I confess it was my desire for gore and gross-out that led me to read this. I was not disappointed. The descriptions of the disease’s path through the body and the overwhelming pile-up of corpses were truly disgusting. The physical, emotional and societal suffering of the world in the fall of 1918 is unfathomable.
But what still rings in my ear after closing the book is the chilling refrain throughout: But it was influenza. Only influenza.
Scientists and doctors were so perplexed by the unusual symptoms of this particular strain of influenza that they thought they might be dealing with some strange pneumococcal virus or even the black plague, since victims’ lungs were so attacked that they developed cyanosis, turning indigo-blue from lack of oxygen.
The most fascinating tidbit from the book, however, is influenza’s possible influence on the Treaty of Versailles. Woodrow Wilson was trying hard to achieve “Peace without victory” in the face of George Clémenceau’s vindictiveness toward Germany, but he fell ill with influenza in April 1919. Afterward, he seemed to be experiencing neurological difficulties and eventually gave in to most of Clémenceau’s harsh demands. Without the flu, asks Barry, would World War II even have happened?
But the book has affected me personally, beyond my mere interest in a gruesome event. Last summer, I began to acquire items for an Emergency Preparedness Kit, but stopped before I had completed it. Reading The Great Influenza has reminded me that I need to continue my slightly paranoid preparations not only in case of, say, a grid failure, but also in case of pandemic. Influenza has spread to wild avian populations in China and will most certainly make a comeback. In our cities we live in increasingly crowded conditions and with the ease of international travel, a viral outbreak is a near-certainty. However, I am well aware that individual efforts such as mine are not sufficient against something so huge. Governments and public health need to prepare. But every little bit helps.
The Great Influenza has also touched my appreciation of art from the time period. There’s surprisingly little mention of this devastation in literature or art, but from time to time, you get a glimpse of the mood of the era. Consider Modigliani’s portrait A Woman painted between 1917 and 1920. The woman’s eyes are downcast, her face is tense with grief, she seems too thin, she’s dressed in black. Italy was one of the countries hardest hit by influenza. Could it be that she is mourning not only those she has lost to war, but also to pandemic? Suddenly, what had always been to me an eerie painting—those blacked out eyes—touches my heart with compassion instead of fear.
I don’t often read history. But then again, I don’t often come across a book that is so well-written that the people and events of a hundred years ago are transformed into a story as compelling as a thriller. For any of you who have been tracking the First World War over the past four years of centenary celebrations and remembrances, this is another related topic that is well worth exploring, another book worth reading.
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!