Remember Ebola? It killed more than 8,000 people last year — before we were all Charlie — with a quarter as many again dying since January. Almost all the deaths have occurred in the war-weakened west African states of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone; no licensed drug or vaccine yet exists for a virus that claimed its first victim almost 40 years ago in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The spread of that maiden epidemic northwards over the border with Sudan is the basis for Amir Tag Elsir’s punchy short novel, Ebola ’76, originally published three years ago and now translated with fluency and keen timing by two young Arabists, in a fetching edition from a small London outfit focused on African and Middle Eastern subjects.
Elsir, a doctor from Sudan, weaves a busy urban tapestry around the bungling figure of Louis, a married cotton worker who brings Ebola to his home town after getting fresh with a young vagrant selling herself to tourists in Zaire, where Louis was mourning the death of a mistress.
The story initially unfolds as marital farce. Louis’s wife, a water-seller who booby-traps their home in an attempt to do him an injury, decides in his absence to thaw relations and try for a baby — to the delight of Ebola, portrayed as an omniscient villainous presence cackling over its master plan.
Soon the shivering, bleeding and dying begin. For Louis’s boss, a former rebel fighter turned capitalist, the crisis represents a business opportunity, as he sets about churning out face masks; ‘trusty child workers’ compensate for the sudden shortage of staff.
Such breezy irony is one of the ways Elsir works on our sympathies. Horror is another: the town square becomes a mass grave with ‘the dead and half-dead piled high’. Then there’s pathos; for all the squabbling, Louis’s wife knows something is up when she sees him in hospital lying on his back. Malaria ‘usually has him sprawled on his front’.
Elsir avoids solemnity as his everyday tale of conjugal gripes turns into black-comic zombie tragedy. But he isn’t making light of things, and it’s hard to avoid his grimmest implication — that death by Ebola may even be preferable to other hazards facing those most at risk from it: witness the hideous fate of the girl who gives Louis the virus in the first place.
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