In The Company of Men is a vivid and heart breaking read. And yet, given the dark human tragedy at the centre of the novel, this is a poetic and beautifully written tale of compassion and perseverance against terrify odds during a pandemic. The elegant simplicity of Tadjo’s prose unencumbers the punch of the story and its emotional impact. This is an exploration of survival in a time of Ebola; witnessing the trauma, experiencing the pain and coming through it but it’s a sobering read because it’s also about those who don’t make it. This tale begs questions of the skewed priorities of mankind in the light of unfolding tragedy, fiddling while Rome burns. In the Company of Men is about the rampant desire of societies to consume and destroy and pay little heed to consequences including pandemic and climate change. Tadjo’s narrative is comprised of many voices and perspectives which offer real insight into the human spirit in extremis and the story is enriched with African culture and myth.
As the vaccines for Covid-19 prove very effective and boosters for new variants seem within reach, way beyond early expectations for the treatment of a deadly disease, the contrast with handling Ebola is stark. This novel doesn’t draw any direct comparisons but it highlights them anyway. In the Company of Men deals with an outbreak of Ebola in an unnamed sub-Saharan African village. The west has made films about Ebola and it’s been with us for well over forty years, but taken little action, only now are there a couple of treatments but still no cure. Why? Because Ebola has blighted black African countries. Out of sight, out of mind; the US and Europe have never been seriously affected but, of course, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and parts of Nigeria and the Congo have been devastated by the disease. Mortality from the illness is frighteningly high, way more deadly than Covid-19 and that’s not to belittle the suffering and tragedy that this has wrought across the world. The contrast between actions on Covid and Ebola are stark and will be in your mind as this novel relates the real human cost of Ebola; the devastation the disease causes and how it affects patients, health workers and the wider community. How ill equipped governments are, how under resourced and under protected health workers are and how little this is being reported.
The narrative opens with a desperate father putting his daughter on a bus to the capital, he tells her that her aunt will meet her there. It’s the last time he sees his child, he’s already dying, who knows what happens to the girl. Two boys leave their village on a hunt and head into the forest, they both get a kill, eating the bush meat is very satisfying. Inside a month the two boys are dying, they are bleeding from every orifice, the family fetches the local nurse, he tells them:
‘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 will notify the health authorities. They take a long time to come, as they wait the mother consults the local healer. He says the village has been cursed, too many have died. People want explanations, answers, none make sense. Eventually the medical team arrive, they douse the ground with chlorine, set up a cordon sanitaire and take the boys with their now sick mother off in an ambulance. This is the last time the father sees his family, he too is already ill.
This is a story of bravery and sacrifice and the instinct for survival; how do we go on when we have seen so much, lost so much? It’s also about the relationship between man and nature, the abuse of human commerce, understanding our place in the world. The permanence of nature and the fleeting but destructive life of men and women, their frailty. We read about the desperation, the humiliation and grief occasioned by the disease but ultimately this is a tale about how we triumph in adversity. Powerful and thought provoking, an unforgettable read. Translated by the author in collaboration with John Cullen.
Reviewed by Paul Burke
Published by Hope Road (15 April 2021)
Paperback, ISBN 978-1913109790