Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A Novel About a Plague: The Rag Doll Plagues

Alejandro Morales has written an amazing novel called The Rag Doll Plagues. The novel is divided into three parts, and in each part a physician named Gregory Revultas battles a deadly plague called La Mona: Book One takes place 1788-1792; Book Two occurs in contemporary southern California; and Book Three in 2050 Southern California and Mexico. The book has a driving plot which recalls Camus' The Plague.

Morales, a professor of Spanish at Univeristy of California Irvine, combines magic realism, historical chronicle, and science fiction in this novel first published in 1992. The novel bends history, with spirit guides from the past and future popping in to help each doctor. What does magical realism have to do with the the doctors fighting the plague? Everthing!

In Book One Dr. Gregorio Revultas, a surgeon to the king of Spain, is sent to Mexico City in 1788 to battle the first plague. At first he is horrified by the dirt, excrement and garbage he finds among the poor and diseased in Mexico City in this society with rigid classes. But Dr. Gregorio has two spirit guides from the future: Gregory and Papa Damian. Dr. Gregorio also as guides Father Jude, a mestizo priest, and Father Juan Antonio Llorente, a doctor and historian; they show him that the plague is exacerbated by the Inquisition's persecution of native cuanderos who help prolong the lives of those with the plague, but no one can find a cure.

Only when Gregorio Revultas, during the first years the French Revolution, begins to connect with Indians as equals and to improve sanitation, increase garbage removal, and install public baths in the poor neighborhoods of Mexico City that the plague moves away to the north. Dr. Gregorio has learned that plagues are deeply connected to enviornment destruction and social repression. At the same time Dr. Gregorio rids himself of his Spanish prejudices, finding a new home in Mexico where he writes down his life. Book One reads like an 18th century historical chronicle.

The second Dr. Gregory Revultas in Book Two finds his beloved Sandra falls ill with the plague. Sandra is not Mexican but is a wonderful Jewish-American actress whose performance in Lorca draws young Chicanos from the barrio who become her protectors when her illness worsens. Again, society is divided in rich and poor classes, but Dr. Gregory becomes part of growing community in the barrio who act to help Sandra with her disease. Again Gregory's grandfather Damian is his spirit guide.

Gregory and Sandra go to Mexico to the village of Tepotzotlan where the first Dr. Gregorio lived and was buried. The 2nd Dr. Gregory even starts reading the historical chronicle of the first. Dr. Gregory is learning that healing only comes from creation of a beloved community around Sandra as well as connecting with the cuanderos and doctors of the past. This community can prolong Sandra's life but not stop the plague from killing her; all the while the second Gregory constantly writes about his life with Sandra. Book Two reads like a contempoary magic realist novel with spirit guides and a elderly neighbor with a jaguar as a pet. It's all connected!

In Book 3 Canada, the United States, and Mexico have joined into one country but the same rigid class structure still exists in a science fiction story. The 3rd Dr. Gregory heads a medical team that fights plagues caused by horrible pollution. He lives in the ranch house built by his grandfather Gregory and constantly reads novels written by his grandfather Gregory in grandfather's library though most people just read computer books. Again he has spirit guides of Papa Damien and grandfather Gregory. His girlfriend Gabi is turned off by the old books and in order to accelerate her career has her arm replaced by a computer arm. As Dr. Gregory reads his grandfather's novels, he begins thinking that the novels are really history, a history that helps him to understand his society and eventually to find a cure for the third plague.

So how does the 3rd Gregory find a cure? We have threatening new diseases like ebola virus, AIDS and SARS? Indeed Morales has been telling us throughout his novel that diseases are connected to environment pollution and to extreme poverty; these diseases have a history. We like Dr. Gregory need to stop seeing diseases in isolation and learn the history of these diseases. Thus the spirit guides from the past are teaching the 3rd Dr. Gregory important lessons.

Morales believes that stopping the plague can only happen by healers who at the same time improve life for the poor and clean up environmental pollution. So the 3rd doctor Gregory must learn all the historical doctors' writing and the native traditions of healing before he can finally discover a cure. Alejandro Morales has written a brilliant and insightful novel The Rag Doll Plagues.


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abfowler07 said...

Why is there no chapter 6 in book 3?