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Custody and consultation: Karin Schimke talks to Marcus Low about his debut novel Asylum

Published in the Sunday Times

Marcus Low’s bleak debut novel is set in the near future, but describes the world as we already know it, writes Karin Schimke

Marcus Low (Picador Africa)

In Asylum, Marcus Low’s unsettling debut novel, the narrator Barry James writes in his notebook about the endless coughing caused by the imagined – but not unimaginable – disease around which the book is built: “…you cough up the past, cough up everything you’ve done … until one day when it is all out, you have nothing left to do but turn into one of those serene corpses the staff are so determined to clear out as soon as possible.”

The story takes place in South Africa in 2022 in a high-security sanatorium for the doomed: people with “pulmonary nodulosis” for whom there is no cure and who are kept separated from the rest of South Africa by fences and security guards to contain the risk of pandemic.

When I first read the story, I thought it was the most credible – and therefore the most disturbing – dystopian novel I had ever read: a landscape withering under the onslaught of climatic change, the spread of an uncontrollable superbug, the posturing limpness of politicians and the vague helplessness of well-intentioned but under-supported medical staff.

In an interview with Low, I am set right: the novel may be set in the not-too-far future, but it takes its energy from what has already happened. He refers me to a feature article from 2008 in the New York Times, which quotes Siyasanga Lukas, an inmate of the Jose Pearson TB Hospital in Port Elizabeth, where patients with multi-drug resistant strains of tuberculosis were kept behind high security fences which they often tried, and sometimes succeeded in, breaching in order to be with their families for Christmas and other special occasions.

“I’ve seen people die and die and die,” Lukas is quoted as saying. “The only discharge you get from this place is to the mortuary.”

So much for dystopia.

Low’s novel is mostly written in the first person by an inmate of the Pearson quarantine facility in the Great Karoo who is recording his uneventful wait to become a serene corpse. When other inmates become involved in a plan to escape, he goes along in a spirit of what seems to be more curiosity and boredom than hope. Between the journal entries are notes by an unnamed commentator looking back on James’s record of the experience of incarceration with the cold distance of an academic or researcher.

The story might very well have been a kind of medical or escape thriller, a high-tension, hopeful adventure in which the double victims of disease and imprisonment become victors of both. Instead, Low has chosen the quiet, literary route, one that is nothing if not bleak.

Low says he is drawn to “the undercurrents of madness and a certain perspective on human dignity that you find in old Russian writing”. Indeed, the seeds for Asylum lie not only with the recent reality of quarantined TB sufferers, but also in a particular literary tradition. The story, with its textural hopelessness, references Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, in which three characters are locked in a room together, and Albert Camus’ The Plague in which an entire town is sealed off to prevent the spread of the bubonic plague.

The author’s interest in “disease as metaphor” also has roots in his own life. Low is currently the editor of Spotlight, a print and online publication about TB and HIV, and worked for many years with the Treatment Action Campaign, arguably the most powerful lobby group ever to have worked in South Africa and whose tireless activism lead to tectonic shifts in government policy regarding the treatment of HIV/Aids.

And, in the most intimate realm of understanding his own subject matter in Asylum, is the fact that Low has a degenerative, genetic eye condition known as Stargardt’s disease.

“I can’t read print anymore. I can’t drive. And I sometimes walk into things,” says Low. “I do sometimes have the odd feeling that, in terms of my vision loss at least, I am living a metaphor for some undefined thing or other.”

In an article entitled “The False Hope Industry” on the website Quackdown, Low wrote in 2011: “When it comes to finding cures, hope is irrelevant.”

Reading up about Kafka after our interview, I find a Kafka quote for which I cannot find the source: “A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.” James, the protagonist of Asylum watches the not particularly enticing world beyond the fence of his prison and writes in his journal, “I look at it and it calms something inside me. I think it’s the harshness that does it.”

This connects what, for me, is the source of Asylum’s (admittedly understated) consolations. And Low confirms that the novel’s tone of desolation is an aperture into something a little more sanguine than is obvious.

“It’s a kind of ‘staring into the abyss’”, says Low. “It’s painful and it’s sad, but if you do it, the natural response is to take better care of others.”

He speaks about his admiration for Camus’ world view, which he describes as “an honesty about the bleakness in the world offset by a deep humanity”.

There is always, he says, a tension between hope and denial, and confronting that dilemma in a hopeless situation can lead to greater self-awareness and, hopefully, one is more open to compassion for others.

“Though, of course,” he adds, “many people just prefer denial.”

What then are the consolations? Whether Asylum is read as an allegory for the current state of the world, or whether it is a meditation on a loss of liberty due to the inescapable prison of disease, it does have its comforts. What, for Low, are they?

“The main consolation,” he says, “is finding our common humanity, not just with humans, but also with animals.

“The other consolation, but it is secondary, is that there are things that are beautiful in the world. Like nature. Like music. Like books.”

Follow Karin Schimke @karinschimke

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