A haunting series finale

2011-03-02 00:00

NEMESIS is the last in a series of four short novels — collectively titled Nemeses — by Philip Roth. In Greek mythology, the goddess Nemesis is an agent of divine punishment for wrongdoing, excessive pride or defying the gods. In more contemporary terms nemesis is an implacable agent or opponent that cannot be overcome, a source of harm or ruin leading to a person’s downfall that is in some way warranted.

At the outbreak of a terrible polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey, in the United States in the summer of 1944, the central character in the book, high school physical education teacher and playground director, Bucky Cantor, is at the forefront of efforts to keep the children in the neighbourhood healthy, even as the number of infections increase and many die. (Vaccinating against polio only began in 1955.) Despite being a superb athlete, Bucky, to his continual shame, was not able to enlist in the wartime army because of poor eyesight. But as the polio epidemic rages, it becomes a war too, a “war upon the children of Newark”.

How is a conscientious, idealistic and well-respected young man like Bucky supposed to respond to such an implacable onslaught? How is he to respond to pleas from his fiancée to join her in working at a children’s summer camp in a safe, healthy mountain location?

In the light of the title, it is predictable that how Bucky acts in response to the overwhelming crisis will have momentous consequences. Early in the epidemic his father-in-law-to-be counsels him, saying that “a conscience is a valuable attribute, but not if it begins to make you think you’re to blame for what is far beyond the scope of your responsibility”.

It is the complexity of the challenges that Bucky takes on that makes this book so compelling. It is written with such empathy that it is difficult not to engage wholeheartedly with Bucky’s dilemmas, his choices, his regrets and his anguish. Long after you have finished this remarkably insightful book, questions about honour, integrity, heroism and the very nature of tragedy will continue to haunt you.

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

 
/Sport

Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.