This is a long book, and has its longueurs, especially in the middle. It’s a stand-alone, post-apocalyptic story narrated in the first person by one of the rare survivors, Nico Storm, about the building and the tearing asunder, of a community based on civility and (at least to an extent) widespread democratic structures and procedures in the Karoo, in South Africa. It is Nico’s father, the widowed Willem, a polymath with a strong commitment to peace and tranquillity, who founds and, for a long time, presides over the key committee , in Amanzi. There are many other voices, created through the use of an oral history project in which people’s memories of how they got to the place they name ‘Amanzi’ (‘water’) are recorded and preserved. Meyer has written in many of the subgenres of crime fiction, and this is a new arrow in his quiver. There are nods to Cormac McCarthy, among others, including Meyer himself, and, perhaps, just perhaps, there are what look to me like coincidental references to a coming-of-age novel by Erich Segal, Love Story. You think this is impossible? Count the similarities. There are differences, of course, and the sentimentality of Segal’s book doesn’t sit easily with Deon Meyer’s favourite themes. And yet, and yet, Nico has three different kinds of father figures, one on the side of the angels, and two on very different sides. Spoiler alert: Fever has the most terrifying opening passage I’ve ever read, so if you, too, have to close the book and walk away from it for a while, you’re not alone. This is not like reading one of Meyer’s thrillers: it is too concerned with social, religious, and political (where these might stand alone) polemics that have appeared throughout Meyer’s work, most clearly Trackers.
How most of the inhabitants came to join the settlers is relatively simple: the world has been struck by a new, complex, and usually fatal virus, the ‘fever’ of the title, which quickly killed almost all the earth’s inhabitants. Willem and Nico were two of the very few who caught it but didn’t die. They were also two of the survivors whose moral compass remained reliable. Even for Meyer, the graphic violence of the marauders who prey on ordinary people trying to reconstruct their lives, is exceptional. Oh, yes, they take almost no prisoners, but they enslave those they do take, especially women. The word ‘slave’ is never mentioned, though ‘polygamy’ is. Even among the good guys, there’s an emphasis on repopulating the world. Among the important figures are people with skills that new towns need: not just health workers and engineers, electricians and teachers, ex-soldiers and church leaders (male only).
And Meyer’s themes? Well, I’d be surprised if he hasn’t been reading Nietzsche with his ideas of the kinds of people (that’s ‘men only’ again). In this novel ‘animals’ is the default basic term. The difficulties of democracy and religious practice, especially in the ways the two sit uneasily together, are embodied in the Pastor, Nkosi. By contrast, the best tracker is a young woman (of stunning beauty and grace); in Meyer’s world ‘tracker’ also means ‘hunter’, and there’s a lot of hunting to death in this book. What I can’t remember seeing before is a character such as Willem, the polymath (sort of); the references to history, especially to ancient Rome, intertwine with conversations about dictators and when they might be useful as well as feasible.
So this is an interesting book, if a bit of a mixture. For one thing, Meyer’s success at hiding people’s race or class origins is terrific. Domingo, the military character, tells us nothing about where he has come from, and we don’t know for a long time what he looks like; the former tennis pro, Beryl, is also unlabelled by colour. In Meyer’s world a man’s a man for all that, and so are some women, not least Nico’s mother.
Deon Meyer, Fever, trans. K. L. Seegers (Hodder & Stoughton)