I’m currently reading a book called Breakout from Stalingrad, by Heinrich Gerlach. It’s a ‘lost manuscript’ that ultimately became the classic The Forsaken Army, which I read as a kid. It’s told from the German side about the battle of Stalingrad and the encirclement, and ultimate surrender, of the German Sixth army. It was a massive battle and pretty full-on. About 300,000 troops were in the pocket when it started. I think only ever about 5,000 made it home years after the war had ended.
I used to read a lot of war books when I was a kid, but not so many now. This is a bleak read, but sort of compelling, too, like watching a catastrophe unfold in slow motion. Sometimes I think I’m going to set it aside because – no matter which side you’re on – there’s something tragic about the story. It’s the futility that gets to me, the utter hopelessness of their destiny. It’s like watching an old movie you know the ending of and dread every time. But I keep on reading because the author was there, this is what he saw and experienced, and because it’s unexpectedly moving. I’m about 300 pages through of about 650.
As I lay in bed last night reading, it occurred to me that the situation we’re in right now has parallels to the story. Sure, no-one’s shooting at us, we’re not starving or freezing to death, and we’re not at war. There is a lot of differences. But, like the soldiers there, we’ve lost freedom of movement in lockdown. We’re not at complete liberty. And we’re doing battle with an implacable foe. The Germans were surrounded in Stalingrad and, if you look at it, that’s sort of an apt metaphor for life in lockdown. We’re fearful of leaving our homes because of the coronavirus lurking in wait. In our case, at least, we’ve got hope – one day, you’d expect, we’ll achieve the breakout the Sixth Army never managed.
Earlier in the night, I’d bought a face mask online, in what is very much a sign of the times. It’s not something I want to wear, for cosmetic reasons as much as anything else, but I recognise the time is nearing when I’ll probably be obliged to. Healthy outcomes might dictate it also.
I’ve actually got two face masks already. Back in January, when the bushfires were raging and smoke was heavy in the air, I bought a simple face mask on impulse when I visited the chemist. I never wore it. Then I got a freebie face mask included in a delivery I received the other week – one of the basic, medical-grade blue masks. Haven’t worn that either.
If I can manage it, I won’t get to wear either of them. No matter how you spin it, I don’t think wearing a face mask is a particularly good look – but then there are really bad fashion takes, and those that are acceptable. The mask I purchased last night is decorated in a Koori motif, and is something I could accept wearing. Basically, it appealed to my vanity because it had a bit of style, a bit of individuality. If I’m to be seen in public wearing one, that’s what I want.
When do I get to wear it, I wonder? In my part of town maybe 1 in 10 people are wearing a mask, but we’re far from the hotspots. If I lived there I reckon I’d be wearing one now. The next few days will tell the tale. If the rate of infection stabilises or even falls, then we’re a chance. But if it continues to rise then we have a problem. My expectation is that the actions the government put into place the week before last should be paying off soon. We might see a modest increase, but I hope it starts to trail away by next week. A lot rides on this, and not just whether I end up wearing a mask.
Edit: by wicked coincidence, I’m also reading The Plague, by Albert Camus, currently. I started it quite innocently, without consideration for the times we live in. Perhaps it was a sub-conscious choice made.