Set during a cholera outbreak in Egypt sometime during the XX century, The sixth day is a poetic book, pervaded by deep sadness and a sense of ineluctability.
Cholera, as we know, is a mortal and infectious disease caused by a vibrio bacterium, which, after penetrating into the human body, induces a severe loss of fluids. The disease is characterised by watery diarrhoea, biliar vomit and cardio-circulatory collapse. Fluid repletion and in some cases antibiotics would be sufficient to make most people recover from it, otherwise the dehydratation brings to a probable death.
When her grandson becomes infected, all Om Hassan can offer him is her immense love, and she does this clinging to the hope that, if he does not die on the sixth day from the infection, on that day he will recover. The old woman though must also hide him from Manzoni-esque squads of nurses who patrol Cairo searching for infected corpses and patients to bring to lazarettos where the first are disposed of and the others are put in isolation, until they die and can be disposed of. Poor people are given advice not to drink infected water or eat infected food, but, as usual, are not given the possibility to do so. The survivors live in terror of catching the disease, or, in some cases, try to profit from the situation denouncing to the authorities, for a small fee, cholera cases compassionately concealed by the relatives.
Om Hassan decides therefore to leave behind her invalid husband and to carry the child first around the ghostly city in a desperate attempt to become invisible amongst million of inhabitants, and subsequently up the Nile towards the countryside. The book is the account of this stoic trip and of the dangers that the woman must face until the ?sixth day? which represent the epilogue of the story. She is no doubt a brave woman, with resilience that at times seems to defy the dramatic reality in which she moves. In the mind of Okkasionne, the busker who is forced at some point to share a lift on a felucca [small boat] with her and the child, she is ?a poor lunatic but a dangerous one?. But then again he does admire this obstinate elderly peasant who adamantly carries out her plan and does not want to give up her hopes.
For Okkasionne, accustomed to live on the streets on the charity money he gets by playing and dancing with his little monkey, ?life is a calamity? or again ?a tight-rope, a mad balancing act?, and he tries to rebel against its inevitability, while any other character we meet seems to subdue to it. He will have however to eventually succumb to it too.
This is a book that leaves a burden on your heart, a sense of fear and, I hope, of compassion. I read it a couple of months ago, but took it out again after the South East Asia tsunami, to re-read a few of the most salient passages. It bears a resemblance with that tragedy and its aftermath, not in that both cholera outbursts and seaquakes cause death and destruction, or because cholera indeed is among the dangers that people in Indonesia or Sri Lanka have to fight against now. At the beginning of the novel, Om Hassan visits her village in the countryside, savaged by the epidemic, and one of her nephews accuses her of having arrived too late: everybody is dead, there?s nothing she can do to help. The old woman goes back to Cairo, and she can?t wait to hug her grandson and see him play and run, healthy and oblivious to the tragedy going on in the country. Unfortunately this can?t last, and the unlucky child will catch the disease too.
The same happened to us, the westerners busy unwrapping presents and choking on turkey and panettone: we know that most of the world?s population is in danger due to our excesses, but we do not pay attention to this, we do not do anything to change it, until the tragedy strikes our country or our countrymen or our playgarden.