Hey guys! Usually, whenever I finish a book, I tend to search about the author of the book. I’m actually not one of the augmenters for this novel, Nemesis,but I thought it would be nice to share what I found about the author of the novel, Roth. Did you guys know that he is actually a very famous American-Jewish writer? He twice received the National Book Award, twice the National Book Critics Circle award, and PEN/Faulkner Award three times. He won a Pulitzer Prize and even a Man Booker International Prize and many other more! Did you also know that Nemesis was his final novel? I’ll attach three links, in which Roth talks aboutNemesis, his perspective on religion, and etc.
Roth’s perspective on religion and God – I am a Christian; so, when the novel dealt with some religious aspects, I was interested to know the author’s point of view on religion. I tried to find a video, in which Roth talks about his belief on religion in depth but couldn’t find one. While this is a very short clip (1 minute! very short! don’t be afraid! haha), I think it concisely summarizes his perspective towards religion and God. At the end of the clip, he says something quite debatable (something interesting to ponder about).
Interview with Roth – Nemesis is the novel that “lays out most clearly [Roth’s] own vision of existence.” He talks about his belief on the relationship between luck and life. You also get to know why he chose “polio” in writing the novel. Through this interview, you can know more about Roth, his works, and views!
Throughout the novel we have seen how the people of Newark, including Bucky and the children, keep questioning the cause of the polio disease and how it spreads. Out of fear and distress, parents started to suspect everything and some would lock themselves in their houses along with their children to minimize contact and thus prevent any chance of infection. The government and the Board of Health continuously urged the people to disinfect their surroundings and to clean themselves every time they get into contact with something doubtful. People blamed the heat of the summer, the stuffy atmosphere of the city, alley cats, lost dogs and pigeons, mosquitoes and flies (the “Swat the Fly” campaign), the transference of money and later when Alan Michaels dies even hotdogs were believed to be the source of the contagion.
What the people did not really suspect, however, was the possibility that the virus spread through water or at least it was not explicitly stated in the novel that people avoided contact with any water areas and/or public water supply. Poliovirus is known to be very contagious. It spreads through contact with the excrements of an infected person and less commonly from droplets from a sneeze or cough. If you get any of such bodily wastes from an infected person on your hands and you touch your mouth, you can get infected. The virus may live in an infected person’s body and then their feces for many weeks even when that person does not show any symptoms of the disease. Therefore, if that person is not extra careful with cleaning themselves after exhausting they can contaminate food and water or basically anything they touch. This means that water is a substantial carrier of the virus because everyone uses water to clean themselves of stool and dirt and some might use public space water to do that, which ultimately makes water a prominent source of the contagion.
A short while through the book, Bucky starts to blame himself and then God for the spread of the disease thinking that his decision to maintain the playground in business has played an important part in circulating polio among the boys of the neighborhood. What Bucky did not know was that the main source of the virus comes from excrements and therefore has nothing to do with the boys playing in the playground. However, in an important scene at the playground we first see the connection between polio and its medically correct carrier. It is the scene when Kenny loses his rage at Horace, the “moron” of the neighborhood, blaming him for spreading the disease: “He’s got shit all over his underwear! He’s got shit all over his hands! He doesn’t wash and he isn’t clean, and then he wants us to take his hand, and shake his and that’s how he’s spreading polio!” (119) At this point in the novel, this seemed to be the most realistic and convincing source of the virus (at least for me) and what Kenny was afraid of was really the true cause of polio that others did not see. Interestingly enough, later in the scene the narrator describes Horace as “the human blight” which means the human disease, one that ruins and damages something and in this case the health of those who surround that person.
At the very beginning of the novel, the narrator tells us that those who stayed in the city lived their life normally and the “overexerted” boys ran “all day in the extreme heat” and drank “thirstily from the forbidden water fountain.” The water fountain was forbidden which could imply that the Board of Health was cautious with water along with the other precautions but apparently the people did not take it seriously. In addition, ironically, Bucky becomes the new waterfront director at Indian Hill when he leaves the playground, which means that he started to play water sports with the boys in the camp.
In our discussion today we asked the question of whether Bucky is somewhat guilty in spreading the disease or not. However, given his compassion with the boys in the playground and his carefulness with cleaning how could he be the one to blame? Is it because he came into close contact with the Italians at the playground the other day, which forced the boys as well to be around their infected saliva? Or is it because he shook Horace’s dirty hands when Kenny was accusing him of spreading polio? Could it also be because he moved to Indian Hill to be a waterfront director and so he moved the “polio germ” into the waters of the camp?
Also, below is an interesting photo of a real Bucky (in a playground) who was actually a football coach in Newark and a discussion of the possibility that Roth’s Bucky was not a fictitious character can be found in a previous post, here.
In Roth’s Nemesis (2010), we have come across the term “iron lungs” which some of the characters in the novel had to use when they contracted polio. It has been stated that there is no other device more associated with polio than an iron lung, or a tank respirator. Physicians that treated people who were at the early stages of polio found that they had trouble breathing because the virus paralyzed the muscle groups in their chest. At this stage, death is frequent. Although, those who survived recovered almost all of their strength.
What powered the iron lung was an electric motor with two vacuum cleaners. The pump would change the pressure inside the “rectangular, airtight metal box” which would pull air in and out of the lungs. Breathing on one’s own usually happened one or two weeks later.
Nothing worked well in trying to help people breath until Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University, in 1927, invented a version of an iron lung that helped to maintain respiration artificially until the person could breathe independently. An inventor called John Emerson later refined the device where a patient would lay on a bed (called a “cookie tray”) and could slide in and out of the cylinder when needed. The tank also had windows so that attendants can reach and adjust sheets, limbs etc. Emerson tested it by spending the night in it and it was first used in Rhode Island to save the life of a priest who had polio.
Mass distribution of iron lungs happened in 1939. In the 1930s, an iron lung cost around $1,500 which was the average price of a home. During this time, Drinker took Emerson to court and said that he “had infringed on patent rights by altering [his] iron lung design.” However, “Emerson defended himself by making the case that such lifesaving devices should be freely available to all.” In 1959, there were 1,200 patients using tank respirators in the United States, but in 2004, there were only 39 due to the polio vaccine.
I’m rather ashamed I’m putting up a post after the conveners have already done their job for the next book, but I promise I have been filling my weekend with constructive, sort-of-course-related activities! By this I mean I went to see “Every Last Child” this morning, the documentary that Professor Waterman told us was being screened for free this weekend. The documentary is about polio in Pakistan, and the struggle to immunize children and protect them amidst so much political distrust and violence. As we were exiting the theater, Abhi (who was with me) made an interesting remark: while people perceive India and Pakistan to be quite similar, the obstacles standing in the way of healthcare were very different.
For example, in Animal’s People the Khaufpuris of India struggle against a foreign “Kampani” that had poisoned them with its chemical factory. The blame doesn’t lie solely with the Kampani, but also with the corrupt government of Khaufpur, which is perfectly willing to make deals with the Kampani at the expense of its people. With the government continuously letting them down, and the Kampani refusing to clean up its factory that still poisons the town, it is of little surprise that the Khaufpuris mistrust the West. For this reason they turn down desperately needed offers of healthcare and medicine from Elli because she is associated with “Amrika.”
The Khaufpuris have someone to blame for the chemical contamination of their water and people, but in “Every Last Child” polio is a disease native to the land (or, rather, the water). The struggle is with the issue of vaccination, since the Taliban had imposed a ban on vaccination. As a result, polio workers were frequently attacked while on the job. Politician Imran Khan makes an appearance, when his party PTI decides to back a health campaign euphemistically called “Justice for Health,” since the mention of polio alienates many.
The entanglement of politics and healthcare is central to both Animal’s People and “Every Last Child,” yet they occur in different ways. The authorities in “Every Last Child” are eager to find a solution and immunize the children of Pakistan, but they are hindered by the Taliban. In addition, there are certain members of the population who fear anything related to the West, and find it odd that the same country sponsoring the immunization program to save their children is also the one dropping the drones that kill them. While there is a similar distrust of the West in Animal’s People, the political framework is very different and worth considering. Maybe I’m saying that as a result of observing how the recent tensions in Student Government have elicited various heated opinions. Yet politics dictates many of the characters’ ideals and behaviours and an analysis of the larger political climate might lead to some interesting discoveries about our characters.
Happy Reading (of Nemesis, sorry again about the lateness)!
Hello, hello, hello. We have less than a month guys, keep it up! Oh you want the convener’s post? Okay, let’s dive on in! (Geddit? Dive…like swimming…like Bucky…never mind).
In Philip Roth’s Nemesis, we have the opportunity to see how the devastating disease polio disrupt the city of Newark and it inhabitants. Through a first person narration (which interestingly most of the novel seems to be third person) by Bucky Cantor’s former playground student Arnold Mesnikoff, we see how polio can affect not only physically to the Newark population but also mentally and emotionally as well. Bucky’s rise and fall in the novel raises many important questions about responsibility, guilt, religion and justification.
The novel illuminates the theme of responsibility, as we can see from the ideals passed down from Bucky’s grandfather and the inner turmoil that Bucky has between staying in Newark and going to Indian Hill. As early as his childhood, Bucky has been learning the meaning of responsibility and duty. His grandfather, from the start, wanted to “teach the boy that a man’s every endeavor was imbued with responsibility” (22). This he took to heart, applying it to every part of his life, from killing and cleaning the rat in the store and (for a good while) to his playground director job. Yet the rise of the polio contagion breaks this idealistic lifestyle. Moreover, the contagion serves to underline the idea of responsibility and how pressing it can be in such a dire situation. Does responsibility still matter in times of disease outbreak? Is it wrong to save yourself rather than save others?
In choosing between taking a job at Indian Hill and staying as the playground director in Newark, Bucky faces the difficult dilemma of fulfilling his obligation and fulfilling his duty as a fiance and family member. WIth the idea of responsibility embedded in him, he gives himself the burden, at first, of taking care of the children playing in the playground. He sees this as his duty, his moral and legal obligation. Therefore, he protects and shelters the children, he sees their families if they passed away and he makes sure the playground is clean and suitable for play. Nevertheless, as the polio epidemic increases, Bucky places more and more weight on his shoulders, setting up his breaking point when he breaks his duty and leaves for Indian Hill. But how can Bucky justify his self-imposed additions of responsibilities? His job was a playground director – a person who makes sure the playground has good upkeep and supervises children who play on it, not a therapist, social doctor or self-imposed superhero. Yet what makes him place more duties on himself when it wasn’t even in his realm of responsibility in the first place?
Blame is one of the central themes of the novel Nemesis. Bucky blames God for what has happened in the Newark. While talking with Doctor Steinberg he thinks “Does not God have a conscience? Where’s His responsibility? Or does He know no limits?” He thinks that if God created everything, then he should also have created Polio. His grandfather raised him to be a responsible person. When a disaster such as Polio struck his hometown he wanted to find the person responsible for the catastrophe. As there was no one you could held responsible for such a big disaster he started blaming the God. Was he right in blaming God? Is God to be blamed for everything that happens in the world?
Later in the novel, we find that he shifts the blame to himself. He thinks that he is the one that brought calamity to the children of his hometown and to the children of the Indian Hill. He wanted someone to be held responsible for the adversity and he found that person-himself. He left Steinberg family not only because he wanted Marcia to have a better life but also to punish himself for what he thought was his crime. Was punishing himself the right thing to do? Was he also punishing the Steinberg family by punishing himself?
Throughout the epidemic, Bucky constantly struggles with ideas of guilt and responsibility. As addressed above, he quietly asks the question, who is to blame for the spread of polio? In the beginning Bucky believes that it is no one’s fault, but then as more people start looking for the responsible party, he scapegoats himself, and even blames God. However, towards the end, the narrator reasons the argument on guilt and responsibility, with chance.
“Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance — the tyranny of contingency — is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.” (page 242-243)
Both the most and the least athletic kid got polio, both of them purely by chance. Bucky and Alan’s family struggle to comprehend why regardless of being the image of a perfect child and student, he still died of polio. Then, Bucky tries to understand how young strong men are killed in the war, side by side with little kids dying out of the merciless disease. The answer is always the same, “chance — the tyranny of contingency”. It is merely a chance whether you will die in a car accident the next moment, or die of heart attack in thirty years. Was Bucky really aiming at chance, when blaming God? Chance cancels out the possibility of holding a responsibility for spreading a disease. The act of infection is done by chance, and is independent of the act of carrying the disease. Bucky blames God for the creation of the distress, but if the contagion is purely by chance, then He is not to be blamed, or is He?
Summing all up, the conditions of an epidemic, as we have seen throughout all our readings so far, question moral and ethical actions of both the community and the individual. Nemesis provides an insight into most of the dilemmas held during epidemic, from responsibility, guilt, the struggle between the individual and the communal well-being, possible prevention, and God who created everything, including disease right? At the end, the narrator leaves everything to luck and chance, or not really.
“Maybe Bucky wasn’t mistaken. […] Maybe he was the invisible arrow.” (page 274-275)
What do you think readers? After all we have read throughout this course, is an epidemic anyone’s fault?
‘Animal’s People’ may well be that dagger. The chemical disaster in 1984 that devastated Bhopal, India, was till date the worst industrial disaster. Ever. Anywhere.
The advertisement on the left was designed by a team that included Indra Sinha that served to illustrate the negligence on the part of the Indian government and people in other parts of the nation after a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal ravaged the entire state of Orissa.
Indra Sinha has been public with his criticism of the events that led to the disaster and the post-disaster help provided to the citizens. His strong opinions about the ‘Kampani’ and its owner, who are never mentioned by name in the novel, make for a frustrating reading.
The references to 9/11 are striking. Animal views these events as though they occurred in a movie and is unable to comprehend the attention and media coverage it receives. The reason why this reference struck me was because Animal’s reality can be equated to these events yet there is never any empathy for a deformed, ugly victim. His distance from humanity stems partly from this apathy.
Zafar claims that they were “armed with nothing” and he is right. The only medical assistance of any note came a decade after the disaster. Elli’s efforts to provide a free clinic (a possible reference to the Sambhavna Trust that provided free healthcare to victims)are futile. The people of Khaufpur have become hardened to external help and Elli cannot help feeling like an outsider. The reason why she cannot understand Animal’s People is because her empathy is not really genuine; she is not a victim.
Thus to emphasize the true magnitude of the disaster Indra Sinha does not tell the story. The voice on the tape is Animal’s. Animal criticizes, Animal emotes, Animal cusses (frequently) and Animal observes. Many authors have tried to emulate the voice of a poor person or a victim or just a common man in post-disaster accounts, but Indra Sinha does what many authors who write about disasters fail to do: he gives Animal a voice that sounds not like Indra Sinha, but like Animal.
Personally, I am a big fan of book covers. When I was young and went to the bookstore, I would only pick up those books whose covers interested me (so this is why I end up reading more magazines than books… ). After I finish Animal’s People with a strong feeling of depression, I really don’t want to augment any serious information on the cruel background. Let’s take a break and analyze the different covers of this book published in various languages! The comparison of these book covers also raise the question: what is the identity of Animal? Is he an animal? A human? A half-half? Or, does this question really matter?
English This is the cover of our edition and also my favorite cover because it greatly depicts the crippled figure of Animal though I don’t understand why he only has one arm. Also, he seems to be running. Running for his hope? Life? Love? The rays of light that diverge from him is also interesting and remind me of the painting of saints.
Polish This is the only cover with a background of a few Indian people and the physical setting of a street.
Chinese The boy in this cover looks innocent and young. He even has his finger in his mouth. Is Animal really a childish figure who will look at his readers (listeners) to raise their sympathy?
Thai This cover is also quite different from the other covers. The fierce eyes remind me of a wolf instead of a boy. Clearly, these eyes reveal Animal’s tough characteristics. A sense of hatred is also provoked. The imprints of claws further animalize Animal.
Sinha’s Animal’s People is a novel that is composed of a collection or a series of tapes recorded by a 19 year old boy, the protagonist of the novel identifies himself as an “Animal.” He does not really remember the days before the horrible incident caused by the poisonous smoke and chemical leakage in the Kampani’s factory, resulting in many diseases and death of people living in Khaufpur. One of the victims of “that night” (4) incident is the protagonist, Animal. He got the disease at the age of six. He “could not even stand up straight. Further, further, forward [he] was bent. When the smelting in [his] spine stopped the bones had twisted like a hairpin, the highest part of [him] was [his] arse” (15). Ever since then, Animal was teased and called, “‘Animal, jungle Animal!’” (16) by other kids and recognized that he was different from the normal people in appearance, differentiating himself from others and calling oneself, “Animal,” and therefore, going through an identity struggle.
Identity is one of the major themes in Sinha’s novel. From the very beginning of the novel, Animal addresses the issue of his identity: “I used to be human once. So I’m told. I don’t remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being” (1). In this first statement, he says “used to be,” signifying that he no longer sees himself as a human after his appearance got distorted. The fact that Animal convinces himself to be viewed as an animal is evidently portrayed in the novel, especially in the earlier part of it. He says, “I no longer want to be human” (1). The following conversation between Zafar and Animal illustrate that Animal does not really know his origin and identifies himself as “Animal:”
“What’s your real name?”
“Animal’s a nickname, na? I mean your born name.”
“I don’t know.”
“My name is Animal,” I say. “I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one.” (23)
The conversation above suggests that Animal has convinced himself not to be viewed as a human. While he is a human being, he denies his human nature and calls himself “Animal.” Do you think Animal is trying to run away from reality by seeing himself as Animal? Doesn’t this remind you of Walsingham who created the feast during the plague?
Animal’s identity struggle is further explored later in the novel, during the conversation between him and Zafar and Farouq, Animal says,
Zafar and Farouq have this in common, I should cease thinking of myself as an animal and become human again. Well, maybe if I’m cured, otherwise I’ll never do it and here’s why, if I agree to be a human being, I’ll also have to agree that I’m wrong-shaped and abnormal. But let me be a quatre pattes animal, four-footed and free, then I am whole, my own proper shape, just a different kind of animal from say Jara, or a cow, or a camel.
“I’m the only on there is of this type.”
“You pretend to be an animals so you can escape the responsibility of being human,” Farouq carries on.
“And I’m an animal, why?” I retorted. “By my choice or because others name me Animal and treated me like one?”
“You’re well enough looked after now,” says Farouq. “We are your friends. … To be accepted as a human being, you must behave like one. The more human you act, the more human you’ll be.” (206-208)
Do you agree with Zafar and Farouq that Animal should see himself as a human being? What does it really mean to be a human? What is the difference between a human and an animal? What does the title of the novel, “Animal’s People,” suggest about identity and difference between men and animals? Moreover, what makes and creates one’s identity? Is identity inborn, shaped by one’s experiences, or determined by other people’s point of view? (We asked this question in FYD, remember? ;))
Other than calling himself, Animal, due to his appearance, it is significant to note that he does not know his origin. While he was given a name when he was in the orphanage, he claims that he does not remember his born name. In order to understand one’s identity, it is crucial for one to know where one originates from. This seems to be a recurring theme in many novels. Even before the conversation between Zafar and Animal, Animal talks about his origin:
On that night I was found lying in a doorway, child of a few days, wrapped in a shawl. Whose was I? Nobody knew. Mother, father, neighbours, all must have died for no living soul came to claim me, who was coughing, frothing etc. plus nearly blind, where my eyes had screwed themselves against the burning fog were white slits bleached on the eyeballs. (14)
Not knowing his parents influences Animal to undergo inner struggle. While he shows hatred toward being called a human, the inner side of him illustrates that he yearns to be a human being, creating further inner struggle. This is explicitly seen when he desires and regains hope to stand on two legs when Elli, the American doctor comes and builds a health laboratory or clinic.
Another important aspect of this novel is the languages that it is composed of. The characters of this novel all speak different languages: English, Hindi, French and in some cases we could consider the sounds of nature as a language of its own. All these languages were combined in one novel for the Eyes to read. What is the purpose of this combination? To start with, the editor explains (at the beginning of the novel) that some idioms could not be translated into English, and that is why French is used throughout the text. And, since the story is based in India then it would make sense why Hindi is used. But, what if the combination of languages has an implicit meaning? It might be that, what has happened in Khaufpur was the responsibility of global governments? Language is also strongly linked to identity, the French nun (Ma Franci) forgot all the languages she has learned other than her mother tongue. On another note, Animal is taught different languages. He he could understand the language of nature, and is taught other languages to blend in the community. Why does the author incorporate different languages? How does language affect one’s identity?
Along with all the language spoken throughout the novel, Animal seems to hear voices. These voices that are trapped in his head do not only speak to him, but also influence his actions and tell him the future. Surprisingly, Animal doesn’t see his situation as a problem; he embraces it. This is depicted when the French nun takes him to the doctor, and he asks the doctors about the possibility of walking on two legs rather than mentioning the voices. At that momment, he meets and speaks to Kha-in-the-jar. Are the voices Animal is hearing real or is he suffering from a mental illness? To what extent do these voices influence Animal’s actions?
Another significant theme of the novel is justice. The novel is not only the first book where the victims are not victims of a biological disease but a chemical one, but we are, also, informed of the group that is responsible for the cause of this plague. We know who is to blame for the cause of this story that Animal narrates; it is the Kampani factory and its workers. All the people of Khaufpur want justice. Zafar is the leader of their hope for justice. He is battling an on-going case of eighteen years in the courts against the Kampani group. Zafar is the symbol of hope for the people of Khaufpur. They trust that under his guidance, they will be compensated for the effects that they have lived with from that night. However, Zafar knows that the Kampani group has more power, connections and resources on their side but he still keeps his thoughts positive. He says,
“Friends, the Kampani sitting in Amrika has everything on its side, money powerful friends and the government and military, expensive lawyers, political masseurs, public relations men. We people have nothing, many of us haven’t an untorn shirt to wear, many of us go hungry, we have no money for lawyer and PR, we have no influential friends… The Kampani and its friends seek to wear us down with a long fight, but they don’t understand us, they’ve never come up against people like us before… having nothing means we have nothing to lose. So you see, armed with the power of nothing we are invincible, we are bound to win.” (54)
The people of Khaufpur had tremendous faith in Zafar and they knew that he could bring them justice. He reassured them with his actions and his devotion towards them. Should the people of Khaufpur have so much faith in one person or should they take justice into their own hands? What does justice mean to the people of Khaufpur? Do they really want justice or is a dream that Zafar has convinced everyone to believe in?
Ma Franci on the other hand does not believe that the cause of the night was the Kampani factory. She believes that it was the hand of god. She says, “this is his work, he’s up and running again, this time there’ll be no stopping him.” Animal thinks that Ma Franci is crazy to think that god would have this happen to his people. But Animal also does not like this god figure that Ma Franci refers to because he is always silent. Ma Franci thinks that the end of the world had begun that night but Animal tells us, “Sanjo was wrong. F****** world didn’t end. It’s still suffering” (64). Is it fair for the people of Khaufpur to suffer like this? What can be done to reduce the effects of the aftermath of the poisoning that occurred on that night?
The ideas about identity, languages and voices, and justice are discussed throughout the novel. They all influence the actions of individuals and their beliefs regarding the cause of the chemical incident. We hope that we have provided interesting questions to discuss. Hope you guys enjoy the reading and the post!
p.s. We found an interesting video about the novel!
(Can you embed this again pls professor? Thank you. :))
I found this really interesting article on The Economist about China’s biggest health scandal: the AIDS Scandal. I feel that it’s written very much from the western perspective. However, it provides a great insight into the China’s biggest health scandal. The article also quotes Yan Lianke, the author of Dream of Ding Village, in the second last paragraph on issues about censorship of his book. It’s a interesting read. I highly recommend you to read it. It is just about 1000 words long:
It is not just local officials who are sensitive. The party’s propaganda department, which is under the supervision of Li Changchun (the former Henan chief), is just as prickly. Yan Lianke, a well-known writer who wrote a semi-fictional novel based on visits to an AIDS village in Henan, says his work was banned in a secret order issued by the propaganda department and the government’s General Administration of Press and Publication as soon as it reached bookshops a year ago.
Mr Yan says that he had even deleted some details of official involvement in the blood business. The publisher, in Shanghai, submitted a court claim in September arguing that it was no longer bound by some of its contractual obligations, including a donation of 50,000 yuan ($6,400) to the victims. The book, said the claim, had “harmed the country’s reputation”. The court’s decision is awaited.