Book Review

Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahić

leprosy fiction from the balkans

I have returned to the literature of the Balkans with another great novel from Istros Books (translated Will Firth).


Why do we become isolated?

There are those who withdraw due to an inability to exist within their own societies (free thinkers, radicals), there are those who are too spiritual, too holy, to live amongst the world of flesh and temptation (nuns, Buddhist monks, non-Buddhist monks) but there are also those who are isolated without choice. They are not the hermits, they are the banished.

Society too often decides that a set of individuals, for whatever reason, cannot live amongst it. Think of the time right before genocides (i.e. the “if you’re rich and quick enough, you can leave” moments), think of Transportation as a colonisation tool masquerading as punishment, think of the unwell, the unhealthy, the “unclean”, and if you go back far enough, you’ll get back to the idea of the leper.

Leprosy is an infamous and physically disfiguring disease, and mentions of it exist in ancient literature from across the world, most famously (and frequently) in the texts that would become the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an. Lepers were social pariahs, pushed out of society as individuals who had been marked as dirty, irredeemable, incurable: sentenced to death by a malevolent god as a presumably justified punishment for some awful sin, be it the leper’s own, or an antecedent of the leper’s sin. The pre-Enlightenment belief was essentially that if you sinned, God saw you do it, he saw you touch yourself to completion, buddy, and though you won’t get punished, your daughter won’t get punished, your daughter’s son won’t get punished, and your daughter’s son’s daughter won’t get punished, unfortunately your daughter’s son’s daughter’s son will receive leprosy as a righteous punishment handed down upon him as punishment for YOUR spuffing of seed into the Biblical equivalent of a Mansize Kleenex (probably your own hand).

Hansen’s Children is about leprosy, and is set in the final leprosarium of Europe during the tail end of the 1980s. It is a Montenegrin novel from 2005, written by Ognjen Spahić and translated by Will Firth, who is one of the slowly-increasing list of people I have irked with my writing (that list in full: Pascale Petit (2013), Will Firth (2016), Lewis Parker (2017), probably others who didn’t feel wronged enough to directly complain). The novel is set mostly in Romania, with flashbacks into the previous lives of the inhabitants of the leprosarium, as well as a bit of travel and escape towards the end, as the Romanian revolution creates enough chaos for the social and medical pariahs to make their escape.

I don’t know much about leprosy, and pretty much everything I do know about it comes from either a) The Bible (which I imagine isn’t very up to date) and b) The Motorcycle Diaries, which is also dated. What I do know, though, is that although leprosy is contagious, only a small percentage of people are able to be infected by it. Like in 28 Weeks Later where (spoiler) people who have different coloured eyes (i.e. David Bowie and that husky I saw in Islington one time and stared at it for ages and ages) cannot catch the zombie disease, leprosy is the opposite: it’s rare to be able to catch it, which is why the disease has been all but eradicated. Thanks to the work of Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen (the Hansen of Spahić’s title, rather than the boyband that sang “Oom-Bop”), the medical profession knows how to treat leprosy and how to diminish its effects. In Che Guevara’s surprisingly engaging pre-revolutionary memoir – which I must attempt to read in the original Spanish at some future point – he spends time volunteering at a leper colony during a Summer holiday in his medical studies. He is not at risk, nor are any of the medical staff – if they were, they would not be there. Spahić’s novel presents a Europe where leprosy is much more of a continued threat, where this final leprosarium is a bastion of fearful evil, where the nearby locals still cry “Unclean! Unclean!” when they near it, and where no one will approach them without wearing very thick gloves.

Spahić’s narrator – whose origin and source of the disease we never learn – often regales the reader with historic instances of when leprosy and politics collided, including the tale of Sensotregiore, a Tuscan city that was overwhelmed and colonised by a huge, violently criminal leper colony (to form a Lepropolis, if you will), where they stayed partying and looting until a big enough army was amassed to scare them back into the mountains. Later on, the narrator speaks about Queen Isabel of Castile using forced contact with a sufferer of leprosy as a punishment for a lack of fealty, while the most exciting “origin story” within the novel is the narrative of Robert, an American spy in East Berlin during the 1960s who was captured, tortured and left in a room with a near-dead leper before being dropped back in the street and swiftly quarantined by his handlers, who had him swept off to Romania so as best to deny any involvement. I was unable to check the veracity of any of these historic leprosy anecdotes, as I read this book in a beautifully (and technologically) isolated little “off-grid” cottage out in the deserts of Aragon. Maybe they are true, maybe they are not, but I’m definitely going to spend some time on the Wikipedia page about leprosy once I’m back in civilisation.

Hansen’s Children is a fun and at times pertinent novel, about violence and shifts in power. In the microcosm of the leprosarium, everyone is sick, but some are more sick than others. There are rivalries, affairs and friendships, there is violence and punishment and resistance and murder, there are schemes and conversations and secrets and Spahić’s novel, as translated by Will Firth (any relation to Colin?), is an engaging and intriguing look at power games on a small scale. Though it lacks a little detail in its evocation of the unnamed four or five characters who live in the leprosarium but make no attempts to grab power, as a short novel it can be forgiven. It zips along, is very readable, and offers an exciting – though maybe not factually accurate – portrait of life as one of the last lepers in the world.

Great stuff.

Order Hansen’s Children direct from Istros Books here.


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