Nourhan Tewfik reviews Ebola ’76 by Amir Tag Elsir, translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby
As Lewis entered, Ebola was all around. It hovered inches from him, anticipating its moment to pounce. The virus had already claimed the bodies of most of the people he encountered there. It coursed through the blood of the old, sunken-cheeked beggar woman as she silently extended her hand towards Lewis to receive his half franc. It had infiltrated the veins of the stern guard, who now leant against his battered old rifle, his gaze flitting between the visitors as they came and went through the main gates. It inhabited the many mourners who passed before Lewis’s distracted gaze. Even as he knelt in tears beside the grave of his lover, who had died just two days previously, the virus was there, lurking in her corpse beneath the soil.
In his short novel Ebola ‘76, a Darf Publishers title translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby, the Sudanese writer Amir Tag Elsir moulds a fictionalised account of the 1976 Ebola outbreak in South Sudan and Congo.
The novel opens with Lewis Nawa, a Sudanese factory worker, travelling from his home in Nzara, South Sudan to Kinshasa, Congo to visit the grave of his dead lover Elaina. A sexual encounter with a young Ebola-stricken woman called Kanini follows, transmitting the virus to him.
“There were thus two ghouls holding Lewis at their mercy,” Elsir writes, “the first was Kanini, whose attentions had left him spent; the second was Ebola, which had by that point entered his bloodstream and multiplied furiously, occupying every cell in his body.”
Meanwhile, Lewis’s wife Tina Azacouri, who is craving motherhood, is back home preparing a sensual welcome for her disloyal husband. Instead of placing stones by the door for Lewis to trip over, a routine she had perfected through the seven years of their cold marriage, Tina awaits her husband with impatience.
Having been infected by the virus, Lewis unknowingly takes the disease back to Nzara, transferring it to his wife in the course of their “renewed intimacy” – a full-scale outbreak ensues.
And so we see how Lewis, his family members, fellow factory-workers, doctors and people at the Congo-Sudan border battle this deadly visitor, believing it to be a merciless sorcerer, fighting for their lives. We see how some, including Lewis, are spared death while others are not as lucky. The result is a series of darkly comic human encounters, interweaved with tragedy, fear and a tinge of hope.
Those whiffs of fear are omnipresent, whether in the city itself or by the Congo-Sudan border, which has been ordered closed to “prevent the spread of terror” by leaders who do not know that “no amount of ruthlessness and menacing guns could deter Ebola’s victims”.
But they fight against an unconquerable force, and in no time the city becomes a mass grave, its main plaza – renamed Ebola Square – hosting Ebola-stricken patients gasping for life, and doctors who with the help of volunteers make desperate attempts to unshackle them.
In their battle with fear each character comes face to face with their own un-camouflaged reality. During their Deathbed Awakenings, Ebola-stricken characters reveal their intimate secrets – their innate ugliness.
On the other hand, people like James Riyyak, Louis’ boss and also a former revolutionary, employ such fear to garner personal gains.
Riyyak, who owns a factory producing cotton garments, responds to the soon-to-be epidemic by producing facemasks; changing the factory’s name from Jewel of the South to Ebola Textiles. Suffering a staff shortage, a consequence of Ebola – having kicked him out days before for being late to work – Riyyak must now ask for the help of the newly recovered Lewis, especially since it is he who can work the old, worn-out machine.
Meanwhile, refugees are stuck at the Congo-Sudan border. Ruwadi Monti, a famous blind guitar player who has a scheduled concert in Nzara, makes a failed attempt at employing art to fight fear. He goes around “strumming his guitar, playing a number of the rallying military marches taught in Congolese schools to instill nationalist sentiments… desperate love songs” but to no avail.
The dead had no use for a famous and talented musician, the half dead were more concerned with finding a doctor or vaccine, and the healthy were still so overcome with terror that art had no chance against it… Just as it had done at the borders, fear defeated art in the streets and alleys of Nzara. And so it seemed nothing could fight fear quite as well as greater fear did. Art and beauty had no sway in the time of Ebola.
In fact, Elsir depicts this state of hysteria with brilliance. But perhaps the real strength of this novel is the personification of Ebola he so creatively perfects.
Ebola is described as an evil person. It irritably waits for the chance to infect a new victim and move onto a new country. It laughs when its plot succeeds, and is filled with anger when a potential victim escapes infection.
“As Ebola continued to kill and wreak havoc, depriving wives of their husbands, neighbours of their neighbours, children of their parents and lovers of their loved ones.”
In its unbounded evilness, Ebola – we come to see – makes no distinction between rich and poor. It infects doctors, who are much respected in Nzara, as well as the aristocratic compound where the foreigners, including aid workers, educational consultants to train locals, devout missionaries, wandering travellers and a few artists who “found such a primitive society an exotic source of inspiration” all lived.
Elsir poignantly depicts this equality in the possibilities of death when he writes of how Ebola brings “the same taste in the mouth; the same scent in the nostrils; the same hysterical behaviour”. The only difference is that Ebola incites different reflections: whereas the poor are overcome by fear, the rich can indulge in philosophical contemplation.
But Ebola ‘76 also speaks of hope. We see how those disease-stricken or in fear of Ebola seeping into their bodies celebrate what they think is an approaching rescue mission – only to realise it is not here for them – but rather for the foreigners in the city.
In truth, nobody had known what the aircraft would be carrying – medicine, equipment, high-tech masks or purified air to be pumped into the atmosphere – nor had there been much effort to find out. After all, in circumstances such as these, the mere word “rescue” in itself was more than enough.
This is how and where the story ends – with the possibility of hope. Hope to be saved, to reclaim a life that perhaps was not so beautiful, but had much less fear. And hope it is, despite very well founded fears regarding the “disillusion that was sure to follow.”