“Contagion” (The End of October), by Lawrence Wright, translated from English (United States) by Laurent Barucq, Recherches-Midi, 474 p., € 22, digital € 14.
In literature, there has already been a lot of talk of the “next world”, the one that emerges after a disaster. Or the postapocalyptic survival modalities implemented by a handful of individuals. How are human relations redefined in a micro-society deserted by hope? Within this now well supplied department, The road, by the American Cormac McCarthy (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2007, L’Olivier, 2008), remains a model. After reading it, filmmaker Ridley Scott wondered about the most likely causes of such a collapse of civilizations. What cataclysm could devastate the entire planet?
To answer it, he asked for the investigative talent of Lawrence Wright, investigative journalist at the magazine. The New Yorker – also a Pulitzer Prize winner, for The Hidden War (Robert Laffont, 2007), an essay on Islamic terrorism. The result, currently being adapted, is called Contagion. Lawrence Wright certainly does not have the qualities of a great stylist or a fine psychologist of Cormac McCarthy. But he reveals others, precious ones, which make the reading of his novel captivating.
Spread to all continents, shortage of masks and artificial respirators, saturated hospitals, curfews, border closures … Any resemblance to current events, or rather its anticipation (the book, sent to the editors in January, was released in April in the United States), is by no means fortuitous or the result of a visionary spirit. Because the outbreak of Covid or another pathogen – here, a flu called Kongoli, with high mortality – was not a hypothesis: rather a question of date, according to scientists.
Lawrence Wright, in fact, spoke with a multitude of public health experts in order to construct a rigorously plausible plot; like what Deon Meyer did in Year of the lion (Threshold, 2017), the South African novelist being however more attached to describing the reconstruction of a society after the world population has been 99% wiped out by a coronavirus.
The novel is the art of ordering chaos. Lawrence Wright excels at structuring a plot with panoramic architecture. Its protagonist, Henry Parsons, a microbiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the best of his generation and a born investigator. Advised of worrying symptoms at a WHO congress, he went to an Indonesian island where a devastating illness broke out in a detention camp. Soon the virus spread to Saudi Arabia during the Hajj, the Mecca pilgrimage, and then to all continents. It is killing families and destroying the economy. He opens Pandora’s box: conspiracy theories, street violence, food shortage, cyberattacks on computer networks, conventional wars, the fall of governments, while Henry Parsons, assisted by his colleagues, leads the investigation.
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“Contagion”, by Lawrence Wright: latest epidemiological bulletin