2020

The Horsemen -- anti-ubuntu culture

The HorsemenThe Horsemen by Joseph Kessel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I pick up a 50-year-old book to read for the first time. It is set in Afghanistan, but it is Afghanistan before the US invasion, before the Soviet invasion, before the 1978 Communist coup, before the 1973 Republican coup. It was an almost unimaginably different world. And yet it is in my lifetime.

And when the book was first published, in 1970, who could have imagined the changes that would take place in Afghanistan over the next 50 years?

The plot centres on buzkashi, a game played on horseback, which was then popular in northern Afghanistan, when the king (who was to be overthrown in the 1973 coup) decides to hold a national tournament in Kabul, the capital. It gives interesting descriptions of the people, cultures and scenery of Afghanistan, and especially those of the Hindu Kush, the mountain range that divides the steppes of northern Afghanistan from the rest of the country.

It includes descriptions of the Buddha statues of the Bamyan Valley, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Could Joseph Kessel even have imagined their destruction when he wrote the book?

But the strongest impression the book made on me was of an utterly alien culture.

In South Africa one of the values people pay at least lip-service to is ubuntu, basic humanity, and compassion for other people. The Afghan culture depicted in the book is the exact opposite of ubuntu, shown in the lives and behaviour of the main characters. The northern Afghan culture, as depicted by Kessel at least, is based on honour, and honour as a zero-sum game, in which my honour can only be achieved by bringing someone else into dishonour. And perhaps that culture is epitomised by the Taliban's destruction of the statues. The Buddha taught something like ubuntu, compassion for all sentient beings, and those values are the exact opposite of the kind of values depicted in the book.

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