Near the end of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude, it begins to rain in the fictional South American town of Macondo, and does not stop for four years, eleven months, and two days.
The Buendia family, whom we have followed throughout the novel, are initially hopeful for a quick passing of the inclement weather. They are quickly cured of their naïvete, however, and soon learn to recognize the brief respites in the deluge as “a sign of a redoubled rain.” Life in Macondo, so deeply rooted in routine and stasis, is upended by the slight but persistent change in circumstance: The local industries pack up and move “to where it was not raining,” communications with the outside world break down, relations among families and neighbors are strained, and many are brought to speculate if it would “rain for the rest of our lives.”
Even in the prevailing mood of loss and gloom in Macondo, the profound change effected by the rain is not all for ill. Many residents find themselves using their time creatively; a pause in the routine of working and social life allows some “the opportunity to sit and reflect,” while for others, the disruption barely touches them, as their prior existence had already “been spent as if it had been raining.” For children, especially, the breakdown of social and education order allows them to “remember the rains as a happy time,” when they could spend more time with family and explore their curiously transformed surroundings. In a crisis of washed away normality and rotting institutions at their breaking point, there is new growth, sustained by the same waters which destroyed the old.
Reading this novel all the way back in April of 2020 as a locked-down senior in high school, I was struck by the parallels between the calamity the citizens of Macondo faced and our own national moment of pause, crisis, and breakdown. The rain described by García Márquez seemed compellingly similar to the virus that had upended my own life and the lives of so many others: impersonal, unrelenting, and showing no sign of ending any time soon.
This was, I noticed even at the time, a pretty common way of relating to literature in the early pandemic. Our grief-averse culture found itself face to face with a genuine tragedy, whose gravity and duration we could only begin to understand.
People turned to Camus’ “The Plague,” Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” and the passages of Thucydides’s “Peloponnesian War” on the deadly plague which ravaged Athens in 431 BCE. Timely courses in the humanities and social sciences were offered on the history, politics, and art of contagion and disease, and think-pieces on the “lessons” to be derived from certain pandemic-adjacent works of art and literature abounded. Everywhere in the world of the humanities, it seemed, there was a timely lesson to be learned from our shared cultural heritage of pestilence and breakdown. Passing mentions of cholera and quarantine in assigned texts took on new significance, as students and professors paused to wryly note the similarities to our own predicament.
The apparent message of all this was that the role of literature and history in a crisis was as a kind of matching game between present and past. Comfort and insight into our own moment could be generated by reading those works with the greatest density of obvious historical and thematic epidemiological connections, preferably with the word “plague” or “disease” in the title. While this was interesting enough as far as it went, it didn’t represent a deep engagement with either literature or loss; it was, like so many other things we amused ourselves with in these surreal months, a way to pass the time and try to gain some control over the tragically uncontrollable.
I recognize my own shortcomings here: While I will always look back with poignancy and fondness on my own reading of the rains in Macondo, I can also see that it has serious limitations. Excerpted without context from the novel, read with no deep knowledge of Latin American literature or culture, this passage became a kind of cipher through which I interpreted my own time and experience, rather than, as I think and hope literature can be, a radical encounter with the unfamiliar.
As time went on, the fact that we were living through a pandemic became less of a phenomenon to be thought about critically and more something that we just had to deal with. There’s a funny little moment in Gary Shteyngart’s 2021 novel on the pandemic, Our Country Friends that reflects, somewhat self-consciously, on the “timeliness” of stories of breakdown and crisis. One of the main characters, the luckless author Senderovsky, is unsuccessfully pitching a TV pilot on the Soviet politics of his parents’ day to a skeptical network executive. “Oligarchs, hookers, payoffs. A former Soviet republic won’t seem that different from 2020 America to the viewer,” the executive grouses. Shrewdly, Senderovsky asks if this doesn’t “make it pertinent” to the current moment. No, the producer sighs, “it makes it depressing.”
This is the challenge that Our Country Friends itself faces: As the first major attempt at a “novel of the pandemic,” it must walk a fine line between speaking to the cultural and historic moment of the nation, and holding the interest of readers who might have grown understandably averse to another story of pandemic loss and woe. Shteyngart’s novel shows how far we have come in our engagement with literature over the course of this long pandemic: from the renewed interest in older disease lit, we now have the first attempt by a major author to reckon with the crisis in real time.
Our Country Friends conjures up the world of the early pandemic deftly, the mood of fear and uncertainty, the grinding to a halt of work and school, all during a stunning springtime in the Northeastern United States. In the first week after lockdowns began, seven adult friends and one child decide to weather out the pandemic on the New England property of the Senderovsky family. After a few weeks with no infection, they soon ditch their masks and manage to live in some kind of normalcy together, albeit strictly isolated from their largely conservative neighbors and the outside world.
I was initially wary of the novel’s premise when it was given to me as a gift. I was the poster-child of pandemic fatigue: I hadn’t been keeping up on national numbers or consuming media that tried to grapple with the last year and half, and, in my little spare time for reading, didn’t want to sign up for another reminder of all that had been lost to COVID. Shteyngart was, though, a novelist I had intended to read for a while, and flipping through the opening pages I was quickly drawn into his vivid world, not necessarily by the pandemic setting, but rather by the intense vitality of his prose and characters.
Although there are the occasional touches of period color necessary for a work like this — the dances of masking and unmasking; vague, ultimately substanceless hand wringing about revolution and violence; and a somewhat unconvincing side plot on cancel culture — Shteyngart for the most part pleasantly surprises in making this a novel set in, but not primarily about, the pandemic of 2020. The driving force and strength of the novel’s thematic and emotional momentum lies in the personal history and characterization of the novel’s protagonists; via old college friends and professional rivals, festering insecurities and unrequited affections, Shteyngart inducts the reader into a complex, decades-old interpersonal puzzle, accelerated and intensified by the uncomfortable proximity and uncertainty that the friends endure together.
Sequestered as they are on the Senderovsky estate, and largely employed in passive or creative work, the challenges of pandemic that beset so many working professionals and students are largely absent from the lives of the main characters. There are notably very few scenes involving Zoom, entering indoor public places, or navigating the difficulties of meeting or missing friends that defined much of the early pandemic.
Freed up from these sorts of cares, Shteyngart leads his characters largely through problems of potentially greater historical and political stature: as second-generation immigrants from Russia, Korea, and India, the four college friends reflect on their second homeland and their own complicity with, and insulation from, its rapid deterioration. As wealthy immigrants, they are familiar with both the suffering and success contained within the American dream. Brought by their hopeful parents, their trajectory is summarized pithily: “You came, they laughed at your accent on an urban playground, and then you were given your degree and guided into battle.” Amidst a strong sense of alienation from the “American militarism” and “mercantile greed” which underpins the life of their adopted country, the immigrant friends recognize that their success comes with a price: “All of us… are in service to an order that has long predated us. All of us have come to feast on this land of bondage.”
In one sense, this sort of detached reflection can seem self-indulgent; as one character puts it, “because rich people were excused from the suffering of the world, they had to invent their own more elaborate and personalized forms of suffering.” But while the pandemic undoubtedly had a lesser impact on the sorts of upper middle class and wealthy professionals that Shteyngart depicts, it also gave exactly the space necessary for the interesting self-questioning of these characters. Their time in lockdown, eased by resources and fortune, proves to be a flowering of social and intellectual achievement for these seven friends, as they make inroads on long-dormant projects, relationships, and grievances.
Instead of a novel from which we can draw conclusions about the pandemic, then, this is a novel with which we can think through the all-too-ordinary challenges of human living, connecting, and surviving; as Shteyngart writes about a particularly touching and broken character, Vinod, he, and all of us, are “taunted by desires but trapped in a life much too small to accommodate the entirety of a human being.” The work of any literature, pandemic or no, is to help us encounter what is shockingly human, terrifyingly desired, in ourselves and in others around us.
If Our Country Friends is read in decades to come, and I sincerely hope that it will be, it deserves to be read not as a period piece on the crises of 2020, but as the compelling work of longing, loss, and literature that it represents. Alongside the rains of Macondo, the existential dramas of Camus’ townspeople, and the tales of Boccaccio’s bored nobility, the story of the Senderovskys and their friends will endure, or not, not through its relevance to the moment or insight into the pandemic, but as literature that moves and surprises.