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Plagues of the East

Plagues of the East

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The Viral Curtain anthology is available at on the Sindicatul 9 website.

It is always a revelation to read literature anthologies from South-Eastern Europe. They surprise the reader with many common threads running in between the texts, regardless of the country of origin of their authors. While technically separated by ancient languages and modern borders, the peoples of the South-Eastern European space share unique cultural traits coming not only from an ancestral background, but also from a history of oppression and resistance against the vicissitudes of history, the ongoing desire of migrant invaders and greedy empires to engulf them, as well as being constantly looked down upon by the better, more “civilized” Europe, the one stretching beyond the Western borders of Hungary, Poland or Czechia. Edged between the mighty Russian/once-Soviet empire (and its former territories), and Turkish/once-Ottoman empire on one side, and Germany and Austria/once-Holy Roman empire on the other, the land between the Mediterranean and the Baltic Seas is really where Europe became Europe.

The lives of the peoples inhabiting that strip of land is what stood historically in the path of and deterred the demise of Western Europe for centuries. And it was that sacrifice that on one hand united the South-Eastern European peoples in a common weltanschauung, and on the other made them undesirables for the Western side of the continent and the world. And while an actual “wall” separating them from the rest of Europe existed only briefly during the Soviet occupation of the entire region, the ideological “curtain” separating the East and the West of Europe has been there for centuries and continues today, regardless of political statements attesting otherwise. For ultimately, what truly matters is what people experience. And what is evident in the current anthology as much as in any other is that the peoples of the region know instinctively that the separation between them and the “good” Europe is very much still in place today, in the era of the European Union stretching from Russia’s to France’s Western borders.

The awareness of that separation (and its painful materialization on the ground, in the lives of the people) is in my opinion one of the main unifying threads and excellent discussion topic that The Viral Curtain, this new anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy stories, brings to the table. And while a literary challenge based on a writing prompt is not always a recipe for successful and engaging literature, the talented writers brought together by the editor, Darius Hupov, created through their characters an almost unified vision of the European East. Hupov’s anthology creatively and imaginatively joins the quite active pandemic literature movement that traversed the years 2020 and 2021, and which started perhaps with the stunning anthology edited by Ilan Stavans, And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again, published late summer in 2020 at Restless Books and followed brilliantly in November by the poetry anthology Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn and published by Knopf, as well as many other individual and collective works of fiction and non-fiction published in many other languages.

The original prompt, launched at a meeting of the “Syndicate 9” SFF Club of Timişoara in Romania, was in fact simply stating that “A hemorrhagic fever appears in one East European country and spreads rapidly. All Eastern European countries are put in a tight quarantine.” It thus continued a long and esteemed tradition of SFF literature dealing with pandemics caused by deadly viruses and leading either to the end of humankind or radical changes of the world as we know it. From the more recent José Saramago’s 1995 masterpiece Blindness to Ling Ma’s 2018 Severance, Max Brooks’s 2006 World War Z or Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 Station Eleven to the older (and more classic) 1954 I Am Legend by Richard Matheson or the 1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, to name only a very select few, the science fiction/fantasy literary realm of destructive pandemics is a rich and generous one. Different about the prompt proposed by the members of “Syndicate 9” is the added political aspect: the pandemic, one taking place in as near or far future as permitted by the writers’ imagination, but after the end of COVID-19 (the virus at hand, so to speak, when the project was launched) has only a geopolitically limited impact: it starts in East Europe triggering an immediate quarantine of the entire area. What we don’t know—and it is, as such, left up to the authors to deal with—is whether the virus can infect people outside the region. Naturally, if this were a regular virus, there would be no reason whatsoever to even consider the biological aberration of a virus limiting its spread within certain regional borders. But many of the writers in the anthology did in fact imagine a reality in which the virus does stop at human-made borders. For this virus is not a biological entity, but a political one.

And viruses have all the right to be political entities in 2021 as much as they are biological ones, as the COVID 19 pandemic has fully demonstrated. If a virus can be stopped by the sheer will and propaganda of political leaders, as we have seen with former US president Donald Trump or Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (although both ended up infected by the virus whose existence they denied vehemently), or can be defeated without following any elementary rules of hygiene, simply because mobs of people are being told that they are being manipulated in having their freedom taken away, then why couldn’t a virus also stop at the border? There certainly is a strong element of “tongue-in-cheek” attitude in the formulation of the prompt behind The Viral Curtain, one that touches on the absurd. But then again, wasn’t it from the very fringes of Europe, from Romania and Ireland that the literature of the absurd originated in the wake of World War 2? It is only fitting that a virus that started in Eastern Europe should decide to remain confined to that geopolitical area.

And it is precisely on this absurd premise that stories like Kostas Charitos’s are predicated on. The tragicomic effect of the debate whether Greece belongs (geographically? politically? culturally? mentality-wise?) or not to Eastern Europe so that it must or not enter quarantine, a debate—whose outcome albeit ultimately determined in the heart of the European Union, far away from the Hellenic shores, in Brussels (of course!)—that is open to an un-necessary and futile referendum of the people of Greece, dominates Charitos’s story, one layered with multiple political innuendos, such as the reference to the 2015 economic bailout referendum that is almost staring the reader in the face. In the end, the debate in the story (bitterly entitled The Greek Issue) does not only turn grotesque—numerous other geographical options are added to the list of regions Greece could/should join through the referendum, with Africa and South Korea among the most sadly hilarious—but it is left almost completely unresolved, in a very Eastern European/Balkan cultural paradigmatic manner. The main character opts to fill in his own response and choose “the world” as the space for Greece to belong to, thus in effect imploding the entire idea of a geographically/politically/culturally limited virus.

In yet another story, You Will Go, You Will Return by Hungarian writer Sándor Szélesi, the virus becomes a pretext for the desire to escape the political space of Hungary and by extension that of Eastern Europe, one that is cursed by an inescapable political virus traversing history itself. The main character is a farmer who is forced in the end to plow and sow his ancestral land with his own progeny, his grown-up son and daughter and their children, all taken away by the virus as they were trying to cross the border and escape into Austria, where the virus was ostensibly and impossibly ineffective. Symbolically, the last communication the farmer receives from his runaway son is a text message telling him that the “wall” (that had been supposedly created by both Hungarian and Austrian forces to prevent people from crossing the border) was only an “idea”, so not a physical, material construction. This might well be the most powerfully political and emotional statement in the anthology, as it indicates that the separation between the East and the West of Europe is nothing real, but an ideological device aimed to keep people apart and determine who is a second-class citizen and who belongs to European elites. One other politically relevant moment is the meeting between the Hungarian farmer and a Belgian counterpart (Belgium certainly plays an important role in the psyche of South-Eastern Europeans…) who boasts about having inherited his farmland from ancestors going back 500 years. Péter, the Hungarian farmer, cannot help but wonder what that must feel like, given the fact that his family had been dispossessed of their ancestral land four times during the twentieth century alone. The scene brings yet again to the fore that perpetual sacrifice that Eastern European peoples had to make throughout history losing their land, their homes, their families as they stood against Tartar and Mongol and Ottoman and Russian invasions, all while in Western Europe countries major cities and palaces and colonial empires were being built, and wealth and prosperity were being accumulated.

Other regional(ized) scenarios emerge as well from The Viral Curtain. In Ivana Molnárová-Dubcová and Marek Brenišin’s story The Scorpion Sting, the European East is a wild place, left behind by the West and vulnerable to biological experiments by the mafia and new enriched elites of profiteers clearly reminiscent of the beneficiaries of the political regime changes of the 1989-1990 era. To them, causing an epidemic provides the added benefit of stumbling upon a potential immortality vaccine in a rewriting of ancient and modern hermeneutical stories of alchemy and the pursuit of the creation of the philosopher’s stone. On the other hand, the vaccine in Alexey Vert’s (the pseudonym of tandem writers Alexandra Zlotnitskaia and Victor Koliuzhnyak) story turns out to also be a potential panaceum universalis, although it has its own unintended consequences.

Inspired by the recent COVID 19 pandemic and the reactions, policies and consequences it triggered worldwide, The Viral Curtain is completed by stories of imaginative fantasy, dystopian or science fiction focused on the trials and tribulations of humanity itself in the face of individual death and potential for thorough elimination of the species.

In the end, it must be noted that the majority of the literary pieces gathered here by Darius Hupov and his editorial team were originally written in languages other than English and subsequently translated either by the authors themselves or by professional translators. On one hand, that mix of narratorial voices in translation gives the texts, when read in sequence, an excellent feel of diversity, with each writer’s individual narrative voice coming through the text in a fresh, albeit linguistically mitigated manner. On the other hand, English language readers might find themselves startled at invectives coming out of the page unfiltered, ethnic slurs and curses which, while very powerful in their original languages, seem to become mere (and often un-necessary) shocking linguistic elements in English. Cultural and linguistic restrictions and taboos in English make some of these quite uncomfortable to experience on paper, but all the more salient as localized expressions of interactions between the differently ethnic, racial and religious groups and peoples of the region, which go back millennia. There are also sometime startling regional and sub-dialectal linguistic mixes within the same story, whereby readers are faced with unbridled and creative usage of both British and American English colloquialisms from one page to the next. Refreshing as it might be, the effect can also be a bit off-putting to native English readers.

A creative take on pandemic literature within the science fiction and fantasy space, The Viral Curtain is a strong and promising start for a potential series of similar projects of SFF literature in English translation, one very much-needed of wider circulation of the works of gifted and imaginative writers from a lesser-known literary space.

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