WKND EXCLUSIVE: Meet Deon Meyer, the author whose 2016 novel mirrors our current reality

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Published: Thu 23 Apr 2020, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 1 May 2020, 2:34 PM

South African writer Deon Meyer's 2016 novel Fever has been in the news for what many believe to be an 'eerily familiar' plot. Premised on a coronavirus pandemic that has wiped off populations, the plot revolves around survivors who are in the process of rebuilding a community, even as the borders have been sealed. In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, the author talks about the renewed focus on the book and why the writing was always on the wall.
You have gone on record saying you wished you hadn't written the book. What makes you think so, retrospectively?
I did not write the book for any other reason than to tell an entertaining story that explored a new community with great equality following a catastrophe. It so happened that I was looking for a specific kind of world where infrastructure was intact so that people could start rebuilding. The only thing that could decimate a world like that was a virus. I did my research and spoke to a professor in virology in South Africa. He and his colleague from Britain recommended that I use coronavirus as a theme. It really was a coincidence. The coronavirus in the book is not as deadly as Covid-19. I have no regrets in writing the book. Perhaps the book gives a counterpoint to a much more serious pandemic.
What was it like to imagine that world in 2016?
I did four years of research before I wrote the book. It's not my usual genre; I write crime fiction. While researching, I came across enough scientific evidence that suggested a pandemic was coming. It was a matter of time. This was after swine flu, and bird flu, and ebola was rearing its ugly head in Africa. It was frightening that nobody seemed to care, except for a few scientific voices. For me, this is a very strange time. And I keep thinking why did we not do more to prepare for the virus? I am afraid the same thing is happening with global warming.
When you saw events unfolding in Wuhan, did it seem eerily familiar?
It was a very strange period for me. When I saw the first signs of Covid-19, I anticipated that perhaps it could be contained in the same way as bird flu or swine flu. When it didn't, that's when I started thinking about the book. I kept watching the death rate. When I was researching the book, one thing that virologists kept telling me was that it's very unlikely that a virus would kill as high a percentage of people as I wanted to in my book. They said that you need a virus that can infect people very quickly, but keep them alive long enough to infect a lot of other people, and the death rate must be extremely high. Especially with coronavirus, that's been unlikely. So, I thought this cannot be as bad as in the book. I kept looking at what I did get right and what I didn't. One thing I hadn't anticipated was that people would start hoarding toilet paper (laughs).
Be it your novel or Contagion, a battle for survival is being seen as the inevitable outcome of that situation. There are countries right now that are protesting lockdowns. How grave will it turn?
We are seeing protests in South Africa, America, France and many other countries. It's a tough situation. I have real faith in our governments to do the right thing. It's tough, you know, to balance the economic good with the health aspect.
A crisis like this also paves the way for conspiracy theories and the danger often is that books, such as yours, might be quoted to fuel those imaginations. Are you aware of the thin line you might have to walk?
That was the first thing I thought of. I believe when people are readers, they're informed. Conspiracy theorists don't necessarily read widely. There are websites where these theories are created and distributed. I am not too worried about it.
In Fever, your protagonist has a vision for a new community. How does a pandemic test communities?
The positive side, in South Africa at least, is that there is a sense that we are in this together. I see a lot of people lending a helping hand to the disadvantaged and impoverished. Local community has sprung into action. From a journalistic point of view, I think what has disappointed me is that there is very little international empathy. Countries are trying to get their hands on masks and ventilators to the detriment of other countries. We need to be together as an international community.
There is talk of how a global disruption may lead to a new order. Do you subscribe to that idea?
I am not so sure of that. If you look at the previous pandemic of 1918 or even World War II, you'll realise we tend to forget quickly. People who are experiencing the pandemic, there will certainly be changes in the way they see their lives. For instance, one of the things about the Covid-19 deaths is that a lot of people don't get to see their loved ones who've passed away. It's excruciatingly tragic. The other interesting thing we will need to look at is social distancing - not being able to shake each other's hands or kiss our loved ones on the cheek. What sort of impact would that have on relationships? The Internet has already distanced us. Will it happen further? It's too early to say, but we underestimate mankind's ability to just forget everything and carry on as things were.
An Extract From Fever

They knew The Fever came out of Africa. They knew it was two viruses that combined, one from people, and one from bats. In those days they wrote a lot about it, before everyone died.
One doctor wrote in a magazine that nobody knew exactly how it all began, but this is how they thought it might have happened: A man somewhere in tropical Africa lay down under a mango tree. The man's resistance was low, because he was HIV-positive and not being treated for it.
There was already one corona virus in the man's blood. There was nothing strange about that. Corona viruses were quite common. In the era before The Fever they knew of at least four that caused flu and cold symptoms in people.
Corona viruses also occurred in animals. Mammals and birds.
In the mango tree there was a bat, with a different kind of corona virus in its blood.
The bat was sick. Diarrhoea caused it to defecate on the face of the man under the tree, his eyes, or his nose, or his mouth. The second corona virus was now in the man's blood, the two viruses multiplying together in the same cells of the man's windpipe. And their genetic material combined. A new corona virus was born - one that could infect other people easily when inhaled, and with the ability to make them extremely ill.
The man under the mango tree lived in a poor community, where people were crammed together, and where the incidence of HIV was high. He quickly infected others. The new virus spread through the community, and kept on mutating. One mutation was just perfect. It spread easily through the air, taking long enough to kill for each person to have infected many others.
One of the family members of the man under the mango tree worked at an airport in the nearby city. The family member was incubating the perfect virus. He coughed on a passenger, just before the woman took the flight to England.
In England there was a big international sporting event.
All the first world countries had a protocol for deadly, infectious diseases. Even most of the developing countries had extensive plans for such an incident. There were guidelines and systems for an epidemic. In theory, these should have worked.
But nature paid no heed to theories. And nor did human fallibility.



Anamika Chatterjee

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