Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 15, 2021

In the Company of Men, by Véronique Tadjo, translated by the author with John Cullen

One of the interesting aspects of the way readers have responded to the pandemic is that some were so discombobulated that they said they couldn’t read at all; some resorted to ‘comfort reading’; some devoured books about plagues such as Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and The Plague by Albert Camus; and others like me went out of their way to escape into other times and places where pandemics had no place.  So I am not quite sure what motivated me to buy a recent release from poet, novelist, academic and artist Véronique Tadjo from Côte d’Ivoire…

In the Company of Men is, in the words of blurber Christopher Merrill:

A spellbinding narrative about the roots and ravages of an Ebola outbreak and a reminder that deadly new diseases spreading from humankind’s encroachment on the natural world recognises no borders, political parties or faiths…essential reading.

Anyway, the book arrived from Readings, and it went on top of the T pile that has burst its banks on the shelves, and in a feeble attempt to stave off the threat of the pile toppling onto the floor, I took the first book from the top and started reading without really intending to read it now.

Sometimes, it’s really good to be wrong about things, and I’m glad I didn’t defer reading In the Company of Men.  Yes, there are distressing scenes, but they are not the entire focus of the novel, which is more about the issues that arise when highly transmissible diseases spread out of control.

Still, it’s confronting to read in Chapter II about the innocence of two boys larking about in the forest, who hunt and kill a bat and eat the bushmeat over a log fire, and are at death’s door a month later.  Most confronting of all is the response of the nurse:

He said to the father: “Whatever you do, stay away from your children.  Don’t touch them, don’t dry their tears.  Don’t take them in your arms.  Keep your distance from them. You’re in serious danger.  I’ll call in my team.” He scribbled a brief report in his notebook and hurried away to alert his superiors.  But the mother didn’t budge from her children’s bedside.  She wept as she caressed their faces and gave them sips of water to drink. (p.6)

This novella was first published in 2017 in the wake of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014-16).  Although there had been outbreaks of catastrophically infectious diseases such SARS (2003) in China and MERS (2012) in the Middle East, for most of us the horror of this scene is something that happened somewhere else.  But now we are all familiar with reports of people dying alone, or nursed without human touch by people shrouded in plastic.  We have seen the grief of those unable to hold their loved ones and comfort them as they die.  We have learned that risking infection is not a matter of personal choice; preventative behaviours are mandated by law.

The novel, however, is not just a melancholy narrative about suffering and grief.  It explores the way people respond to events like this.  Part of the novel is narrated by Baobab, the first tree, which keeps the memory of centuries gone by, whether bruised or blessed by the gods.  It witnessed the damage done to nature and the way mankind has altered the equilibrium of the world.  It witnessed the way the rest of the world did it best to stay away while the epidemic wreaked devastation on Africa, a cradle of untold suffering.  It saw courage too, men, women and children determined to fight for their own survival and that of others […] people who did not think twice about offering help. The narratives also include an exhausted doctor, haunted by the death of a child; and a nurse who recognises that it’s women who are the worst affected […] because it usually falls on them to care for the sick and they’re the last to leave home and seek treatment.  She makes the connection between government choices and her ability to practise her profession:

I can’t say exactly how it happened.  How it was that my colleagues and I slowly, gradually, let our standards slip.  We started to compromise.  We began turning a blind eye to negligence.  We had no choice but to let our patients know that there was no more cotton wool, no more alcohol disinfectant, no more syringes, no more suturing thread.  It was up to them to buy those things, to send their family members to the nearest pharmacy in order to get what was needed.  At the same time, we knew perfectly well just by looking at them that they’d never be able to pay for even half of it.  They’d go to the pharmacy, but once they got to the cash register, they’d end up buying just the minimum, or just the cheapest items.

We took to the streets, staging public protests in order to force the government to adopt reforms.  All in vain. (pp.47-8)

Here in Australia at the advent of C_19, we were shocked to learn that we did not have enough ventilators and that we might not even have enough beds.  We no longer had the capacity to manufacture vaccines.  We were unprepared, we did not have what we needed, and there were delays in getting supplies.  After years of economic rationalism, it was the same all over the world.  The death rate in America, the richest country in the world, shocked us too.

In the Company of Men shows us that it’s not just rich, arrogant populist leaders who make decisions that exacerbate the crisis.  The gravedigger’s narrative shows us that India’s problems with cremation were foreseeable. It also shows us that there are men of great courage risking their own lives to try to protect the lives of others.

After the epidemic was officially declared, burials were undertaken by teams from both the government and the Red Cross.  But there was never enough manpower.  Sometimes it took several days before the bodies were picked up, increasing the risk of infection for the family members.  I heard that staff was being recruited and trained.  When the centre opened in this neighbourhood, I didn’t hesitate, I applied and got the job.  My mother didn’t approve.  I reminded her that I was available because the university had closed.  I explained to her that if we young people didn’t answer the call, the epidemic would never end.  I made it clear that it wasn’t because of the money I’d be earning that I had offered my services.  I love my country.  (p.52-3)

The novel shows the fierce desire to die at home; the panic; and the refusal to believe or cooperate with government messaging.  It shows the fear of contact with victims — and ostracization even after they have recovered. It explores the ethics of prioritising frontline workers for treatment; the problem of science versus traditional medicine and the need to use any strategy to persuade the reluctant to comply. And all the reactions we’ve seen in the media are foreshadowed: denial of the danger; downplaying the risks; delays in action; and faulty assumptions about the virus.  Closed borders and health checks and a slow and clunky bureaucratic response.  Lockdowns and outrage about the loss of personal freedoms.  Politicians obfuscating, taking credit for things they haven’t done, and making political mileage out of the situation.  The fractured families and the orphans.  The pleas for euthanasia.

And then there’s the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to invest in vaccine development unless there’s an actual market, in other words money to be made through the research and development of all these scientific methods.  

We continuously have various epidemics breaking out in one part of the world or another.  Which areas of research are the most promising?  For financial reasons, certain vaccines that have been developed have never made it to the crucial trial phase.  We have the ability to prevent Ebola from resurfacing, but does humanity truly have the will to make this happen? (p.109)

There are various initiatives to encourage university students and parliamentarians to read significant books.  I wonder what the impact would have been if In the Company of Men were mandated for reading by decision-makers.  Less complacency perhaps?

Author: Véronique Tadjo
Title: In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes)
Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen
Cover design by John Gall
Publisher: Other Press, 2021, first published 2017
ISBN: 9781635420951, pbk., 146 pages

 


Responses

  1. Fascinating. I’m not sure I want to read this now but it’s very interesting. And infuriating. We never learn, right?

    “Here in Australia at the advent of C_19, we were shocked to learn that we did not have enough ventilators and that we might not even have enough beds. We no longer had the capacity to manufacture vaccines. We were unprepared, we did not have what we needed, and there were delays in getting supplies. After years of economic rationalism, it was the same all over the world. The death rate in America, the richest country in the world, shocked us too.”
    It was the same here. That’s how we discovered that 80% of our paracetamol came from India…

    Like

    • Infuriating, yes!
      We actually had a Pandemic Preparedness program and it was cut to save money. (Follow the link in the last paragraph).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m with Emma: this sounds interesting, but maybe for a later date. The UK govt was woefully badly prepared for the pandemic. Years of cuts and ‘austerity’ to protect banks and big business (like former PM D Cameron’s new chums) left our renowned health service desperately short of staff and resources. When the crisis came, contracts for missing PPE, ventilators, etc, went not to the best sources, but to people who were in with the ruling party – even those who had nothing to do with such manufacturing needs. As for our abuse of the natural world – I’ve just read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a passionate condemnation of our destruction of the forests – and hence of ourselves. We’re our own worst enemies.

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    • All true, Simon, but hopefully we will learn from it, not least about the importance of using the vote wisely.

      Like

      • Unfortunately, the first past the post system of voting in the UK often means your vote doesn’t actually help elect the people you want to elect. And now they’re trying all kinds of shenanigan to suppress voting rights by introducing a bill to demand photo ID when voting.

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  3. I guess I’m weird because if I had the time I’d read this now. It sounds interesting, and I’d love to see how the author juggled all those narratives into a novella. Love that sort of writing, usually.

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    • It’s a grim subject, but it’s not a grim book, and it’s hopeful.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was in my stack, untouched, for sooo long because, like others have said above, I was concerned that it wasn’t a book for now; once I started, I literally did not put it down, and I regretted having let it sit for so long.

    Not only was I surprised to have found it such a positive experience overall and I am surprised to think that I might even reread (I read it in such a burst, I’d like to see what I missed while I was marvelling at the way she constructed it).

    It’s one of those reads that I wanted to press on other people because it left me so, strangely, hopeful, despite its contents.

    Like

    • Yes, you’ve expressed it so well, that’s exactly how I feel.
      And what I think is really important about it, is that now when events are swirling around us and it’s hard to make sense of them, the book shows that what we are experiencing is a pattern in the responses both official and interpersonal, and that we can cope better when we recognise that, and that there are things we can learn from it.

      Liked by 1 person


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