culture Reviews

‘And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again’ review: Another age of calamity

As COVID-19 numbers began to be thrown around the world together with adjectives like ‘unprecedented’, writers responded to the pandemic by “interweaving words”. After all, that’s what literature does well, says Ilan Stavans in his introduction to And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: championing nuance while resisting the easy tricks of generalization.

Quarantine in Gaza

Fifty writers have contributed to the anthology, representing 35 countries and “arriving in about a dozen languages”. Their accounts take in all aspects of a rampaging pandemic: fear, dread, helplessness, hope, past, present, future — and how the “reminder of Death brings reminders of Life.” If Jhumpa Lahiri writes an impassioned letter in Italian to the country she has adopted, for journalist Majed Abusalama, born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, the lockdown reminds him of the Intifada (uprising) and lockdowns, curfews and a variety of restrictions. Living in Berlin, his mind wanders to Gaza and the Jabalia camp “which has 113,000 people living in an area that covers a bit more than half a sq km.”

The virus on the prowl leads Peru’s Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa to conclude that for human beings “what will never pass is our fear of death, of the afterlife...” He wonders why it is difficult for mankind “to accept that all of life’s beauty... belong ultimately to death, and that at any moment it may all come to an end.” In her letter, translated into English by Alta L. Price, Lahiri thanks Italy for the gift of perspective, “an example of what to do, how to be and how to get through this.”

Nature beckons

The title, points out Stavans, is inspired by the last line of Dante’s Inferno — in which the poet and Virgil emerge from their journey through hell to once again view the beauty of the heavens. Other lines from Divine Comedy make up the titles of the five parts which deals with the eruption of the virus, the need for a roadmap, on empathy, hope and the future.

Some writers chronicle the immediate impact of the lockdown on nature. Claire Messud hears the earth breathing around her, and Frederika Randall, the writer and translator who died this May in Rome, tries to understand what the birds are saying. Others like Arshia Sattar cannot help thinking that the “paranoid dystopias” that she had read when she was younger (Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Yevgyeny Zamyatin) have become the “gross brutal reality” now.

The last word, however, must go to Sudanese artist and cartoonist Khalid Albaih, who is based in Copenhagen. Tossing out the meaning of the phrase ‘new normal’, he says lockdowns and restrictions are an ‘old normal’ for millions of black and brown people. The new normal he dreams about is social justice, equality, and solidarity. Or to Juan Villoro, author of God is Round who finds it ironic that the world’s governments are slashing funds for culture, when people may be surviving the lockdown, thanks to the arts: “Civilisation began around a fire. The world’s governments should know that it served three essential purposes: warming hands, cooking and telling stories.”

And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic; Edited by Ilan Stavans, Penguin/Viking, ₹799.

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 6:54:10 PM |

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