Talking Location With author Graham Hurley: BAKU
An Ebola fable set in WEST AFRICA
16th April 2021
‘In The Company of Men‘ by Véronique Tadjo, an ebola fable set in WEST AFRICA.
This is not a novel, and yet neither is it a work of pure non-fiction. Instead it’s a fable, a collection of snapshots from various viewpoints to lay bare the devastating impact of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Two young boys wander from their village to hunt in an ancient nearby forest. Their aim is tragically true and the bats they kill are cooked over an open fire back in the village. Shortly afterwards, the Ebola virus rampages through Western Africa, infecting and killing many people over the next few years, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The author portrays the story of the epidemic through a series of moving vignettes, some told by humans, some by natural characters, including the deadly virus itself, all combining to give a chilling voice to the disaster.
A doctor, dealing with disease and death every day, wondering when he’ll see his family again; a nurse, whose own daughter is ignored and isolated at school; a student volunteering as a gravedigger, not for money but out of love for his country; a mother, wanting only to die at home, with ‘the pain binding me to my children like an umbilical cord‘; a rare survivor, shunned by family and community, who tries to give hope to others struck down; and the engaged couple, one testing positive, one negative, one living, one dying: ‘I fear death, but not so much for myself. I’m more afraid of losing the one I love. The one who gave me back my will to live.‘
Book-ending these very human stories we hear from the ancient Baobab tree in the forest, and – most chillingly – from the deadly virus:
‘I’m a virus thousands of years old. I belong to the large family of the Filoviridae. People have known about me for only forty years or so. Nevertheless, I’ve been around for a very long time in this extraordinary forest, referred to as “primeval”, where everything has remained pristine since the beginning of time.’
‘It’s not me that has changed. It’s humankind which has changed direction. The lives men lead today are no longer the lives the Old Ones led. They’ve become more demanding, greedier, more predatory. Their appetites are limitless.’
The book only has 123 pages but packs a mighty emotional punch, and clearly has some resonance with the global Coronavirus pandemic we are fighting today. The original French text – the author was born in France and brought up in the Ivory Coast – was written in 2017, but as Véronique observes when asked if she has re-evaluated the book in the light of COVID-19:
‘In 2017 there was no idea about COVID-19, so in this sense the two situations are not comparable.However, there are striking similarities: the isolation and the loneliness that the pandemic brings; the tearing apart of family ties; the scars that it is leaving on the vulnerable; the issue of trust in government; the violence and resistance at times; the heavy burden on the medical profession; the economic crisis.’
This English translation, by the author in collaboration with John Cullen, will be published on 15th April, 2021, by Small Axes, an imprint of HopeRoad Publishing, whose mission is to promote new literary voices from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
Follow Véronique Tadjo on her website.
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