Prizewinning novel about the origin of the AIDS virus and the interbreeding of humans and apes
Hanna Bervoets is a young writer with an impressive series of novels to her name, many of which have won literary prizes. She has a penchant for grotesque stories exploring topical themes that appeal to the imagination. Her novel Dear Céline is about a young girl with an unhealthy fascination for Céline Dion, to whom she writes letters; Everything There Was is about the aftermath of a terrorist attack; while Efter is set in a future where love is considered a psychiatric condition that can be treated with medication.
Ivanov has a similarly spectacular theme. Around a century ago, Russian biologist Ilja Ivanov attempted to create hybrid species of animals. Seeking the missing link between humans and apes, he began injecting human sperm into females apes. When this proved ineffective, Ivanov purportedly attempted to inseminate African women with ape sperm. It is unknown whether he succeeded, but his experiments still appeal to the imagination.
This true story inspired Hanna Bervoets to write a novel about a Dutch student called Felix, who travels to New York in 1994 to study journalism. He meets a professor called Helena who is researching Ivanov’s story. As the AIDS virus is thought to have originated in apes, Helena believes this might be the best place to seek a cure. Perhaps Ivanov was unable to breed hybrids animals, but did inadvertently create a hybrid virus.
Felix wants to write an article about Helena, but gradually realises it is unclear who is exploiting whom. And then there is his fellow student Lois, who is also intrigued by Helena. Felix is drawn into a sinister three-way relationship. Bervoets intertwines Felix’ memoires, written in his 40s, looking back on his days in America, with the developments surrounding Ivanov. These threads are woven into a novel that explores ethical issues, but also raises questions as to what it means to be human and who sets the standard.