In the winter of 1924 the German author Thomas Mann published his epic and startling novel “The Magic Mountain”. Ostensibly it is a story about the lives and deaths of tuberculosis patients at a sanatorium nestled in the Swiss Alps. However there is a deeper philosophical narrative at the heart of the book, which has eerie parallels with the current and disturbing events of our contemporary world.
The main protagonist is Hans Carstorp. Carstorp is a young man born into wealth and privilege but he is a youth wrestling with his conscience. He is like many young people who question the nature of the world and their role within it, he is unsure of his destiny but his life is changed irrevocably when he decides to visit his ailing cousin Joachim at the sanatorium.
The story is set in the 1910s, a decade which lead up to the first world war. Europe was in a state of peace, if a little fragile. However its identity and civilisation was far from solid, in fact it was breaking apart. Even in the relative safety and tranquillity of a mountain hospital there is an unsettling fear that its future is on a precipice. Mann highlights the sickness at the core of every great civilisation, and the tragedy witnessing its decline and fall.
The young patients are encouraged to attend lectures and challenge the conventions of their society. Instead of enlightened thinking Mann observes that there is a nascent anti semitism and other kinds of prejudice fomenting in the discussions. There are mutterings about Tatar influence and the febrile isolation only serves to magnify the paranoia. Castorp is not immune to the contagion, and is admitted as a tubercular patient alongside the others. He finds himself locked down in a community cut off from the rest of the world and reduced to an institutionalised existence with no hope of return to normality.
Carstorp`s vitality gradually saps away as even hospital routines have little meaning for him. The only glimmer of hope amongst despair is that tiny thread of connection to civilisation, which lies in the form of his gramophone records. It is an onerous task for him to find meaning in life when he is stuck in an atmosphere of great suffering and death. He finds a degree of salvation in the daily lectures on science and literature, but a sense of hopelessness envelops him particularly as winters on the mountain are so severe that most of the inhabitants are trapped under snow for months.
Carstorp`s condition is mild by comparison, and his symptoms are managed. He can see that many are not so fortunate, some patients are forced to endure tracheostomies. The tracheostomy patients form their own community as the only hope for recovery.
In the final chapters Carstorp falls in love with a woman with an alluring background and his thoughts focus on the beguiling nature of women in general. He believes that there is at least a future with this beautiful and fascinating woman, but fate intervenes to spoil his dreams. Carstorp recovers from his illness but within months of his discharge he is sent to the battlefield to defend the country he loves.
It seems like a perverse twist of fate that this young, cultured man who loved the finer points of civilisation dies in a maelstrom of violence. It is a paradox that we are ultimately facing right now.