Jason Goodwin: ‘A Journal of the Plague Year is not a cheerful read, but it’s a wonderful book for the times’

Jason Goodwin remarks on the cancelled conferences of late, thinking back to how writers of earlier times dealt with the publication of serious issues.

Some years ago, I attended a symposium for writers in Istanbul. On arrival, we were given the news that V. S. Naipaul had been disinvited for making rude remarks about Islam, which seemed a shame because he was the only famous writer attending. However, that wasn’t what I said when a Turkish TV crew put a microphone to my face and asked me what I thought about it all. What I said was that, if Naipaul’s remarks had become an issue, it was just as well he wasn’t coming. One doesn’t want to outrage one’s host.

The interviewer wanted to know what the upshot of the symposium would be and I told her that I supposed the writers would issue a declaration calling for freedom of speech and expression for writers around the world. That is what writers always say. A convention of secret policemen would have issued a statement saying the opposite. It would have absolutely no effect and then we’d all go home. That was exactly what happened, of course, in an atmosphere of tense self-congratulation.

London, UK. 25th Dec, 2014. empty streets of London on early Christmas morning. Credit: Piero Cruciatti/Alamy Live News

One hijab-wearing Muslim short-story writer courageously refused to sign the declaration because she thought it quite right that Naipaul had been disbarred. ‘The disgust he feels for Muslims in his books is appalling,’ she had told The Guardian earlier. ‘I cannot attend the event given all of this,’ she added, before attending.

On a bus heading to the evening’s jollifications, I found myself sitting next to an elderly Slovakian, who told me an interesting story about censorship and freedom of expression. As a young, aspiring writer in the 1940s, he had run afoul of the authorities with his first book, an angry novel set against the backdrop of the Soviet takeover and the suppression of Czechoslovak freedom. The Party didn’t like the book and told him bluntly that, if he carried on in that genre, he would never be published again. Or worse.

So my friend went into the historical-novel business. He wrote stories set in 13th-century Slovakia, full of courageous chatelaines in wimples, wicked Teutonic knights and honest peasant folk, and they turned out to be hugely popular – much more so than his anguished novel of freedom could have ever been. He became fêted and rich.

‘He expressed resistance without offending the censors and was considered a national hero’

What’s more, everyone understood that his Teutonic knights, invaders who tried to stamp out native culture and bend the people to their will, were a cipher for the Russians. He was able to express resistance without offending the censors and was considered something of a national hero.

I thought about this when I heard that the World Bank and the IMF cancelled conferences in New York because of coronavirus; 10,000 delegates will have to make do with emails and video conferencing. Everyone loves a jolly. Bankers love one, so do writers. We love being flown around the world and meeting the gang over drinks. Now we can’t.

Panic buying of bottled water in shops during water shortage leaves shelves empty.

Shops all over the country are reporting shortages in pasta and toilet roll – the two tools certain to combat the upcoming apocalypse.

Before we complain too loudly, we should remember the first historical novel ever written. Published three years after Robinson Crusoe, in 1722, Daniel Defoe’s novel is set in 1665. The protagonist is a merchant and the story is set in London. It happens to be the story of the Plague, which hit the capital in 1665 and is the origin of many dreadful phrases and vignettes that have stuck in the popular imagination.

There is the cry of ‘Bring out your dead!’, and the fear and fracture of trade and industry. A Journal of the Plague Year is not a cheerful read, but it’s a wonderful book for the times.