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.

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