Tag Archives: John Cullen

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

We all remember those other worldly images of people in Hazmat suits treating victims of Ebola in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. There were also images of people waiting in compounds; others stricken with grief but unable to touch their dead; and teams with sprays, and hastily created burial grounds with bodies wrapped in plastic. It was terrible, but how relieved we were that it was happening in West Africa, far away from us. 

And perhaps we now wish we had taken more notice, for some of the worst hit areas by our current pandemic seem to be as chaotic and dreadful as those. We should have heeded the warnings of experts and history: pandemics happen. There was the Spanish flu of 1918, HIV/Aids, SARs, MERs and Ebola. 

In the Company of Men was the choice for February of the Asymptote Book Club.

In the Company of Men

Ebola began when infected bushmeat was consumed in the forests of West Africa. The Ebola virus spread quickly through contact, helped by ignorance. And also by lack of knowledge and resources to confront the rapid spread of infections. The illness seemed excruciatingly disgusting, melting the internal organs of the infected body. 

Véronique Tadjo explores the sense to be made of the outbreak. The figures seem low to us, now faced with Covid-19: 28,646 cases and 11,323 dead. But it caused mayhem, destroying lives, beliefs, economies and confidence. The author uses the possibilities of the novel to look at the impacts and experiences of many of its victims, including the Ebola virus itself.

 So each of the short chapters are related by people or other living creatures affected by the outbreak. There are the medical teams who had so little to fight with and could only ease a patient through the illness to recoveryor death by hydrating them, providing painkillers and trying to alleviate anxiety. Stuffed inside their protective gear, sweating in the African heat, dealing with victims who were often terrified, their working conditions were terrible.

There are the survivors, still viewed with suspicion; the foster carer for an Ebola orphan; the volunteers who built the Ebola centres; the other staff whose job it was to bury the dead in conditions that transgressed against the cultural customs of their families; and the outreach teams who had to go into villages to ensure restrictions and behaviours were in accordance with preventative measures, but against all customs. 

A leader of an outreach team explains some of the difficulties.

The outreach team have to exercise patience. They need to find the right words. Because when people are afraid, they will act irrationally. The contradictory claims and rumors going around about Ebola create a lot of uncertainty in peoples’ minds. The rate at which it spreads, its virulence, that’s all too much to grasp, and very hard to accept. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie to yourself. It’s easier simply to disbelieve the evidence before your eyes, in your own village, in your own neighborhood. Despite the public notices, many prefer to hide the sick, or even, if the threat becomes real, to die with them. What’s the point, they say, it was a losing game right from the start. The most vulnerable members of society, women and children, have to bow to the decrees of the elders. They’re excluded from the discussions, and thus have no inkling of the dangers waiting for them. (80-81)

She writes from the perspective of the virus, and from the bat that had been its host. The bat suggests that humans are not facing up to the situation, instead pursuing their empty dream of purity and perfection, in the Ebola epidemic to find a scientific solution to its eradication. The bat suggests that this dream of perfection is not the way forward, because it is aggressive and destructive.

[Humans say] ‘We save more lives than we kill. We discover medicines that cure and vaccines that protect. Our advanced technologies will provide solutions for our problems and innovations will alleviate global hunger and warfare.’ … 
But I know none of this will actually happen unless they learn to share with one another, and with us, and with every creature yet to be born. …
Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small. Instead of trying to rise above their earthly origins. Instead of wanting to conceal the presence of death by dint of ever-more-sophisticated invention.(132-3)

The use of multiple voices by Véronique Tadjo extends to quoting from songs and poems that circulated at the time or were already well-known in the countries affected.

So the reader finishes this short novel with the sense that we need to see the Ebola outbreak not as an aberration, but absorb its history and how to confront it into our understanding of the world. The bat has already said that, the virus is more critical of human capacity to destroy, but the Baobab tree echoes the more positive note.

These ancient and revered trees are often the meeting place for a village and are seen as trees that hold knowledge and understanding of the world. ‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’ When the outbreak is finally over, the tree welcomes back the activity of humans. It has the final word:

And the destiny of Man will become one with ours. (141)

Everything that I read in In the Company of Men applies to Covid-19. The scale is larger, but the ability of literature to show us the familiar in new ways is reflected in this book.

Véronique Tadjo

Véronique Tadjo is a poet, novelist academic and artist from Côte d’Ivoire with an interest in many African countries.

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp

Related Posts

Reviewed on Heavenali’s blog in April

Asymptote Book Club

Picture credit

Véronique Tadjo at the Salon du Livre 2011 in Geneva by Rama: through Wiki Commons

Baobab Tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

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Four more Good Reads

Here are four more books I have recently read and enjoyed:

  • The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud
  • The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
  • Wrinkles by Paco Roca
  • The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
  1. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

197 Mersault coverThis novel is both homage and challenge to L’Etranger by Albert Camus, through its content and it s prose. It tells the story of the Arab, killed almost in passing by Meursault, the anti-hero of Camus ‘s novel. It references L’Etranger directly from its opening to its ending, as the victim’s brother tells his story in a series of late night meetings with an admirer of Camus’s novel in a bar. This framing recalls The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, perhaps intentionally. Both place the reader within the novel.

At one level the novel is about a family’s grief, and what it means to define your life against an absent older brother. His disappearance was complete – no body was found and he was not even given a name by Camus. Daoud calls him Musa.

The Meursault Investigation is also a novel about colonial rule (of Algeria by the French) and the disappointment of Algeria since Independence. It is a story of betrayal and loss, of questioning and regrets.

At times the narrator elides Camus and Mersault, reminding us that Camus came from a French background. Other books by Camus are also referenced. He reserves particular bitterness for to the accolades given his brother’s murderer and ‘his’ book.

75 2 more CamusThe Meursault Investigation does not diminish Camus’s novel, rather provides a new perspective, and allows the reader/listener to bring Algerian experiences into the present day. (Daoud is a journalist who lives in Oran).

Annecdotalist liked much about this novel as she writes on her blog here.

Winner of several prizes including EnglishPEN award – see EnglishPEN’s World Bookshelf.

The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud (2014), published by Oneworld 143pp

Translated from the French by John Cullen.

  1. The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

9781784630232frcvr.inddI think this is a seriously good novel, told in a strong voice, and with plenty of tension and tenderness. The story unfolds in Belfast over the long weeks of the summer holidays, following eleven-year old Mickey Donnelly. It is the time of the Troubles. Written in the present tense, in Mickey’s voice, we are able to see the world from the perspective of a boy with much to be frightened of: big school, his brother and father, the Prods, the local bullies (girls and boys). He shows us the damaging wash of the Troubles – visits from IRA, fathers being in prison, mysterious visitors, no-go areas of the divided city – and to see the damage wrought by the culture of violence on families, children and communities.

Mickey is intelligent and not keen to be a big tough boy like his older brother. Much of the tension relates to the place he gained at the grammar school and his parents’ decision to send him to the tough local school for lack of money. He has the holidays to figure out how to survive despite the fearsome reputation of St Gabriel’s. He likes to play with Wee Maggie his younger sister and his dog Killer. He loves his Ma. His Da is a drunk and life is better without him, except that Ma loves him. His elder brother Paddy is involved with the IRA, hiding guns in the dog’s sleeping place.

During the summer holidays Mickey takes some family responsibility, learns a thing or two about growing up, and witnesses the worst of life in Belfast in the Troubles. The climax sees him deal with his drunken father and he finds himself ready for senior school.

The Good Son celebrates one boy, a misfit, and the strength of a mother’s determination to protect her family and her good son.

The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (2015), published by Salt 234pp

Shortlisted for the Guardian’s prize Not the Booker Prize (you can vote 6th October).

  1. Wrinkles by Paco Roca

197 Wrinkles coverWrinkles is a graphic novel, what the French call bandes dessinees. Following a review in The Guardian I requested a copy from the local library for research for my new book on ageing.

Wrinkles tells the story of Ernest, a retired bank manager who is increasingly disoriented and so is placed in a care home. He is befriended by his lightfingered roommate who shows him the ropes. The place none of them want to go is upstairs, according to Emile:

‘the upstairs floor is where you find the helpless. Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there. Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s. Better to die than end up there.’ (20)

Ernest is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in a bid to avoid an eventual move upstairs Emile encourages him to outwit the doctor’s tests and eventually Emile and Ernest make a bid for freedom, a Thelma and Louise kind of thing. But it ends badly, and the ‘big one’ marches on, until Emile is left alone and the story peters out … What endures are the strong emotions and ties between the old people.

The format lends itself to recreating sudden shifts in consciousness; for example showing Ernest’s introduction to the home as his first day at school; the interminable game of bingo, where no one can hear the number called and it has to be repeated ten times; and the stories people are telling themselves like being on a train to Istanbul, being afraid of kidnap by Martians.

Wrinkles by Paco Roca (2007), published by Knockabout 100pp.

Translated from the French by Nora Goldberg.

  1. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

197 Wild Places coverI loved this profoundly moving, engaging and erudite tour of the wild places of Britain. Robert Macfarlane is sometimes on his own, sometimes with friends, and occasionally his experience is enlivened by chance encounters.

Structured round a series of visits to different kinds of places – island, valley, moor, forest and so on – The Wild Places follows a year’s journey, as Robert Macfarlane reflects on friendship, humans’ relationship to the earth, history, cruelty, what is known about certain animals or birds, grief, and above all a love of the wild places. He learns more about what makes them wild, and what wild means (not the absence of people’s influence, as he thought when he set out, like the untouched wildernesses of New Zealand) but a kind of ascendancy of nature’s processes: like the work of the sea on the shingle beaches of East Anglia, or the wind shaping the peaks of the mountains.

He introduces us to animals (wild hares), birds (peregrines), and people (his friend Roger Deakin who died while Macfarlane was making his journeys, but had accompanied him on one or two), as well as giving us his descriptions of landscape, presenting researched information about phenomenon, and all in an assured and erudite prose. Writing about the experiences that people have of encounters with the wild places – people brought to sudden states of awe … ‘encounters whose power to move us was beyond expression but also beyond denial’. ‘It is hard to put language to such experiences,’ (236) he explains, but reading this made me see Macfarlane’s talent with language as well as wild sleeping.

Also recommended is The Wild Ways by Robert Macfarlane which I mentioned in my very first post Reading in 2012.

And another supreme writer about the natural world appears in this book briefly and drew the map: Helen Macdonald who wrote H is for Hawk.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (2007), published by Granta 321pp

 

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Filed under Books, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews