“Eternal hope: it kills us as much as Hansen’s does.”
In his introduction to the second English edition of Hansen’s Children, BBC Correspondent Nick Thorpe visits a real life leper colony, the last in Europe, in the small hamlet of Tichieletsi in south-eastern Romania where a dwindling number of disfigured patients live out their final years, tended by medical professionals while enjoying the companionship and domestic tranquility of their close knit community. He then goes on to examine the way that Montenegrin novelist Ognjen Spahic re-envisions this leprosarium against the dying months of the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989; creating a perfect, if horrifying, template against which to explore questions of power, corruption and violence throughout the history of Europe – looking to the past, the present and the future.
The “children” of the title refers to the unfortunate souls infected by the bacillus first identified by Gerhard Armaeur Hansen. It is a term by which our unnamed narrator, our leprous Homer, refers to himself and his fellow inmates as he recounts the tale of life within the fenced grounds and the cold damp confines of the aging three-story building that serves to house the remaining inmates of the leprosarium. At the time he arrives they number eleven men and one ancient woman. Outside the gates, a fertilizer factory, ubiquitous on the Romanian landscape, belches out smoke and receives a rotating contingent of increasingly disgruntled workers. From his window he gazes longingly at the Transylvanian Alps, dreaming of freedom from exile and confinement. In fact we learn at the outset of his account that his dear friend and roommate, an American man named Robert, has secured false passports and made arrangements for their escape. This hope will not only feed our hero’s ego, but give him a will to live no matter what the cost, as conditions inside and outside the leper colony decline. In desperate circumstances, brutality knows no boundaries.
Perversely the leprosarium becomes a microcosm of the very divisions that divide human beings in the broader world. For example, when the inmates become aware of a new scourge on the rise outside their gates, HIV/AIDS, two men who have fallen in love will suffer the consequences because “this new disease was misunderstood and homosexual acts per se were seen as spawning the new evil. Mstislaw and Cion were shunned… like lepers. It was kind of understandable.” Mirroring the deteriorating conditions unfolding across Romania, and presaging the fate that awaits Spahic’s own Balkan homeland; power struggles, violence and death escalate within the bounds of the small community. As the conflict to free Romania approaches its final days, helicopters and gunfire splitting the air, our narrator lies in bed and imagines what such a new world could bring. He realizes the sad truth: “I knew that even in a world like that I would be where I was now. I would dream the same dreams and speak the same words. I would remain a leper.”
The picture this novel paints is not a pretty one. It is however strangely engaging and, in the end, deeply moving. The graphic, disturbing details of the progressive ravages of the cursed disease on the bodies, organs and functions of Hansen’s children is painted with a healthy serving of satire. Black humour and tragedy are deeply entwined.
Apart from this novel, only a few of Ognjen Spahic’s short stories have been translated into English although he has published three story collections. Hansen’s Children, which was originally released in 2004 when he was still under 30, has received several important European awards.His most recent story collection won the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature for Montenegro and in an interview on the site he describes himself as more of a short story writer than a novelist and speculates that prizes can increase international attention and encourage translations. I, for one, would be keen to see more.
Note: In addition to his story “Raymond is No Longer With Us – Carver is Dead” which was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2011 (Dalkey Archive Press), the story “All of That” can be found on the online journal B O D Y and the title story from his latest collection Head Full of Joy can be found at the European Union Prize link above (following the original Montenegrin version).
Hansen’s Children (2nd edition), 2012
translated by Will Firth, Istros Books