[Other Press; 2021]
Tr. from the French by Véronique Tadjo with John Cullen
What does it mean to be “in the company of men”? Véronique Tadjo’s stark title may suggest that we have become unaware of who or what is in our company. To catch our attention, Tadjo hails the trees to tell us a tale we may or may not remember. For Tadjo, the trees stand tall and tower over almost everything humans do. She suggests that to understand our relationship to the earth, we are beckoned to trust the trees to know how we have evolved: “We are the link between Man and his past, his present, and his unpredictable future.” We may have modernized the world to solve crises, but we have caused destruction. Tadjo asks us to celebrate the uplift where it is found because the story is one of sorrow and much grief. Turning from myth to reality, In the Company of Men recounts the despairing conditions of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, whose victims are honored in the book’s dedication: “For all those whom Ebola has touched, / Whether directly or indirectly — / In other words, for all of us human beings.” While the book is a work of fiction, many descriptive details and carefully crafted statements trigger a nerve, as the raw truth cuts deep. There is not much room to question one’s thoughts because the accounts carry such heaviness and urgency.
I was captivated by the book’s multiple points of view, though I may have approached the work more like a collection of stories than a novel. Each chapter presented a different account of the Ebola outbreak, so the chapters felt more like varying personal stories, occurring simultaneously in a time of ceaseless crisis. Formally, I found the mythos of the trees centered and grounded the true-to-life narrative work in and beyond pure fiction. Indeed, the mythical turn creates a stake in poetics. Perhaps I am also inclined to read hybridity into the book’s genre because I have read other work by Tadjo and recognize her investment in poetics. Her book in translation, Queen Pokou, was one of my first encounters reading Francophone African Women’s Literature in translation, and the book revealed to me how myth can thread a story together in a hybrid form of prose and poetry. In the Company of Men presents a similar style. The essayistic voice of each account is quite poetic. A few narrators even claim an artistic investment with some poems interwoven within their accounts. Moreover, the sentence-level overturning of words all in all shows a commitment to language and interest in repetition; the recurring sentence patterns mimic how thoughts overturn in the mind and shift to progress a beating heart forward.
Because each chapter presents a new account of the Ebola crisis, the shifting narratives continually left me in suspense by offering limited closure. Many chapters read like a diary of the day in the life of different healthcare workers, truly just compassionate people who tend to the sick and dying. These narratives of illness, care, and death, even from the perspective of a gravedigger, alarmingly align with present pandemic conditions of emergency hospitalizations and exponential deaths. The book thus gave me perspective of what it may have been like to work at a hospital over capacity. It recalled in my mind the case of doctors and nurses overwhelmed to provide care during the height of the pandemic when my very own borough of Queens, NY became the epicenter. Many sentences leap from the page, almost too real to only know in the pages of a book. Indeed, the truth of the deadliness of the spread of the disease compares to that of Covid-19: “Simply touching another person is enough for someone to become infected.” Tadjo describes the state of unrest caused by Ebola, like Covid-19, “a mysterious disease.” As a result, Tadjo’s novel reports, “the authorities of the country learn of the outbreak and decree a quarantine.” Certainly, the 2020 lockdowns through the pandemic have made quarantine a relatable concept. Because the resonances were often overpowering, I wonder how the new English translation, originally published in French in 2017, will find its home among English scholars and an American audience in our current moment. Tadjo herself notes in the “Acknowledgments” how the response to the Ebola epidemic has informed care practices through the pandemic. Thus, while it is not a “Covid novel,” the book may inspire creative work that honors the stories of essential workers across the world today, even as it contests modernization and demands attention to global injustice. Tadjo strongly critiques the structure of modern life, so the book commands attention to wellness with the earth and climate.
How do we even begin to navigate our human loss, let alone the loss to the earth? The book may affirm our fears, even as it mourns our isolation from each other — perhaps at the root of loneliness is a lack of connectedness, cut deep through crisis. We may be prone to forget our ways and develop new habits, for better or worse. We cannot deny that traumas affect our bodies and the earth, even as we actively try not to confront our own weakness and human mortality. We are afraid. At least, I know too well the feeling of an anxious “heart . . . beating like a drum.” Living in a heightened state of panic, many of us may relate to the novel’s human testimony: “I’m alive. It was nothing — just a bad dream.” Tadjo claims that solace may be found in a return to myth, so the book may prompt individual reflection on one’s relationship to death and attune the ear to matters of spirituality. Indeed, the book is majorly about how we grieve.
To frame the novel’s stake in human nature and spirituality, Tadjo bookends the accounts of the Ebola outbreak with a narrative from the perspective of the trees. In this narrative, we meet one tree in particular, the Baobab tree. According to African legend, the Baobab tree may evoke the divine, both transcendent and immanent. Thus, the tree claims a centering presence of symbolic power, similar to that of Ken Bugul’s work, The Abandoned Baobab. In Tadjo’s work, the tree speaks for all the trees and on behalf of humanity: “I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.” The line recurs, so you cannot forget who they are. Do not fear. The tree is there to provide comfort: “I yearn towards soft, life-sustaining light, that it may brighten humanity, illuminate darkness, and soothe fear.” Strangely, the tree’s view is omniscient: “We see everything. We feel everything. Our memory is intact.” The claim to such knowledge is overwhelming. I was startled and triggered to think about how my own memory is not intact. I don’t even really understand the claim to a view that is almost infallible, so at first I was resistant to the voice. How and why is this tree’s memory intact? The philosophical leap was more challenging for me than the imaginative one of a tree thinking and feeling. I am a poet after all, so metaphor, hyperbole, and song are often the central entry points to my own spiritual myth-making. I can only compare my experience of the affect to my sense of the Christian faith, which hails a kind of certainty that leaves me often in doubt. At times, the Baobab tree’s perspective sounds harsh: “Those so are meant to die, die, and those meant to live, live.” However, the tree is not all powerful; in fact, the tree makes no claim to being in control: “What was destined to happen happened against my will and out of my reach.” I value such mysteries beyond my entire understanding. I do wonder how the legend of the Baobab tree traces back historically and culturally in oral traditions and compares to the Biblical account of Eden. The Baobab tree claims to be a “vital force, our souls hundreds of years old.” Indeed, it is known as “the Tree of Wisdom.” Thus, I found myself reading the work as if it were a parable to nourish and ground the soul.
Sadly, the tree describes how people have grown apart, away from nature, and abandoned the trees. The Baobab tree mourns the loss of closeness with humanity for themselves and humanity. Longing to rekindle belonging, the tree emotes how they were once a “confidant” to humans: “men used to talk to us, the trees.” The tree even describes the village intimately as “my village.” From this empathetic perspective, the tree stands as witness of the Ebola crisis and seeks to offer a comforting ear to “listen” and “soothe.” As the tree is rooted on earth, the tree’s story is also down-to-earth.
In particular, the Baobab tree speaks of how humanity’s approach to death has changed. Humans once told stories among the trees, bringing their grief into the woods and burying their dead among nature with ceremony. Sadly, the tree laments, “Everything is different today. Nobody wants to speak of death.” There is an inability to approach death, such that “They prefer to deny death.” For example, it is said, “They have passed away.” The tree judges this lack to be primarily caused by the bustle of modern life: “Death is a failing because it disrupts their frenetic lives.” The tree also notes humanity’s resulting stake in the moral and psychological consequences of unprocessed grief and trauma: “they no longer have the time to think about it.” The voice makes me wonder how often today we turn to nature for emotional support and spiritual nourishment. According to the novel, we once found among the trees “an answer to the troubles of human existence.” Such a mythos united humanity with nature, but modernization has complicated our understanding of nature.
Why has death become unapproachable? The tree notices how in the village the people no longer surrounded the dying with love. In the past, “They would celebrate his passage on earth. Death was a part of daily life.” Instead, the old were left alone to die. Then disease further isolated families and individuals. The book opens with a despairing account of two sons and their mother tragically lost when the virus struck their home and the sons’ dear mother would not leave their side. Did they all have to die? Could the mother have been saved? It’s hard to say. The book’s multiple perspectives may suggest an opinion yet leave readers to contemplate on their own what is right in any moment for each suffering person. Similarly, healthcare workers weigh the same concern, as mothers and children are often vulnerable because they tend to cling to each other. Even healthcare workers who were too close to the sick fell ill and died. The voice is palpable when the narrative turns to the tragic death of a baby girl. The poor mother is separated from cradling her child, even as both are ill and dying. When the baby dies, we cling to the writer’s mindful accounting of words and wonder with the writer, “Was there something we could have done to save her?” Because there is an overarching spirituality to the work, there is an internal moral compass that is felt and understood of each individual’s choice to sacrifice and serve. The Baobab tree invests hope in humanity in contrast to the perspective of the virus Ebola itself. Ebola’s voice may be equated with a kind of devilish character, who is truly self-serving, the antagonist of the narrative. While Tadjo curiously gives Ebola a voice, the Baobab tree will not hear Ebola and champions instead human’s ability to embrace love.
The journey to love may require depth of grief. As grief commands an overwhelming affect, the book speaks to how we may grieve many losses, not simply human loss. We may grieve a loss of connection, even between living persons, like the tree grieves the loss of human connection. We may also grieve a loss to and for ourselves. For example, in different accounts, we hear of healthcare workers missing their families and thinking of what they would like to do with them whenever they return. There is a raw fearlessness conveyed as they describe their choice to travel to the country and their commitment to serve even when the crisis is beyond what they could imagine. One doctor states, “I refuse to let the virus win the day. I can’t let the disease take control, spread, and threaten my family. We must fight it. That’s the price we have to pay as long as we share the same planet.” The healthcare workers brave the risks, even when much of their day-to-day protocols for health and safety may feel inhumane for their level of sanitation. They also testify to the desensitization required to survive: they are “doused with a disinfectant” for every shift. Any contact with human fluids of the sick and dead was a risk. So, the disease forced humans to behave in ways that were unnatural: “A mother, a father, a son can become a mortal enemy. Pity is a death sentence.” For a time, the rule of love may have seemed turned upside down. The challenge of our modern times is to reclaim such love and care through the way we inhabit our institutionalized worlds.
No doubt, the book critiques our healthcare system; as individuals are isolated within hospitals, many are left to question the sanity of entering such a place. One young female survivor, a champion uplifting fellow patients, captures the foreboding reality: “being admitted to a hospital is like entering some kind of underworld. Everything goes dark. You become disoriented. There’s nothing left except inside and outside.” Certainly, many can relate to this sentiment from personal experience of the emergency room or of a lengthy hospitalization. When I recall my quarantine at home with positive Covid-19 test results, I remember how terrified I was to go to a hospital, yet I also know how strange it felt to have no input from a doctor on our particular needs at home. Most tips for care were generalized. I often felt left to self-assess. Telehealth forces patients to describe symptoms and weigh pain on a scale. Of course, I did not desire to weigh the pain great enough to cause an alarm and emergency measures, but I would have preferred in-person care. Such thoughts resounded in my mind, unhappy memories haunting the pages in my reading, even as the book described another reality, much closer to illness and death. In one account, a woman bemoans leaving her house, preferring to die in her own space of memory. Similarly, a lover admits a fiancé for care at the hospital facility only later to regret the decision because the healthcare system separates them from each other. The loss becomes tragic when the lover learns of the fiancé’s death through a dividing wall. They never said goodbye. Even the researcher who discovered Ebola concludes, “The hospital is a failure. An ugly, anonymous death sentence, devoid of compassion, without a soul. A place where the poor end their lives miserably, inside dilapidated buildings.” How can we practice care and compassion wherever we are and however we connect?
The testimony of one female nurse, in particular, prompted my own personal reflection on our calling to serve humanity. As she speaks of faith sustaining her work, she also describes how hard it is to grapple with the limitations of the healthcare system. She is brave to admit the hospital’s failings to patients. When she confides in readers of her decision to work for the state, she describes how she “feel[s] more useful working in the public sector.” Such a thought resonated with me. I believe that many teachers through the pandemic and distance learning have felt similarly emboldened to maintain their commitment to public school teaching because of a belief in social justice. Meanwhile, many educators and nurses also give to the world through art. We may not always recognize the artists who pursue essential roles in fields like nursing, even as they may faithfully give to their communities in so many unexpected ways. Tadjo’s book likewise weaves poetry and music into the everyday experiences of healthcare workers, so its soul is rich. This aliveness to their voices reminded me of a true account from the pandemic when a poet nurse shared her testimony and poetry about caring for Covid-19 patients in New Mexico. Because of these many resonances, I connected with the nurse’s account of faith as she worked alongside patients with Ebola, and it reminded me of the reason to center on love.
My mind did wander back in grief. Reading of tent hospitals was painful because I know of such happenings to be real, not only far away but close to home. When I think back to the tent hospital that the Christian ministry called Samaritan’s Purse set up in Central Park during the height of the pandemic in NYC, I was conflicted — both angry and sad — to hear both positive and negative responses to the initiative. I found myself torn inside. The ministry made my mother feel closer to me during the height of the crisis, even as I felt entirely cut off from Manhattan. I was also disheartened by the press attention to the ministry’s stated doctrine and the resulting political protests. I do not know if it was true that the ministry declared they would not partner with LGBTQ identifying workers when they served all patients and partnered with many hospitals. I cannot affirm anti-LGBTQ beliefs, yet I found comfort in the Samaritan Purse nurses’ diaries just like I do in reading the pages of Tadjo’s work. What they share is a commitment to serve, even out of a makeshift hospital tent.
In our haste to judge, I wonder if we truly see the heart of who or what we are. In Tadjo’s novel, an example of such a brave woman of faith cries out to us all, “I would like to take off my mask to let them see who I am, to let them look into my eyes and know that I share their suffering.” I too would like to take off my mask, not just the clinical one that I wear. Many of us have long worn a mask, invisible to so many, even to those whom we may call dear. I wish that we might look closer and see each other’s masks. Then we may feel collectively. Why are we so afraid to come close to one another’s suffering?
Kara Laurene Pernicano earned a MA in Literary and Cultural Studies with a Certificate in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies from the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she is a MFA Candidate in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, CUNY and an Adjunct Lecturer in English for CUNY. Artist and writer, she celebrates intersectional feminism, queer love, art and healing. Her creative work explores hybrid image-text practices.
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