Book review: Down Days by Ilze Hugo

(cover image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

What would you do if the world ended … but didn’t quite?

How would you handle things if the city you lived in suffered from a pandemic of sorts, one that bore all the hallmarks of the 1962 Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, a disease which begins with uncontrollable laughter before a diabolically horrific turn and which is so infectious that where you live is now quarantined from the world at large, left largely to its own devices by a world which has but all effectively disappeared from the public consciousness?

You might feel despondent and grief-stricken and to a significant extent that is what all of the main characters in South African author Ilze Hugo’s richly-imaginative novel Down Days do feel – a sense of painful loss and dislocation so profound that it is hard not to desperately miss what was there before and is tragically no longer.

And yet, for those who remain alive in the bedraggled, rough and messy surrounds of the city on the tip of Africa – it is strongly suggested that this is Cape Town though that is never explicitly stated – life continues on, demanding that they do what they can to make some money, put food on the table and take care of those they love.

It’s a tall order in a community which, like COVID-19 today, has walled itself from within too, functioning as a city but within tight constraints where social isolation, hygiene measures etc as adhered to; well, as much as the downtrodden urban surrounds allow anyway.

“Tomorrow was at the market, feeling up avocados. Pressing her fingers into each green skin to see which one would give. Finding the perfect candidate, she turned around towards her purse, which was resting in the belly of the rusted trolley where her baby brother, Elliot, was playing with an empty coffee tin.

These days the prices at the local supermarket were a punch line to some kind of bad joke, with most of the shelves standing empty, gathering dust. Queues for what was left stretched around the block. So Tomorrow preferred to d her shopping here, in the Company’s Garden.” (P. 13)

But who really has a choice?

Certainly not Faith who works as a “dead collector”, part of a team who scours the streets before or just after dawn each today to collect the bodies of those who have died overnight before whisking them out of sight so those who remain in the land of the living, broken and flawed though it now is, can placate themselves with the idea that the disease has spared the city once more.

It’s all a grand PR stunt but the city government, which has turned hygiene propaganda into an omnipresent artform, but one in which Faith is happy to play a part because it means she at least has a job and a home and some sense of purpose.

Truth be told, her sense of purpose comes from her pro bono work as a “truthologist”, someone who acts as an informational sleuth, a much-on-demand profession in a city that is awash in fake news, paranoia, conspiracy theories, and misguided hope.

That makes it hard to get to the truth of anything which is why Tomorrow, a 14-year-old orphan turns to faith when her baby brother Elliot goes missing from a market in which in which she is buying the ingredients for a birthday cake, her attempt, and an entirely understandable one, to keep the darkness of her recent past at bay, if only for a mouthful or two.

Tomorrow hopes Faith will find Elliot, the only family she has left, and give her some hope in a world that possesses precious little of it.

Ilze Hugo (image courtesy official author site)

But as the search for Elliot ramps up, and Faith comes into contact with an eclectically engaging array of characters including Sans, a dealer trading in stolen ponytails, who has lost a significant amount of his recent takings thanks to the beguiling presence of a mysterious, oft-disappearing beautiful woman, and Major, a man who guards and oversees a convent in the city which, shall we say, has taken a rather elastic and pragmatic approach to keeping their religious community afloat in a city which has plenty of time for hearsay and apocalyptic innuendo but little for actual belief which has proved to be of little use now the world has somewhat but not completely ended.

Down Days is a remarkably clever piece of storytelling.

Hugo has infused with a sense of end time desperation, the kind that cuts all kinds of corners morally, emotionally and existentially just to get by, but also given it an aching humanity with each of the characters real and grounded people who would give anything to be happy again if that was even possible.

But there’s no sign of a promised land on the horizon, and certainly through most of Down Days, Faith, Tomorrow, Sans and the other utterly brilliantly and idiosyncratically-realised characters that call this blighted city home, there’s nothing to suggest they are wrong.

You get by, you try not to die and you move onto the next day and hope that’s as complicated as it gets; it’s not an ideal life but it’s still a life of some kind and as an alternative to the horrors of a laughing death, it will do.

“So Faith put the radio on and tuned the channel to Cape Chat. The DJ was talking about all the postboxes that had been blown up. That the whole city was going up in smoke. All these people started calling in, cashing in their two cents: ‘What’s up with this Lawyer guy and his gossip rag stirring up these rumors, all this trouble?’ one caller was saying. ‘Why can’t he just keep his mouth shut and let us get on with our lives? This isn’t a TV show. It’s real life. Things just happen. There’s no grand conspiracy under every bliksemse rock and there’s no point in thinking like that if you want to survive. Thanks to him we’ve now got hooligans running around burning down the whole bleddie city. And to what end, I say? To what end?'” (P. 304)

Somewhere in the luminously conjured-up world of the book, hope begins to trickle and tread in, a whisper there and there, most of its amplified through local tabloid rag The Daily Truth, which is peddles information that is more rumour and remote possibility than actual reality, we begin to witness the sense that amongst all the talk of death, ghosts (which people begin to see everywhere) and the end of things, that the start of something may be stirring.

Set in and heavily-influenced by its African setting, which provides a welcome change to the euro-centric fantasy and dystopian literature that occupies much of the space for the genre in bookstores, Down Days is replete with inspired pop culture references, vibrant use of language and a heady wash of local idioms and cultural diversity that speaks of a city that, while it may be cut off from the world around it, still craves connection, hope and healing.

Part of a new breed of end of the world books which speak honestly and at times brutally of the failure of humanity to avert its own cataclysmic demise – think The Book of M by Peng Shepherd and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Down Days doesn’t forsake luminously tenacious humanity nor the sense that for all the signs that point to death being the end of a relatively short evolutionary road, that human society may still have a shot at something special down the road.

It won’t, of course, look anything like the world now but in the case of the city that Tomorrow, Faith, Sans and Major and the others call home that may not be a bad thing and may be the best thing to happen to them when precious little good of any kind seems to be in the offing.

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