It’s odd to review a novel about tuberculosis while on lockdown cowering from a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands in a matter of weeks. That statement is even strange to write. Had I read this novel only three months ago, written as it was in the 1950s during the apogee of America’s tuberculosis panic, it would have seemed to me a well-written footnote, a book-marker in time for when diseases ravaged out of control and men were forced to think about unseen pathogens in daily interactions like eating out or going to the supermarket.
This novel aged better than I would have expected, I say in bitterness.
98.6 is a novel about a young man (Daniel) who is diagnosed with tuberculosis – the white plague – back before the days when there was a vaccine and a more effective cure. The book is about the days of the infamous tuberculosis sanatoriums, when the disease infected more than 1,000,000 Americans and killed 60,000 a year. It is about Daniel’s fight with the disease, the terrible conditions at public “sans” taking “the cure” juxtaposed against the almost resort-like quality of the private institutions. Inequality, for tuberculosis did not discriminate. About the ghastly operations, the frustration, the fear – but it is not a gruesome novel. And it is about Daniel’s epiphany when he finds at last meaning in the disease and a newfound strength. The penultimate chapter is a glorious exploration of this meaning, found through faith.
Now to Leon Surmelian. I picked up 98.6 after finishing “I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen” – Surmelian’s masterpiece about refuge. Surmelian was a refugee. Born in Trezibond, that glorious greater Armenian city sitting upon the Black Sea, Surmelian was forced to flee the genocide when the Young Turks laid waste to the city following the retreat of the forces of Imperial Russia protecting their Armenian allies, the armies of the Tzar disintegrating as the Bolshevik Revolution burned, leaving the Armenians of Trezibond to their fate. 50,000 were drowned. To America, Surmelian finally fled – to join the ranks of the unknown Armenian novelists who instead of winning Nobel Prizes or living in Malibu opulence instead are unsung, except by the connoisseur who seeks out good literature with meaning beyond the garbage allowed through by the gatekeepers (then and now). Can you believe I had to write “98.6” into Goodreads? Can you believe I’m its first reviewer on Amazon – this novel which can fill the imagination and broaden the mind?
The irony is not lost on me that Surmelian, a refugee from eastern Armenia wrote about his pandemic from the glorious sunshine of California. For I am waiting out my pandemic nestled in the snowy Caucasus of Armenia; her mountains and her alpine meadows, her monasteries and her ancient fortresses. Yerevan, a city of books and flowers – Paris without the nonsense. I think, had Surmelian lived in 2020 – along with his contemporaries, both in Soviet Armenia and in freedom in the west – people would be talking forever about the “Armenian boom” in literature and its genius cluster. Who knows, maybe they still will.