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2006 06 06
When Bird Flu Sweeps Toronto?: Reading Timothy Findley’s Headhunter
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"All books are a conjuring, Miss Kemp," he said. "That is the most precise description I can give. They are all a conjuring of humankind and the world that we inhabit."
Timothy Findley's novel Headhunter (Harper Perennial, 1993; winner of the City of Toronto Book Award in 1994) is a very good example of what Jeoffrey Bull (writing in the Journal of Canadian Studies) calls "diagnostic fiction". Headhunter describes a near-future dystopian Toronto afflicted by cultural and political depravity and a frightening bird flu known as sturnusemia. Deliberately appropriating symbolism and characters from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (while being simultaneously rather powerfully reminiscent of Camus' The Plague and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice) Findley's novel diagnoses not only individual patients but the spiritual sickness an entire city. Prescient, isn't it?

A decade after Headhunter was published, Toronto was rocked by a contained outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that killed 44 people. In 2006, the city awaits the first dread trickles of avian influenza virus A -- also known as bird flu -- believed to be the leading candidate for the world's next influenza pandemic. Politicians, the medical establishment, the media, and ordinary citizens in Toronto and elsewhere nervously consider the options for prevention, containment, and treatment -- and contemplate the likelihood of corruption and chaos in the scramble to decide who will be treated, quarantined, or abandoned to the ravages of disease. Acknowledging the truism that more people are likely to die of terror, exposure, chaos, and denial in the aftermath of a disaster than from the disaster itself, perhaps now is a good time to revisit Findley's novel, to read into its vision of things to come.

In Findley's Toronto, the city's psychological and moral malaise is symbolized by Dr. Rupert Kurtz, Director of the fictitious Parkin Institute of Psychiatric Research. Setting himself up as the god-head of treatment, Kurtz simultaneously diagnoses and encourages the "death-urge" sweeping the city. It is something he finds aesthetically pleasing and he draws power from it, unleashing the darkest urges of his patients and joining in them. Kurtz' remarkable freedom to do so stems from something in the character of the city itself. As Findley comments,
Somehow, there seemed to be a secondary plague on the loose -- one of non-belief. This is not happening, people said -- this is not plausible. We will wait for an acceptable explanation. And yet, though no other explanation had been forthcoming, and even in spite of the mounting death toll, the population at large gave every indication of ignoring the threat of sturnusemia.
Meanwhile, starlings, the alleged carriers of sturnusemia (an AIDS-like virus), are being gassed and burned by squads in city parks, but the birds are not the biggest threat to the city. Rather, Kurtz is the greatest danger, a reality recognized only by Lila Kemp, one of the city's gently insane, a former librarian who inadvertently unleashes fictional characters from books, including some (like Kurtz) who harm; others (like Susannah Moodie) who advise; and one (Dr. Charles Marlow) who might stand against Kurtz. Dr. Marlowe is moved to listen to Lila's warnings, observing as his first principle of treatment (after G.K. Chesterton) that "the madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason." But Kurtz's army is willingly seduced, low-lidded with power and the pull of its own depravity. A potential sturnusemia vaccine, secretively tested, does not bring a cure but instead draws victims willingly to submit to the murderer's knife. As Findley observes, it is as if the plague and its victims had sought one another out. Kurtz remarks of them near the end,
Every single one of them was persuaded from within. .... My only interest lay in bringing two desiring factions together. I melded them. I made them one. ... I gave them what they wanted. ... I gave them permission.
He describes the city's future as "a business proposition" in which wellness, power, and obedience might be bought and sold. Even so, in the end the plague takes them all, the members of the Club of Men, their young victims, and Kurtz too. And at the end of the novel, in the city's desolate light, the D-Squads continue to gas and burn the city's birds, while the living mad go on in their gentle way.

*

This is not to say, of course, that Toronto under plague conditions would be as dark as Findley narrates it. Indeed, the City's response to the 2003 SARS crisis is generally agreed to have been exemplary. And Toronto has responded to conditions of contagion in the past, during outbreaks of tuberculosis, Spanish flu, and cholera.

But we live in a time when public trust is at a low ebb, while the media almost eagerly report projected shortages of flu drugs and squabbles over treatment priority lists. And who can say you have never looked into the eyes of a professional or politician and seen only darkness there?

*

Imagining Toronto posts reviews of new, evocative, and classic Toronto books to Reading Toronto every second Tuesday. To suggest a title, comment here or contact Amy Lavender Harris at .

[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 06/06 at 10:01 AM

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