Saturday, June 14, 2003

of pox and puppets

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Asia Times in June 2003).

The Brainfever Bird by I. Allan Sealy

At the beginning of The Brainfever Bird, a Russian specialist in biological warfare arrives in Delhi to sell a briefcase full of deadly secrets. On the way to his hotel, unknown robbers ambush the scientist's taxi and steal his terrible creations. Once this might have been the setup for a juicy thriller. But with the region's safest cities still reeling under quarantine conditions, and the specter of anthrax and smallpox never quite forgotten, this is hardly territory for escapism. These are interesting times.

Suitably, I Allan Sealy, the Indian author of The Brainfever Bird, infuses the conventional scenario with the philosophical seriousness, the moral dilemma, that separates literature from pulp fiction. Lev Repin, Sealy's protagonist, is at once villain and hero. His career scuttled by the end of the Cold War, Repin's pride compels him to resort to selling his disastrous secrets. In Russia, he was reduced to working as a chauffeur.

The destruction of his world leaves him with little guilt about the threat his treasures represent to the one that replaced it. "You do some plague, some anthrax. Then maybe some virus. Smallpox, Ebola, Marburg," he explains callously. Yet he remains tormented by nightmares of his colleague, Meschersky, who inadvertently infected himself with the virus Kurile-D, "the living face of death". Even his ruminations about his past are filled with the metaphors of disease. "Youth is a country," he reflects. "I used to live there. The inhabitants are determined to emigrate, exiles long to return. But the borders are sealed, as if the plague had broken out there and the United Nations had sent highly paid soldiers to patrol the passes."

Lepin and Meschersky are characters inspired by the real-life players Ken Alibek and Nikolai Ustinov in author Richard Preston's 1998 New Yorker article "The Bioweaponeers". Alibek has a Doctor of Sciences degree in anthrax and was a deputy chief of research and production for the Soviet biological-weapons program known as Biopreparat. He defected to the United States in 1992 and is quoted in the article as saying that the diaspora of biologists who came out of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union could have ended up anywhere: in Iraq, Syria, Libya, China, Iran, perhaps Israel, perhaps India. In the article Alibek also talked about the terrifying death of his colleague Nikolai Ustinov, who was accidentally infected with the Marburg virus. Taking off from this event, Sealy, with his vivid metaphors and distinctive prose style, spins a grim, modern tale reflecting the zeitgeist.

Repin strives to pinpoint the moment he went wrong, recasting his education as a descent into death and decay. "Sometimes he returns in his mind to those jars of soused organs, diseased tissue on display: the riddled liver of a serf who wrestled for Tsar Nicholas; a Decembrist brain withered in dementia to a coral; a pair of eyes that saw defeat at Mukden reddened to maraschino cherries. A lung in cross-section with asbestos deposits rich as marrowfat peas ... As if it was there, by the jars, that they took him up, into militant biology."

While Repin's thoughts on economic and moral decline drive the novel, the setting, a fetid, pulsating Old Delhi, provides the perfect landscape. Here is a place that is constantly reinventing itself, even as it carries with it the burden of history. Sealy has immortalized the walled city of masseurs, Unani practitioners, wrestling matches, Karim's kebabs, puppet shows and sidewalk book sales in a way no one has ever done in English.

In the midst of Repin's quest to get to the Defense Ministry, a plague breaks out in the walled city of Old Delhi. The epidemic subsides, having taken its toll, but mysteriously, the needle of suspicion, as it were, points to Repin. Urchins on the even call him "plague-master". Lepin is now being followed by a masseur who he suspects is more than just that and he narrowly avoids being castrated by an adolescent who lost his brother to the plague. While watching a puppet show, Repin is called aside and told his life is in danger and that he should go home. On the way, a man on a scooter chucks a jar full of acid on Repin's face, disfiguring him. He's taken to hospital, from where he suddenly disappears.

Unlike his deceptively calm 1998 Booker Prize short-listed novel The Everest Hotel, Sealy's new book crackles at a furious pace. In the novel, United Nations weapons inspectors have been cleverly put off the scent of Repin's biological weapons, and if that hits too close to home, the account of the plague (much like severe acute respiratory syndrome) that sweeps Delhi is pure novelistic foresight. The Brainfever Bird is a story about the often scary world we now inhabit.

The Brainfever Bird, by I Allan Sealy, Picador 2003. ISBN: 0330412051. Price US$26, 320 pages.