Review: Ebola ’76, by Amir Tag Elsir (2012 / 2015)

~ Ebola ’76 (2012), by Amir Tag Elsir. Translated from Arabic by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby (Darf Publishers, 2015). ~

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Ebola ’76 is a book by the Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir, and though written originally in Arabic it situates its narrative beyond the (often quite restrictive) confines of the “Arabophone” context. The story is primarily that of Lewis Nawa, a factory worker who returns from Zaire / Democratic Republic of the Congo to his hometown in southern Sudan carrying the Ebola virus after a visit to his (now-dead) mistress. An outbreak ensues, claiming the lives of many locals including Lewis’s somewhat-estranged wife, while others who find themselves in the area try to weather the disease as best they can, in a desperate panic to avoid infection and (likely) death – with no help (internal or external) evidently forthcoming.

The topic is grim, but the darkly satirical way in which Elsir deals with it makes for compelling – if morbid – reading. The cast of supporting characters is also fascinating, and includes a maverick magician, a hysterical blind guitar player who fancies himself an international star, and the owner of the factory in which Lewis is employed who does his best to squeeze out any advantage he can out of the situation. One technique I especially liked was assigning narrative agency to the virus – “Ebola did this, Ebola did that,” etc. – which one could make interesting comments about in the context of post-humanism and sociological theory that assigns agency to non-humans. It is also a riff on the largely depersonalized concept of a “disease vector”: Lewis is a fully realised, if not especially nuanced, character, with his own hopes and fears and relationships, and though these might not ultimately influence the course of the outbreak they still form important aspects of the story that made it happen.

It’s a short novel, though, and one gets the feeling there is a scope for more exploration of its ideas. Perhaps necessarily, it’s also without a firm conclusion: the situation becomes bad, and stays such, and the possible outcomes – the virus clearing out, or continued suffering, or something in between – are only hinted at hypothetically. Still, it’s an important book to read especially in translation, even if just for its picturing of transnational circuits and concerns that often fall off the radar of readers of English-language literature. Not a gripping yarn, but certainly one that makes you think.

Verdict: recommended.

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