Pandemic Fear: Fred Vargas, Pars vite et reviens tard / Have Mercy on Us All , translated by David Bellos

Richard C. Keller, University of Wisconsin-Madison

A disgraced seaman, shunned by his community after a wreck, abandons the coast for the city. He takes up a new vocation as town crier. Standing in a town square, he reads paid announcements to an eager public. They are mostly banal: offers of goods for sale, proclamations of love, disparagements of merchants who have offered substandard service or wares. But amid the ordinary appear disturbing, prophetic, ominous ravings: “And then, when snakes, bats, badgers, and all the animals who live in the depths of their underground caverns pour into the fields and abandon their natural habitats, when fruits and vegetables rot in the fields and are filled with worms….” Meanwhile, disturbing backward “4s” with two strokes through their tail and adorned with the letters “CLT” appear in multiple buildings throughout the city, scrawled on every door but one. Before long, the symbols proliferate throughout the city as the town crier’s warnings—from an anonymous patron—move from portentous signs to clear proclamations of the arrival of plague in the city. Behind the unmarked doors, authorities find dead bodies with blackened skin, covered in the bites of rat fleas.

Fred Vargas makes ample use of medieval imagery in her novel, Pars vite et reviens tard. Yet the story unfolds in early twenty-first century Paris. Joss Le Guern is the Breton fisherman, unfairly blamed for the wreck that killed his crew. He turns to drink and becomes a modern-day town crier in a fourteenth-arrondissement neighborhood. Neighbors complaining of the graffiti on their doors draw the attention of Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, head of a newly established special crimes unit. Adamsberg and his team quickly put together the deaths, the symbols, and Le Guern’s ramblings. It appears that a murderer has developed a way to control bubonic plague and unleash it surgically throughout Paris. The symbols on doors are reminiscent of talismans against plague, an archaic form of the holy cross. The letters CLT stand for the Latin cito, longe, tarde: fast, long, late, an abbreviation of the best medieval prescription against plague: Go away fast and for a long time, and come back slowly, the “pars vite et reviens tard” of the novel’s title. The proclamations left for the town crier come from Avicenna, Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, and other famous chroniclers of historic plagues.

Adamsberg works with renowned academics and amateur historians alike to shed light on the historical mystery unfolding in his present. He and his team uncover the work of a mad killer motivated by revenge in a plot that involves illegitimacy, class prejudice, sexual violence, and a fascination with plague. The attacker surrounds his victims with metaphors, fictions, and artifacts of plague, his work made easier by the panic that ensues from media coverage. As thousands of Parisians begin to paint inverse 4s on their doors, it is impossible to tell which are signs of crime. The chaos of a city consumed with pandemic fear generates a volume of background noise from which it is nearly impossible to discern the signal of murder.

Pars vite is in many ways a run-of-the-mill murder mystery. Yet its trappings of plague bring more than mere historical set dressing to the novel. Fred Vargas is the pen name of the medieval historian and archaeologist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, whose attention to historical detail raises the novel above its peer thrillers. But it is the atmosphere of pandemic fear in the book that makes it a fascinating read in our contemporary time of plague.

There is, however, something particular to the apparition of plague in Pars vite that goes beyond its uneasy resemblances to our present. Unlike smallpox, pandemic flu, or even Covid-19, plague is as much a metaphorical force as a biological entity, whose cultural significance as a chronic leveler of populations and an arm of divine judgment marks its difference. As a historian of medicine and public health, I find it particularly curious that the metaphorical power of plague has only grown as scientific discovery demystifies the disease.

The third pandemic of bubonic plague initiated a prodigious period of scientific discovery. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century in southern China, the pandemic reached a new level of danger upon reaching Hong Kong in 1894. While isolated outbreaks in Asia were devastating to local populations, the arrival of the disease in one of the major port cities of the British empire presented a global threat. Within a decade the plague had reached every continent but Antarctica. The motive to study the disease was clear, and the emerging science of bacteriology provided critical tools and methods for identifying plague’s causes and propagation. [1]

Alexandre Yersin’s 1894 discovery of the plague bacillus in Hong Kong witnessed what historian Andrew Cunningham has called “the transformation of plague” from a horrifying scourge into an affair of the laboratory: a celebration of modernity’s triumph over human suffering that recasts plague as a monstrous, yet understandable entity subject to human will. At the same time, there has also been a continuation of what Faye Getz has called a “gothic” or “romantic” vision of plague, diametrically opposed and yet utterly fascinating to positivist sensibilities: an exotic, supernatural force reflecting a world out of order and a devastating reminder of scientific hubris. [2] This tension in writing about plague reveals the anxieties that surround epidemic diseases, indicating how plague in particular acquired a cultural mystique heightens interest in its origins and makes it resistant to new interpretations.

Yersin’s 1894 paper describing the plague bacillus claims to solve an ancient historical puzzle. The epidemic in Hong Kong, he writes, “presents all the symptoms and clinical characteristics of the old ‘plague of buboes’ which repeatedly decimated the peoples of Western Europe and those of the Levant in past centuries.” By isolating the responsible agent and replicating it in his makeshift laboratory, he has proven, he argues, that “the plague is thus a contagious and inoculable disease.”[3] Other microbiologists and biographers quickly followed suit, exhibiting a presentism that boasts a scientific capacity to unlock the mysteries of the past.

Such work transformed the very identity of plague as a disease. It was now an artifact of the laboratory, subject to human mastery. A wave of “scientific” histories of plague followed, all following similar patterns. They begin with the bacillus, explaining historical epidemics through contemporary knowledge about the microbe and its agency. Yersin initiated, according to these accounts, an era of discovery about plague whereby contemporary science demystified the disease and shed light on the shadows of the past. Yet as Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein have argued, the notion that contemporary science can illuminate the past is epistemologically flawed. Such efforts present an “illusion” of history, “whereas in fact, the present understanding … is being confirmed.” Such “bio-histories” illustrate more clearly a present faith in the biomedical sciences than they do the experiences of the past. [4]

Those experiences of the past—of horror and powerlessness in the face of an unknowable scourge, the flail (fléau) of God—are precisely what grant plague its capacity for terror in Pars vite et reviens tard. The science of plague is ever-present in the book. Bacteriologists in BL3 labs test Adamsberg’s team, the corpses they discover, and hundreds of rat fleas found at crime scenes for Y. pestis, to no avail. Vargas also draws on her medievalist expertise to dispel a number of myths about plague. For example, the disease did not blacken its victims’ skin; a mistranslation of the Latin pestis atra to its literal meaning of “black plague” rather than its figurative meaning of “terrible plague” accounted for the confusion (162). But it is the mood of plague rather than scientific knowledge about it that pervades the atmosphere of the novel. And this draws on an alternative history of plague that revels in the disease’s inscrutability.

Rather than recede with the advent of bacteriological discovery about plague, this mode of almost romantic reflection on the disease witnessed a new efflorescence. For example, in 1934 Antonin Artaud rejected the notion that the Pasteurians had any insight to offer into plague: “In 1880 or so, a French doctor by the name of Yersin … isolated one of those round-headed, short-tailed tadpoles which only the microscope can reveal and called it the plague microbe. Personally, I regard this microbe only as a smaller—infinitely smaller—material element which appears at some moment in the development of the virus, but which in no way accounts for the plague.”[5] In poring through archives and memoirs on plague, he argued, “it would be difficult to isolate one actually verified instance of contagion by contact.” Even “Boccaccio’s example of swine that dies from having sniffed the sheets in which plague victims had been wrapped” indicated less contagion than “a kind of mysterious affinity between pig and the nature of the plague.” If bacteriology truly revealed the essence of the disease, then he implored Yersin to explain “why all the great plagues, with or without virus, have a duration of five months, after which their virulence abates [;] why the plague strikes the coward who flees it and spares the degenerate who gratifies himself on the corpses.” Clearly, Artaud plays rather fast-and-loose with the record surrounding the history of plague, to avoid reducing plague to a microscopic entity.

As is the case with Albert Camus’s novel, La Peste, plague has a resonance that transcends the microbe: a mysterious force, it will fade only to reappear when least expected. Its arbitrary tyranny (as indicated by Artaud) is what constitutes its metaphorical power. The colonization of plague by the laboratory remains incomplete. It is plague’s domination over the psyche and the soul—rather than its ravages on the body—that resists the lab’s domination and sustains an alternative historiography of pestilence. As physician and critic Raymond Crawfurd argued in 1914, literature and the plastic arts frame “pestilence as an affair of the mind, as medical literature has shown it as an affair of the body.” Plague was a horrible yet also wonderful counterweight to twentieth-century rationalism: a powerful memento mori for a society obsessed with progress. Crawfurd focused on the disease’s horrible aspects, arguing that the experience of plague dictated “the humiliating lesson that, in spite of the progress of civilization … human nature has again and again reverted to the primitive instincts of savagery in face of the crushing calamity of epidemic pestilence.” Even medical language reflected “primitive beliefs,” refining rather than rejecting popular knowledge: where vernacular framed plague as a “blow,” a “scourge,” or a “flail,” the medical term “toxin” derived from the Greek for “I strike” or “I hit.”[6]

A range of historians and critics seized upon plague’s ability to reveal these “primitive instincts of savagery” as evidence of the marvelous, paranormal nature of pestilence. As the great plagues laid waste to humanity, they revealed the basest manifestations of human nature. Their social effects were myriad, and the aftermath of the Great War’s devastation elicited frequent comparisons between the two catastrophes. James Westfall Thompson, most famously, contended that like postwar Europe—with its “semi-hysterical state of mind,” its “debauchery,” and its “strange, intense, morbid sex manifestations”—the Black Death brought forth a “tremendous … manifestation of mob psychology.” The plague witnessed a complete “lapse of all the accustomed inhibitions of church, of state, of society,” rendering possible such “intense, even hysterical emotionalism” of the Pied Piper legend and the “religious morbidity and sex stimuli” of the Flagellants.[7]

Throughout the third pandemic, new editions of plague tractates and classic plague narratives appeared regularly in medical journals and published volumes. Yet surprisingly, such texts only rarely referred to bacteriological research and the resolution of plague’s “mysteries.” Boccaccio’s Decameron provides a telling example, indicating why so many resisted new bacteriological interpretations of plague itself. Edward Hutton’s introduction to a 1909 edition of The Decameron read as if bacteriology had yet to reinvent plague. It belabors a variety of details concerning the settings of the tales, even pinpointing the contemporary locations of a range of obscure references. Yet plague stands as Boccaccio characterized it. It is as if there is an unspeakable reality to the Black Death, something that cannot be translated into modern medical language. [8] Hutton is more loquacious in a 1910 biography of Boccaccio, yet he still describes plague as a Victorian nightmare of terrifying indulgence. In Florence, he writes, “[p]eople fell down dead in the streets, and were left where they fell.” A number of them “went mad … by reason of their great pain and horrible fear.” Florentines were buried alive, “the grass grew in the streets” from neglect,” family structure and social constraints collapsed. “Every sort of moral obligation was forgotten”: Florentine “men and women often forgot everything but the present moment, which they were content to enjoy in each other’s arms, even though they were strangers.” [9]

A similar reading of pestilence is at the heart of Artaud’s assertions about the irreducibility of plague to a microbe. In his essay “The Theatre and the Plague,” Artaud explicitly compares theater’s power to overwhelm an audience physically and emotionally to a contagious disease. [10] What Artaud calls “the spiritual physiognomy of a disease” is a spectacle of horror and liberation, with the capacity to force social breakdown; he presents theater in the same light. This is part of why plague is irreducible to a bacillus for Artaud—he needs the disease to retain its capacity to stand in for a total collapse of norms. Under plague, Artaud argues, “the regular forms collapse. There is no maintenance of roads and sewers, no army, no police, no municipal administration.” [11]

Here again, Artaud departs significantly from the historical record; remember that Foucault traces the origin of a European disciplinary regime to draconian municipal orders aimed at controlling plague. [12] But Artaud revels in the horrors of medieval plague. The dead “clog the streets in ragged pyramids gnawed at by animals around the edges. The stench rises in the air like a flame.” Madness reigns: people’s minds are “crowded with hideous visions,” as “[t]he disease that ferments in their viscera and circulates throughout their entire organism discharges itself in tremendous cerebral explosions.” The landscape becomes putrescent: “Over the poisonous, thick, bloody streams … which gush out of the corpses, strange personages pass, dressed in wax, with noses long as sausages and eyes of glass, mounted on a kind of Japanese sandal … to keep them from the contaminated fluids, chanting absurd litanies that cannot prevent them from sinking into the furnace in their turn.” Plague is less a disease of the body than a hideous revolution, which Artaud describes as a “social disaster so far-reaching, an organic disorder so mysterious,” even an “overflow of vices, this total exorcism which presses and impels the soul to its utmost.” [13] For Artaud as for Boccaccio, the disease is unknowable by science, an uncanny entity that undermines rationality and reveals the base reality of human nature.

Untamed by the lab, and comprehensible only as a supernatural force, Artaud’s plague is a far cry from Yersin’s. The most straightforward means of accounting for this difference is to ascribe Artaud’s pestilence to a literary imagination, and Yersin’s bacillus to a scientific one. Yet this is perhaps too simplistic a reading. For plague, unlike many other infectious diseases, has a way of lingering in the cultural imagination, even for scientists. A Dr. Cabanès framed the problem in a 1901 essay published in the Archives de Parasitologie by describing a “special mentality” that prevailed in times of plague. This “primitive mentality” was a sort of “madness” laden with apparent contradictions that struck even the “most balanced” individuals as they were overcome with a fear of death as “those who constituted all their joy, all their reason to live, fell around them as if struck by an invisible weapon.” Plague had been understood since antiquity as a “savage beast,” a reflection of the rage of God. To imagine so powerful a force in the mechanistic terms of bacteriology proved a difficult transition, often leading to an amalgamation of hybridized, even contradictory readings of plague rather than a wholesale adoption of microbiological findings. [14]

Despite Vargas’s efforts to strive toward a realistic rather than romanticized history of plague in Pars vite, it is the chaos that plague inspires that provides the novel’s resolution. The novel traffics primarily in medieval images of plague, drawing on Vargas’s expertise. In one episode, a medievalist consultant to the police describes the killer as a self-styled semeur de peste or “plague-monger” (159), someone with untold power over the plague who could wield it as a weapon. Medieval Europeans imagined these figures existed; the culprit in Pars vite assumed it as identity.

Yet the story pivots on a much more recent outbreak: that of 1920 in Paris. The outbreak excited a disproportionate response. There were 95 cases and 33 deaths—a serious concern, but one that pales in comparison with the prevalence and mortality rates of other infectious diseases in the city, such as tuberculosis, which killed over 65,000 in France that same year. [15] Yet fears of the disease drove bias and class-based violence toward the city’s poor, and in particular, rag-pickers in the urban periphery. Adamsberg’s detective work leads him to that outbreak and to Clichy, its epicenter, where one family emerged unscathed and were expelled by neighbors who believed their good fortune had sinister origins.

It is plague’s ensconcement in the cultural memory of Europe as imagination, rather than as lived reality, that has invested it with such resilient importance. Pars vite is a novel that is not really about plague at all; instead, it is about the chaos of murderous violence, which the imagery of plague exacerbates. The disease and its affective charge produce a totalizing experience that brings the terror of the murders to the entire city. Despite solid helpings of science, the plague in this novel belongs more to Artaud than to Yersin. Where Yersin’s bacteriological investigations could explain the disastrous effects of plague on the body and the horrific spread of the disease, it could not explain the effects of plague on the mind, its remaking of European social worlds, the epidemic of madness that came in its wake. The discovery of the microbe promised to clarify a range of the mysteries that surrounded the history of pestilence, but the solution it offered proved insufficient to transform plague from a total social phenomenon into one purely of the body.

Fred Vargas, Pars vite et reviens tard (Paris: Editions Viviane Hamy, 2002)/ Have Mercy on Us All, trans. by David Bellos (London: Vintage Books, 2005).

Notes

1. See Myron Echenberg, “Pestis Redux: The Initial Years of the Third Bubonic Plague Pandemic, 1894-1901,” Journal of World History 13 no. 2 (2002): 429-49, for an excellent précis of the pandemic.

2. Andrew Cunningham, “The Transformation of Plague,” in Andrew Cunningham (ed.) The Laboratory Revolution in Medicine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Faye Getz, “Black Death and Silver Lining,” Journal of the History of Biology 24 no. 2 (1991): 265-289.

3. A. Yersin, “La peste bubonique à Hong-Kong,” Annales de l’Institut Pasteur 8 (1894): 662-67.

4. Roger Cooter with Claudia Stein, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2013): 165.

5. Antonin Artaud, “The Theater and the Plague,” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. by Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove, 1958 [1934]): 21.

6. Raymond Crawfurd, Plague and Pestilence in Literature and Art (Oxford: Clarendon, 1914): 1, 8.

7. James Westfall Thompson, “The Aftermath of the Black Death and the Aftermath of the Great War,” American Journal of Sociology 26, no. 5 (1921): 565-72 (pp. 570-71).

8. Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. by Edward Hutton 4 vols. (London: David Nutt, 1909), I, ci-civ.

9. Edward Hutton, Giovanni Boccaccio: A Biographical Study (London: John Lane, 1910): 126-7.

10. See Stanton B. Garner, Jr., “Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion,” Theatre Journal 58 no. 1 (2006): 1-14, for a literary critic’s perspective on Artaud’s essay.

11. Artaud, “The Theater and the Plague”: 23-7.

12. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977): 195-200.

13. Artaud, “The Theater and the Plague”: 23-7.

14. Dr. Cabanès, “La peste dans l’imagination populaire,” Archives de Parasitologie (1901): 102-134.

15. Godias J. Drolet, “World War I and Tuberculosis: A Statistical Summary and Review,” American Journal of Public Health 35 (1945): 689-97.