As awful as the coronavirus pandemic has been, the Black Death will thankfully remain the worst in history- a zero survival rate once infected and killing up to 200 million worldwide. But the psychological similarities struck writer Carlo Gébler as he retells some of the stories from the plague-ridden Florence in Boccaccio’s The Decameron.
“Covid is a disgusting complaint and I know lots of people who have had it and when it hits you hard, especially people who have had long Covid it’s a truly dreadful condition, but nobody recovered from the plague,” author Carlo Gébler says.
The author has reworked Giovanne Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a collection of one hundred short stories written in the wake of the Black Death.
“Once the boil appeared under your armpits or in your groin and swelled up, that was it. You would dehydrate, get a raging fever, slip out of consciousness and die. It was much worse for them than Covid is for us.”
The Black Death was the deadliest pandemic in human history, killing between 75 and 200 million people. In Florence alone, an estimated 60 per cent of the population died. Bodies were simply left on the streets and eventually carted off to the overflowing cemeteries where they were piled up, layer upon layer. The economic effects of the Black Death were also severe: shops stood empty; businesses closed down. Everything ground to a halt.
“But it is worthwhile looking at a past situation that is not dissimilar to a present situation. That’s one of the things I found so interesting about The Decameron.
“Boccaccio was very clear that the effects of a pandemic on psyche, on mood, on how human beings in general felt were to mute and suppress and to numb and I would say the effects collectively now on us are to mute and subdue similarly.
“You talk to people, they talk about being repressed and constrained and curtailed and squashed and denied. These are the words people use. Exactly the same language that was used by people in the medieval period to describe the effect of the pandemic on them.”
While medieval times did not have the news coverage we now have, word of the deadly pandemic spread so that everyone knew of the deadly disease.
“They certainly didn’t have Twitter, CNN and 24 hour rolling news but there would have been informal communication, people telling other people what they had seen and people coming to an area that wasn’t infected from an area that was infected and telling them. They would have had knowledge of previous plagues and they had the experience of it which was universal.
“In Europe in 1347, 1348, 1349, 1350 everybody would have known what the consequences of the Black Plague were. They would have seen it with their own eyes. It was so incredibly infectious. It got into every nook and cranny.”
Carlo’s new book is a selective retelling rather than reworking the entire text.
“Decameron means ten days. In the original text ten people, seven women and three men, go to a villa outside Florence for two weeks’ recuperation and form a cocoon, a bubble and separate themselves from Florence and the plague and every day every person tells a story.
“There are 100 stories and I chose 27 stories. I chose the stories I thought were the most interesting. I chose stories from each day. The way The Decameron is organised the stories start light, get darker and darker and then at the end the stories are strongly salutary, they’re about people trying to behave decently. They’re very interesting stories, the stories on the tenth day but one can only take so much piety so I only picked one. Similarly, the fabulous stories, the fairytale-like stories, the most instructive but least realistic at the beginning one can only take so many of them so I only picked one of them. Most of the stories come from the middle: The dark, the troubling, the adult stories.
“Many of the stories are extremely disturbing. I picked a story called The Groom which is a very, very disturbing story about cruelty within a marriage.
“We have to remember that what Boccaccio was doing was presenting descriptions of all different kinds of human behaviour, good and bad. He was presenting the world not as we wish it were but as it actually is and bearing that in mind I picked stories that gave a- I thought and hoped- wide and varied and balanced account of the breadth and depth of human behaviour, the good and the bad.”
A theme of Boccaccio’s The Decameron is that wealth, privilege and class really does matter in a pandemic.
“The young people who leave Florence have money. Boccaccio was quite clear. Were it not for the capital, they would not be able to do what they do.
“He’s also quite clear in his stories that the mandatory and casual use of torture to extract confessions in order to arrive at a conviction, which was commonplace in medieval times, is just appalling.
“He’s quite clear that religion and religious belief is a form of social control. That is a truly incredible statement to make. He himself took holy orders. He was a believer.
“It is, he says, trying to stop you doing what gives you pleasure. Hell exists but what they tell you about Hell is nonsense. They don’t care about your extra-marital sexual misdemeanors. That’s quite a statement to make in 1350.
“The message of the book is that the more powerful people are, the more corrupt they are. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
“He was very modern. He was also demotic. He writes stories about peasants and cooks and ordinary people who were not normally the subject of literature in the late medieval period. Literature tended to be concerned with people of high class. What is being signalled to the reader is that the life of this person who runs a wine shop is just as valuable as that of a classical hero. Ordinary people’s lives have as much value and are of as much interest as mythological characters.”
Being born the son of renowned Irish writers Edna O’Brien and Ernest Gébler, did Carlo always know he wanted to be a writer himself? “I think so. Probably. I wouldn’t have been able to put it really clearly. I knew I was interested in language, drama, the creative side. I thought it was maybe making films or writing scripts. Eventually I landed on writing.”
Asked if the novel or writing non-fiction is his favoured medium, Carlo says: “The one arrow career no longer exists, you have to have many arrows in your quiver. All people who are in literature now have to do many things. Writing fiction is a very pleasurable thing to do and something to which I am committed but do I love more than teaching or writing non-fiction or doing my podcasts? I love all these activities equally. I would not want to surrender any of them.”
Carlo has taught creative writing in prisons including at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland that houses many paramilitaries. He says this experience has been his ‘education’.
“I’ve worked as a prison teacher since 1991. Prison teaching has been my university, it’s been my education where I’ve learned everything I’ve learned. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.
“Obviously in the Maze, I learned a great deal about Irish politics given the gentlemen I was involved in teaching. I worked on both sides. I worked with Republicans and Loyalists. Subsequently I’ve worked with so-called ‘ordinary decent criminals’, young prisoners, women prisoners. I’ve worked with everybody both inside and outside prison.
“I’ve learned that what you’re told or led to believe and what actually obtains are two very, very different things. What you’re told about everything, what you’re told about society, what you’re told about judges, what you’re told about police, what you’re told about politicians, what you’re told about history, what you’re told about absolutely everything is different to what you find those who have fallen foul of the system have experienced.
“What you find out when you work in a prison is that it is all a heck of a lot more complicated than you think. You find out in particular that inequality, mainly social, poverty-Poverty in the wider sense, not just financial poverty but food poverty, housing poverty, educational poverty, health poverty etc etc etc- These poverties have an incredibly strong and deleterious effect on human society and human behaviour.”
Carlo’s mother was the subject of an extraordinary attack in an article published in The New Yorker last year, an article that provoked a backlash and became infamous.
“There was a profile which was ill-disposed towards her latest novel, Girl. I just thought it was wrong. I just thought the profile was plain wrong. End of. I’m happy to say it’s wrong but I also believe one should not waste scarce energy on things that were or are negative.”
The author of Country Girls is 90 this month. How has the pandemic been for her? “She has to be extremely careful. The older you are the more likely you are to die from it even if you are healthy. Therefore, your job as an old person and our job as a society is not to get it which means you have to stay home and wear a mask, observe social distancing. It’s not just up to the old person. We also need to have a society that understands that and supports the old.”
Living in Enniskillen, Carlo has been confused by the messages coming from Westminster throughout the pandemic and has seen much better and clearer leadership coming from Dublin.
“You understand the rules? I don’t. I’m so confused. Basically, I just wear a mask and just keep myself to myself.
“The Irish government is infinitely better and has been infinitely better. Very, very clear.
“The Irish government has been much better, a much more effective communicator and their rules have been much simpler.”
Carlo has also recently been involved with the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith’s current digital literary festival for which he has interviewed well known authors Colum McCann, John Banville, Roddy Doyle and Sinead Gleeson. He has also been interviewed himself. Emma Donoghue, Donal Ryan, Dermot Bolger, and Michelle Gallen are also involved.
“I loved doing it because I like talking to people and I earn my living from doing festivals and you can’t do festivals so this is the substitute.”
The festival will form part of the centre’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
Tales We Tell Ourselves: A Selection from The Decameron, retold by Carlo Gébler is out now on New Island.
The Irish Cultural Centre’s Literary Festival continues with Carlo Gébler in converation with Dermot Bolger on 9 December.