Posts Tagged ‘Veronique Tadjo’

Translated by the author in collaboration with John Cullen

In the Company of Men was definitely a book that I wouldn’t have read without my Asymptote book club subscription. I received it in February and reading it after the year and a bit we have all been living through, was sobering.

It is a narrative about the ravages of the West African Ebola outbreak. Weaving the human stories with those of the natural world, showing movingly the absolute inter-connectedness of everything. It is very much a novel for our times, it doesn’t always make for easy reading despite the delicacy of the prose which prevents the novel from being as harrowing as I had feared it could be. Nonetheless, I was grateful the book ran to less than 150 pages.

I fear that in reviewing a novel about Ebola, I might be losing my audience a bit. However, Véronique Tadjo has produced a narrative that is in fact very readable – a sensitive and compassionate reminder of the cycle of life and the important role the natural world has to play in it.

“We were here to last. We were here to spread our shade over the remotest lands. We were here so our foliage would murmur the secrets of the four corners of the world. But human beings have destroyed our hopes. No matter where in the world they are, they wage war on the forest. Our trunks crash to the ground with a sound like thunder. Our naked roots mourn the end of our dreams. You cannot destroy the forest without spilling blood. Humans today think they can do whatever they like. They fancy themselves as masters, as architects of nature.”

The author: a poet and author from the Côte d’Ivoire uses fictionalised testimonials, legend and poetry to create a portrait of an unimaginable disaster – giving voice to the people left traumatised in its wake. Although termed a novel In the Company of Men is a series of snapshots – showing the extent of the epidemic through the eyes of the people affected.

Two boys leave their village to hunt in the nearby forest, they shoot down bats which they later cook over an open fire. Soon they are dead, their bodies ravaged by a dreadful disease that the local medical man is unable to help with. The family of the boys are told by experts not to touch their bodies – compounding their grief – but ultimately all warnings come too late and the virus spreads rapidly. The father quickly sends his eldest daughter away to the city, hoping her escape may give her chance of survival.

We meet a doctor working tirelessly to treat patients in a sweltering tent with just a plastic suit to protect him.

“I’m a trespasser in the Kingdom of Death. This is his private domain, his empire, where he rules with absolute power. I feel like an astronaut floating in space, a thousand miles from earth. The slightest tear in his spacesuit and he’s lost. The slightest tear in mine, just like him, I’m lost too.”

A student volunteers as a gravedigger while the university is closed, completley overwhelmed by the number of bodies. A grandmother agrees to take in an orphaned boy who was cast out of his village in fear. We hear from a foreign NGO volunteer who became infected with the virus, and a prefect in charge of one of the outreach teams – taking information to the people all over the country.

Watching over everyone and everything is the Baobab tree – a wise and ancient presence in mourning for the natural world, and yet also providing hope for the future. I particularly loved the way the author brought the natural world into the centre of the story it is a very powerful reminder of how connected to nature we human beings are – and how terrible are the consequences when the normal cycle of things is interrupted.

“As a bat, somewhere midway between a mammal and a bird, with my foxy-looking fangs and snout and my translucent wings, I harbor but one regret: having let Ebola escape from my belly. It was dormant in me until Man came and wreaked the splendour of the forest.”

The West African Ebola outbreak was one of the worst epidemics of our age – what Véronique Tadjo has done in this novel is to humanize it. For those of us unaffected by it, who live on the other side of the planet – Ebola is something that we glance away from on news reports, it doesn’t actually touch us. However, in this novel we hear some of those voices, we recognise the fear and the anguish and feel that helplessness. Those feelings heightened no doubt as we continue to live through a global pandemic, as terrible as Covid is – it isn’t Ebola.

In the Company of Men is a parable – a gut wrenching narrative of the human cost of this most terrible epidemic. Not always an easy read, it is worth the effort.

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