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Comfort in times of corona. Or the other way around? A top five disaster books. (Why you should read Quarantine. Or not).

Escape from all the misery of reality for a while? You can, of course, go endlessly binge-watching with feelgoodmovies or exciting series, but opening a nice book about a disaster in the outside world is at least as effective - look, it's actually not that bad with us! You might also pick up a few valuable do's and dont's for emergencies; forewarned is forearmed and prepared is forearmed. Have you The Road or World War Z already read or seen? If so, here we have five less usual suspects for you.

(And oh yes, even if you order a book on the internet instead of in-store, do so on your bookshop's own website instead of from those big internet giants! Bookstores in particular need all the support they can get right now. Book Week has been extended until the end of the month, so anyone who wants can get their hands on the Book Week gift).

©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

Wytske Versteeg - Quarantine (Querido)

For the title alone, this book should not be missed in our quarantine time, of course! Self-centred, unfeeling plastic surgeon Tomas Augustus has retreated to the basement of his barricaded house in a Dutch town because of a highly contagious, deadly disease that has already wiped out almost the entire population. Tomas is one of the very few survivors. Electricity, water and internet have been cut off, shops have been looted. He reflects and describes his life, in which the last year before the disease young Maria played an important role. He met her at a party where he was with his wife Leanne, who was one of the first to die as a result of the disease.

Quarantine is about the importance of real contact, love, touching and being touched. Something we might also experience more and more in the coming weeks - or months. The main character Tomas Augustus is incapable of substantial contact all his life, he has no shimmer of human love. Only when he looks back on his life does he realise - thinking back on his love for Maria - what really matters in life, despite it being too late by then: there are few people left. He stands in the street towards the end of the novel screaming as a plane flies over and takes in a senile old lady. He wants to connect: 'My hands yearn. (...) My skin hungers.' At last he becomes a real person.

Touch renounced

The irony is that precisely because of the prevailing infectious disease, touch had to be renounced and people with few contacts were therefore at an advantage: 'It is the lonely who survive this disease, those who do not touch or are touched and are therefore safe.'

Quarantine could be called a dystopia: the book paints a bleak picture of society in the near future, an apocalyptic world, based heavily on contemporary current events: 'We saved our fears for other things; we thought a lot about terrorism, aeroplane disasters, occasionally the climate. Still the disease was on another continent, until suddenly it wasn't. Only then did the panic begin.' Gosh, where do we know that from?

©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

Roderik Six - Flood (De Arbeiderspers)

Four young people bivouac on the roof of a student flat: Victor, the first-person narrator; Nina, a woman of many faces, who has a screw loose; Michael, kindness himself, and his girlfriend Joke. They peer down through their binoculars. It won't stop raining and the valley and town below are already flooded with water. The four are more or less trapped in the tower and are the last ones left, all the other inhabitants apparently having fled or perished - black birds sometimes pecking at a corpse with enticement.

It is an apocalyptic world that Roderik Six sketches in his debut novel Flood, which was deservedly awarded the Bronze Owl 2012. The protagonists initially indulge themselves endlessly in loveless sex, drinking and smoking Ultra, a drug that temporarily splits consciousness in two. But the atmosphere becomes increasingly grim, the situation increasingly ominous, and it keeps raining, ceaseless drops descending and the washing water rising higher and higher.

And it gets worse.

Ominous

Flood recalls scenes from books and films about ecological disasters and the demise of the earth, The Birds of Hitchcock, the bizarre and often ominous reel films of David Lynch, the Bible. At the same time, it is nothing of the sort. Six creates a subcutaneous tension from the very first page. He brings to life a world that shows itself as a contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah. The layer of civilisation is wafer-thin and easily washed away. 'The water did not come in vain,' the narrator reflects. 'At most, too late.'

At the same time, the author shakes up the 'story truth' by playing with the first-person narrator's fantasies, the hallucinations Ultra induces, the secrecy surrounding what exactly is going on. How reliable is this Victor really, when he sometimes gets the urge to 'slowly shove the paring knife I used to halve bantam potatoes between her ribs', the moment Nina is once again taunting him? Couldn't everything he talks about possibly be one big Ultra-hallucination?

Six has also poured his intriguing story into a vivid language brimming with racy descriptions, images and metaphors. 'I had fallen into a verbal ambush, bombarded by a swarm of word bullets,' says the narrator at one point. So too does the reader. In measured sentences, aptly worded and well dosed, Six unfolds his poignant story. You can picture the flowery drugstrips as much as the overturned cardboard woman buried under grit praising sunscreen in a ruined pharmacy. Not to mention what they find in a convent garden and an abandoned villa - some images you never forget.

©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

Davide Longo - The vertical man (De Geus)

'Moments before he fell asleep, a grim premonition of things to come crept up on him for the first time. A new era was announcing itself, an austere period that would last a long time and in which everything would be "less", unlike the period before when "more" was the magic word.'

We are, of course, already posting an interview with Davide Longo following this book - because it was the first book we thought of when all hell broke loose in Italy. (You can read that interview here.) In his novel The vertical man Italian writer Davide Longo sketches a future, apocalyptic Italy. Europe is not what it used to be: prosperity has evaporated and the law of the jungle is slowly taking over from community spirit and reason. Looting gangs sweep across the country like a plague of locusts, leaving it stripped bare and broken. As borders close and people entrench themselves in houses or retreat to mountainous areas, more and more people are also fleeing the country, to France or Switzerland. However, it is questionable whether things are better there, as there is rarely any sign of life from the refugees.

Baldwin

For the novel's protagonist, former writer Leonardo, life had been a barren affair for years. Since a scandal destroyed his career and family life, he has been living a reclusive life in a village. He has not been writing for years, but in his 'library' he finds peace. Leonardo is a man who saves a small puppy from death, a man who looks for beauty in the mundane, a man who has little intentional evil in him, but does not seem very brave either.

The contrast between the world of fantasy and literature and the harsh, raw world that irrevocably imposed itself on him became increasingly sharp. 'Now his body was that of a man of fifty-two, devoting his life to books, intellectual reflections and dialogue. Stuff that had less and less use in the world that was unfolding before his eyes.'

When his ex-wife shows up on his doorstep one day and leaves their daughter and her son from her second marriage (temporarily) with him, Leonardo is forced to make choices. He does his best to take good care of them, but is he brave enough to protect them?

Mirror

Davide Longo explicitly refers to literary examples such as The Road from Cormac McCarthy, but with The vertical man he has written a very own and original dystopian novel, which is a mirror for our times. It is not an external cause, no great natural or climatic catastrophe, that causes the decline of Europe, but a process of inner degeneration: when a culture is at its peak, decline inexorably follows, even if it is blamed on the 'outsiders', as the people from elsewhere are called. Longo shows a world that, although magnified, is perhaps frighteningly closer to reality than we want to know. For how much humanity is left when humans feel threatened in their own existence? What remains of civilisation when prosperity disappears and people rely on themselves and each other for food, help or care?

Longo offers the reader no happy ending, but rather the consolation of peace of soul that comes from true choices and making a deep commitment to other living beings, human or animal. We can derive hope from that.

©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

Margriet de Moor - The drowned man (AtlasContact)

Not a dystopia but a story set around a disaster that actually took place is The drowned man By Margriet de Moor. With the warning of Rutger Bregmans The water comes still in your ears, it might not hurt to read again about what happened in 1953 and the consequences of that flood disaster. Well, it is mainly a story about the two sisters Lidy and Armanda.

Armanda asks Lidy to take over a commitment from her in Zeeland, as she actually wants to spend a night with her brother-in-law Sjoerd. But just that weekend, disaster strikes and Lidy is killed in the tidal wave that floods Schouwen-Duiveland. After this, Armanda takes Lidy's place. Still, the life she longed for is not satisfying because it is not her rightful one.

The dramatic power of The drowned man lies in sublime passages about the three immeasurably long, hellish days in which Lidy faces her death. Poignant scenes that almost literally (for a while at least) wash away all the corona misery.

©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

 

Thea Beckman - Children of Mother Earth (Lemniscaat)

OK, maybe a bit of a smidgeon, this classic, because of course it is less about a global disaster than about the period after such a disaster. Still, especially in today's world, this book does have suspiciously similarities to what is going on here on earth. A nuclear war tilted the earth and moved the poles, completely changing the earth's climate and melting the ice on Greenland, for example. Small groups of people survived the disaster. Thule, formerly Greenland, has become a beautiful, green island where Mother Earth is now indeed treated well. Women form the government there, because men have shown that they do not handle power and their environment well. But then this paradisiacal haven is threatened again.

Children of Mother Earth belongs to the classics of children's literature and is one of Thea Beckman's best-loved books. Just a bit lighter and more hopeful than the other titles, and what's more: with a happy ending. It is not for nothing that debate centre De Nieuwe Liefde recently chose this very book to kick off a new series of Future Readers, in which classic but forward-looking children's books are used as a starting point for a conversation about the present and the future. Children of Mother Earth is a book we can still move forward with.

Good to know Good to know

(Even if you order a book on the internet instead of in the shop itself, do so on your bookshop's own website instead of from those big internet giants! Bookstores especially need all the support now. Book Week has been extended until the end of the month, so anyone who wants can get their hands on the Book Week gift). 

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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