Lately I have come across two stories about pandemics: one in the highly interesting TV series “The Hot Zone” on National Geographic channel, that tells the story of the Ebola virus and how it was discovered in Africa in the seventies; the other, the new, unputdownable third book in Arturo Fuentes’ saga (so far only published in Spanish También los demonios ocultan secretos, meaning “Demons also hide secrets” in English), where an unknown, highly virulent disease comes back from the past to haunt the main character, James Allen, and his friends.
Enemies you don’t see
Pandemics are one of humankind’s worst fears, no doubt. Viruses and bacteria are minuscule enemies, that you cannot see, thus not easy to control or defend yourself against. This is something very clear in the National Geographic’s series, where we can see panic in the faces of the scientists manipulating the deadly virus whenever a breach of safety happens, and they fear they may have been infected.
While the TV series is based on a true story, that of the first outbreak – or first manifestation- of a new, highly aggressive virus in Zaire, that gained its name due to the Ebola river, and its subsequent appearance in the USA in 1989 – Arturo’s book is entirely fictional, based however on a true event – the terrible plague that assailed London at the time of the Great Fire, in 1666.
The point they have in common is, if course, the fight of humans, who feel utterly powerless, against a deadly enemy they can neither see, nor understand at first. In the case of Ebola, it is a virus that comes from nature, from the depths of Africa, and from time to time mutates into a more virulent kind; in this series the main characters are doing all they can to understand how it originates, how it spreads, and how to contain it before it generates a pandemic. In Arturo’s book there is an old, very old microorganism from the cold mountains of Mongolia, accidentally discovered by a 17th century British alchemist who spreads it across the city of London thus generating a “plague” outbreak. Centuries later, this deadly virus comes alive again in the hands of seriously disturbed people, who want to use it to destroy humanity; in the meantime they test it in a few human Guinea pigs, with the utmost cruelty, leaving us readers breathless as to what will happen next in such malevolent, devious minds.
The TV series takes us from Zaire in the late seventies to the late eighties, when there was a crisis in the US with the Ebola virus, found in monkeys originating from that country. Arturo Fuentes’s book takes us from 17thcentury London to the present day, climbing the frozen mountains of Mongolia and inevitably turning up in Scotland, in the Isle of Skye, with a series of very strange murders – the victims are injected with a mysterious liquid that leaves no traces other than a horrible death; the investigation brings together James Allen – the main character of Arturo’s books – and his friends in their search for the truth. On addition, there is an old Mongolian legend about a screaming bird, the Ulama, whose screams are definitely bad news, as they announce death.
The TV series will definitely give you more than a moment of stress. I’ll say the same of Arturo’s book – not only you will tremble in your chair, but you will not be able to put it down as well. You’ll want to know more, and as the story unravels, there is yet more to discover, until the very end. And what a surprise you get! Or not. If you have read his previous books, you’ll know what’s in store. A few hours of great diversion and fear too!
What a coincidence to watch one and read the other at the very same time. Both made me ponder on one of humankind’s worst fears – that of falling prey to an unknown disease, a disease of such virulence that after the first symptoms appear you know you are doomed; you understand no one can do anything for you. From the first patient with Ebola who appears on the screen, looking so sick that you immediately know there is no hope for him, to the terrifying scenes of the book when a dark, viscose liquid is injected into the victim’s veins making them feel unimaginable pain, there is this horror inside you, this fear, but at the same time this strange fascination for the unknown. You want to know more about these terrible plagues, yes – but before you go on you reassure yourself that you are sitting on your comfortable chair, in your virus free home in a plague free word. And you breathe in relief and go on reading.
A bleak future
But don’t fool yourself, my friend. As one of the scientists say in “The Hot Zone”, “The monster will return”. It will mutate and find a way back to us. And next time, it may get us in our comfortable chair, in the peace of our homes. With all this climate change around us, there is no way to predict how species will evolve, and there may be a bleak future in what regards humans and pandemics.
I’ll try not to think of it. I’ll believe Ebola has been contained in the deep forest it has come from and as for the other, mysterious virus of Arturo’s book, for the time being I’ll leave it where it should be: in the author’s incredible imagination.
A last word to say the series is very much worth watching; as for Arturo’s book, it is very well written and researched, and highly entertaining. A great read for an autumn weekend afternoon, and I have a feeling you won’t want to be interrupted.