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Véronique Tadjo's 'In The Company Of Men' Focuses On West Africa's Ebola Outbreak


The new novel "In The Company Of Men" is full of scenes that feel eerily familiar - health care workers maxed out and running low on supplies, tending to patients who might not get better; family members who can't hug, kiss or care for each other, afraid of spreading a contagious virus. These are not portraits of COVID-19. The author, Veronique Tadjo, sets her novel in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak that devastated the region starting in 2014.

VERONIQUE TADJO: I wrote this book in French first in 2017, so there was absolutely no idea of a pandemic.

SHAPIRO: So the English translation of this book arrives at an uncanny moment. Parts of it read like a journalistic account of the Ebola crisis, and other chapters are more like mythic fables, told from the perspective of a tree or a bat. I asked Tadjo why she combined these styles.

TADJO: We are constantly fed by news. This is our life from morning till evening. But at the same time, we wish for more. It's not so much facts we are after, but a way to interpret those facts as they impact on our lives. So it's important that we keep that human dimension when we have stories happening somewhere else, but in fact, much closer to us than we think.

SHAPIRO: Nearly every chapter of the book has a different narrator. And so we see this Ebola outbreak from the perspective of a doctor, a patient, a grave digger, a researcher. And in many cases, we never learn their names. Can you tell us about one of them?

TADJO: I think perhaps my favorite is the nurse because she had a lot of hopes in medicine, in technology, in progress in general. But then she was confronted by this terrible disease, and she realized that the country was not ready. And I've seen so, so, so many women like that who work in hospitals and who know that they are working in conditions that are not right and that what they have been asked to do is almost an impossible mission. But they do it, and they do it with such courage.

SHAPIRO: When did you realize the parallels between the story that you were writing and the present-day reality that the whole world is now living?

TADJO: It just happens that the translation is coming out now and that I see the resonance. But I wanted to tell the story of this terrible epidemic in West Africa because at the back of my mind, there was always this idea that this was not over. There's always going to be a looming threat because the more I research the subject, the more I realize that a lot of things were interconnected. Like, the environmental issue was at the forefront of the problem of the epidemic as well.

SHAPIRO: And when you look at the book again, through the lens of the global pandemic that we are all facing now, do you see parts of it differently?

TADJO: Yes, I do. I do. Because, for example, I object terribly to this idea of putting a nationality, if you want, an identity to epidemics because, in fact, viruses don't see borders.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying whether a virus originated in West Africa or in China ultimately doesn't matter?

TADJO: At the end of the day, it doesn't. And also, it would be bad to feel that some people are virtuous and others are not, that somehow you can put a blame game. And that's not constructive in terms of fighting the disease together.

SHAPIRO: Would you read from a section of the book for us? This is Page 25.

TADJO: Yes, with pleasure.

(Reading) Simply touching another person is enough for someone to become infected. This plague is worse than war. A mother, a father, a son can become a mortal enemy. Pity is a death sentence.

SHAPIRO: I love that line, pity is a death sentence because it captures so effectively how the gestures of affection and consolation and connection become the vectors of disease.

TADJO: Yes, and that's the really, really terrible thing because we have seen, like today, how it's impossible to rely on our former relationships. So many people have been isolated by the COVID-19 virus. And we understand the loneliness of our condition, how even feelings as strong as love become some way incapable of bridging the threat of possible death.

SHAPIRO: One of the narrators in this story says science alone is not going to bring the virus under control. It will take persuasion. And when I read that, I thought of how much it applies to our situation today where people are afraid of the coronavirus vaccine. How did it become clear to you that science is not enough to solve a pandemic?

TADJO: It became clear to me that you need to convince people to be on the side of science. But it's difficult because sometimes people lose confidence in their leaders. And when they do, they do not trust what is being said to them.

SHAPIRO: You write about hoaxes and disinformation in the Ebola outbreak and the realization that the scientific community needed to bring traditional healers on board who were sometimes dismissed. There are just so many uncanny parallels.

TADJO: Yes, it's interesting, yeah? It's just that you see something like traditional medicine in Africa has been virtually abandoned officially. But unfortunately, modern medicine has failed the majority of the people in the sense that the medical infrastructures are not there for the majority of the people. So there is some kind of a mistrust. Therefore, they tend to go back to the healers. So it was important to get the collaboration of the healers so that they could help fight the disease because they were the closest to the majority of the people.

SHAPIRO: So having spent so much time thinking about the Ebola pandemic, what lessons do you wish people trying to fight the coronavirus pandemic learned?

TADJO: Huh, that's a difficult one. First, you have to say resilience. But you also have to say a sense of solidarity. We are all in it together. It's only when we work together that we can defeat such threats to humanity. So I think that I would really, really like to see more solidarity within each country and across countries.

SHAPIRO: Veronique Tadjo's new novel is "In The Company Of Men."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

TADJO: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "SAFE HAVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.