Monday, February 14, 2011

Spare, Disquieting Power

This appeared in yesterday's edition of New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian

NEMESIS Philip Roth

As of now, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the four countries in the world where the polio virus is still endemic. Should the ongoing immunisation campaigns be successful, polio could well go the way of smallpox in being completely eradicated.  Although fear of the affliction is on the wane, this, of course, wasn’t always the case. In mid-20th century America, for example, there was a series of polio epidemics that left thousands crippled, notably President Roosevelt. Such an epidemic, and the tragedy and fear that follow in its wake, forms the backdrop of Philip Roth's 31st book, Nemesis.

The moment a novelist uses an infectious outbreak as a subject, one is on guard for allegorical resonances. In Albert Camus’ The Plague, a city in Algiers is ravaged by a pestilence because of the citizens’ initial reluctance to act, the obvious parallel being with the Nazi occupation of France. Closer home, Kalpish Ratna’s The Quarantine Papers contrasts an outbreak of plague in 19th century Mumbai with the fear over the city after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.

Nemesis revolves around the travails of the idealistic Bucky Cantor, 22-year-old physical education instructor in Newark, New Jersey. It is a sweltering summer in 1944, and Bucky has escaped the draft because of poor eyesight. (As it turns out, he proves to be myopic in more ways than one.)  Roth’s evocative descriptions of Newark’s Jewish neighbourhood puts one in mind of his first published pieces of work, such as Goodbye Columbus: “…most of the stores were closed except for Tabatchnick’s, catering to the Sunday morning smoked-fish trade, the corner candy stores that were selling the Sunday papers, and the bakery, selling coffee cake and bagels for Sunday breakfast.”

It’s when boys from the playground that Bucky oversees start to fall ill with polio that the people of the neighbourhood start to worry, taking what precautions they can to prevent the epidemic from spreading. There was no polio vaccine at the time – it was at least a decade away – and more boys get infected, causing the uneasy Bucky to finally listen to his fiancĂ©e’s advice to join her at a summer camp where she is working as a counsellor. Though Bucky does this, he remains guilt-ridden over leaving the polio-stricken town. All too soon, however, boys in the camp start to get polio, too.

Without giving too much away, the rest of this slim novel details Bucky’s fate, outlining a theme that Roth has explored in his past few novels such as Everyman and Indignation:  the role of capricious chance in our lives. As the father of one of the afflicted boys says, “You do only the right thing, the right thing and the right thing and the right thing, going back all the way. You try to be a thoughtful person, a reasonable person, an accommodating person, and then this happens. Where is the sense in life?”  Later, Bucky is “struck by how lives diverge and by how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance.” This sentiment is summed up at the novel’s finale by a character who was a boy at Bucky’s playground: “Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance – the tyranny of contingency – is everything”.  Nemesis lies in wait for each one of us.

Given today’s terror-stricken times, another reading of this outbreak could well be the climate of fear and suspicion capable of infecting us all. Take the town’s reactions to Howard, a mentally-challenged neighbourhood youth, whose personal hygiene is suspect and who is pilloried as being a carrier of the virus. At another time, Bucky’s doctor says: “I’m against the frightening of Jewish kids. I’m against the frightening of Jews, period. That was Europe, that’s why Jews fled. This is America. The less fear the better. Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us.”  Such instances apart, Roth keeps his narrative literal and on-the-surface; such a reading is only peripherally supported by the text.

As with his other late-stage novels, Roth’s prose tries to make up in bluntness what it lacks in sinuousness. What is of note here is the care taken with structure. The ending packs a punch because of a shift in point of view, and the final scene, a re-enactment of Bucky’s prowess in his prime, is all the more poignant because of its placement. Nemesis, then, may not be as capacious as the work of Roth’s prime, but does possess a spare, disquieting power.

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