Carlo Gébler: The Decameron's premise is that stories can heal our humanity in times of plague

Although written more than 650 years ago, Giovanni Boccaccio’s seminal literary account of the Black Death resonates more today than perhaps at any time since. Here Enniskillen-based Irish writer Carlo Gébler, whose new book retells some of the stories of the Decameron, explains why

Writer and teacher Carlo Gébler pictured near his home in Co Fermanagh
Writer and teacher Carlo Gébler pictured near his home in Co Fermanagh

THE Black Death was the deadliest pandemic in human history, killing between 75 and 200 million people from 1347 to 1351.

In Florence alone, an estimated 60 per cent of the population died. Bodies were simply left on the streets and eventually carted off to the overflowing cemeteries where they were piled up, layer upon layer. The economic effects of the Black Death were also severe: shops stood empty; businesses closed down. Everything ground to a halt.

Out of this catastrophe came Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. It would be a new departure for the author, and something never seen in literature before – ever.

Boccaccio opens his Decameron with an extraordinary documentary account of the dreadful impact that the Black Death had on the city of his birth. From this historically inflected nightmarish vision of a great city collapsing in on itself, Boccaccio then narrows his focus to seven allegedly ‘real’ young women of genteel birth. All have been affected by the horrors around them.

They are in shock. They gather together and Pampinea, the oldest, proposes that they escape to a villa in the hills above Florence. Joined by three young men who act as their chaperones, they choose to sequester themselves away at a villa in the country.

Once at the villa, Pampinea proposes that every afternoon, instead of playing dice or chess and growing fractious, no doubt, as a result, all 10 will tell a tale. For 10 of their 14 days at the villa, they each tell a story, hence Decameron, meaning ‘10 days’.

During the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and thinking I might learn something from a text connected to an earlier variant of the catastrophe, I dusted down my copy of the Decameron and discovered that there were points of contact as well as points of difference between now and then.

I also discovered, which I hadn’t expected, that its sequencing had a purposefulness I hadn’t anticipated.

As the Decameron unfolds, the content becomes more provoking and sometimes more troubling. As day follows day the capacity of the 10 participants to feel, which the plague has disabled, is gradually restored to them by the experience of fiction.

Thus, the first stories are easy. They are upbeat and cheerful and never dismal or too close to the lived experience of the group. They don’t require much from people whose feelings have been damaged by what they have suffered. But as the text unfurls the stories become more intimate and personal. They become darker, too. Much more is required, emotionally, of the listeners by the stories at the end than by those at the start.

The Decameron is a hugely influential text. So much literature has subsequently come out of or been spawned by the Decameron I sometimes think of it as an aquifer, hidden underground, without whose moisture nothing will grow.

My book, the production of which was catalysed by my experience of reading Boccaccio’s original during lockdown, is not a translation of the Decameron in its entirety, but a retelling of a selection. The ambition of Tales We Tell Ourselves is partly to showcase the art Boccaccio made in response to a crisis so like our own and partly to draw attention to his belief in the capacity of narrative to restore the psyche to health.

When Pampinea proposes on the first afternoon in the country that everyone tells a story, she says, "the invention of one may afford solace to all the company of his hearers".

‘Solace’ jumps out here. Solace for what?

To understand what she means, we need to go back to the eyewitness account of the plague that opens the Decameron. The Black Death, Boccaccio explains here, is so vast and so terrible an event that people have stopped feeling and gone numb: they no longer cry, mourn or grieve. The solace the stories offers is redress for that condition: they warm the frozen core of Pampinea and her friends (and anyone who reads the book) and bring them back to what they were before they were bludgeoned by the plague.

Six centuries on from the Black Death we are in the midst of another pandemic. It is not as terrible as its medieval forerunner but it is still a catastrophe. It is also doing something similar to the collective psyche. It is subduing and muting and suborning our human capacity. It is grinding us down and stopping us being fully human.

Given that this is the effect which, broadly speaking, Covid-19 is having, a text by a writer who believes stories can help to restore what is damaged or suppressed or lost in the psyche – a revolutionary premise if ever there was one and a premise with which I wholly agree – must surely be worth a look?

Tales We Tell Ourselves – A Selection from the Decameron retold by Carlo Gébler, is just published by New Island Books.