Purple Death


Purpurne surm

Purple Death (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Noor-Eesti, 1924, pp. 231

August Gailit’s apocalypse novel Purple Death (1924) is one of the most powerful, better known works of the author, and can be characterised as a poetic, expressionistic destruction narrative about the end of the world.

Featured in the novel are the rulers of an island somewhere far out in the middle of the ocean called Varria, the fabulously wealthy Toomas Moor and, following him, his only son Joonas Moor – with a clear reference to Thomas More’s Utopia. As a young man Joonas Moor is sent out into the wide world to learn more about life, and he returns only after his father’s death, to inherit a flourishing island of intoxicating beauty and riches. He marries a fun-loving woman and, despite a feeling of foreboding, parties for days and nights with the whole island. Then a plague originating in India begins to spread around the world, known as the purple death it kills only men. Despite endless military operations, the closing of borders, and the infected lands being cut off from the clean ones, the epidemic spreads remorselessly westwards. Countries unite to defend themselves, but the disease breaks out in the large towns of Europe and in America. Varria island is also seized by panic, boats are burned, and the only connection with the mainland is lost; when in the end the epidemic unexpectedly breaks out, it causes chaos. It culminates in the women hunting after the last men; they are caught, collected, hidden, and when found are ripped into pieces. So doomsday is not a struggle to save lives, but a squabble between the women over who owns the men.

However, Joonas Moor manages in the end to escape, and he flees to the north, to the distant snow planes, with a belief in the possibility of man’s rebirth.

A powerful tension is created by the representation of the spreading disaster not from an eye witness perspective, but through various sources of information which relay participants’ experiences and interpretations. On Varria, Joonas Moor is like a distant witness, to whom all the gloomy information about what is happening in the rest of the world flows. When the epidemic breaks out on the island, this tense earlier waiting period gives way to terrible chaos, a spectacle which is vividly and grotesquely portrayed, and given the island’s isolation, and the closed nature of its society, it is particularly ghastly.  

There is an echo of Oswald Spengler’s ‘Decline of the West’ in the novel. The descriptions of the human reactions to the catastrophe add to the power of the author’s vision. Alongside the men’s agonies and their fear of women, the women’s own fear of men and thus of losing themselves is felt very keenly. The novel’s main character, who is often in the role of passive listener, frequently contemplates the nature of being a woman. ‘Purple Death’ is also a novel about women from the perspective of men. It also contains a highly poetic discourse on the fleetingness of mankind’s presence on earth, on the fears and fragility of the West. ‘Purple Death’ is an apocalypse novel which can be read on many different levels, and in terms of its treatment of the issues can be compared with Corman McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. 

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee

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