I often read a book’s acknowledgments to see who thanks an author for supporting the creation of their work and how they go about thanking them.
Among those mentioned at the end of Jonathan Bazzi’s: car fiction is the award-winning Italian novelist Viola Di Grado. Bazzi thanks Di Grado for “curbing my wild sprawl of thoughts,” though frankly it’s hard to fathom a version of this memoir that’s even wilder and wilder.
Review: Fever by Jonathan Bazzi (Scribe Publications)
In Feverthe 37-year-old Milanese author meditates on illness and welfaresex and death, families and their downfall, class and Italianness, mothers and sons, desire, art, education and more. When they end up in a psychiatrist’s office, Bazzi is “a flooding river. I can’t stop.” Their account of growing up poor and gay in Northern Italy and coping with HIV in the age of undetectable viral counts is a veritable explosion of ideas.
The story of a disease
Bazzi’s sparse, efficient prose feels urgent, as if narrated by a frank and quick talker who occasionally gets bored. They finish one story to pick up the thread of another. This pace belies the hours, weeks, and months of a life spent in waiting rooms and in bed, languishing in the chronic insecurity of not knowing what’s going on. “Three years ago the fever came over me and it never went away… One week, two weeks. Halfway through the first page, we’ve been months into the story of a disease, plunged into a life of anxious visits to clinics and puzzling test results. Jonathan, 31. Friend named Marius, two Devon Rex cats, casual job as a yoga instructor. Then, suddenly, a fever that doesn’t go away.
It also recalls the political urgency of past AIDS diaries and: memoirs from the “pest years”. While Bazzi will soon understand that they are HIV positive and that there is a clear – and highly effective – treatment path based on that diagnosis, the body hides other unsolved mysteries, so the sense of urgency and uncertainty persists.
These breathless chapters of autopathography (a patient’s report of illness) alternate with episodes from Jonathan’s childhood and adolescence in the working-class town of Rozzano. Rozzano is on the “extreme southern periphery of Milan”, and is peripheral in other ways as well. Women wear nightgowns to the supermarket and children with fake brown whips pass by on Vespas. A bit “like the Bronx of northern Italy”, Rozanno is a place where “poverty and deprivation are pumped […] as waste water.”
The Rozanno effect permeates every facet of Jonathan’s life. Their parents, Tina and Roberto, had a “Rozzano love story” – that is, a relationship that did not last long, “a love that quickly soured into hatred and resentment”.
When teenage Jonathan starts meeting friends and loved ones out of town, they always ask to be dropped off a few blocks from home. They don’t want anyone to see the ‘crumbling plaster facade’ or the ‘terrible residents who lurk from the balconies’ of the public housing tower in which they live. These “big, boring” towers that dominate the city have basements full of rats where drug users go to shoot.
It’s a place “full of weirdos,” but not one that celebrates or cherishes them. Gender roles are strictly controlled; “men are made a certain way – they like Vespas, football, pussies – and women are made a different way”.
Jonathan likes to read and draw; at school he is ruthlessly bullied. “Rozzano hates me. I hated Rozanno. Why was I born here?” Developing a stutter and a passionate interest in art doesn’t help, and he eventually drops out.
The social construction of disease
“Nothing can be more meaningless than a virus,” Judith Williamson wrote about HIV/AIDS in 1989. “It makes no sense, no purpose, no plan; it is not part of a scheme, has no inherent meaning.” And yet every disease, especially one that is new, mysterious, and potentially life-threatening, offers opportunities for storytelling and interpretation.
Looking back at their diagnosis, Bazzi analyzes the social meanings of HIV: “HIV confirms two things: you are gay and you have had sex. Maybe too much sex, and in a promiscuous way.” Another story: HIV is part of a family curse. “Bazzi men are unlucky; they always die young”.
Recalling Susan Sontag’s two famous essays on illness, Illness as a metaphor (1978) and AIDS and its metaphors (1988), Bazzi contrasts the metaphors used to understand cancerwho has his father, and HIV.
“Cancer is an insane proliferation of cells. HIV is cell death. Cancer is an internal rebellion, the body wants too much, grows, expands. HIV is an attack, an invasion, a capitulation.”
The different stories Bazzi tests reflect the plethora of social meanings that arise in response to illness.
Like COVID-19HIV has never been a simple collection of virological or biomedical facts. HIV/AIDS was the first global pandemic of the media age and since it first came to public attention in 1981, it has been a very fertile area for a wild spread of stories.
AIDS as a communist plot to overthrow the United States; AIDS evolved as a virus in CIA labs to kill homosexuals. While doing compulsive research online, Bazzi discovers that many of these bizarre ideas continue to circulate:
HIV is a hoax […] The greatest conspiracy of the twentieth century […] HIV and AIDS were invented by Big Pharma.
The stories we tell about disease, including the supposedly neutral language used by doctors, scientists and public health professionals, give structure and meaning to our understanding of it.
In the case of HIV, the spread of stories was of particular interest to researchers, activists, people living with HIV and many others. Because the way these stories are told – especially in the public sphere – can influence the way epidemics play, including who will and will not receive appropriate care.
Carrying out illnesses, from the dramatic to the mundane
“HIV has its own history, its own traditions,” writes Bazzi.
Destinations, statistics, organizations, clinical cases, media stories. A long succession of stories that preceded me, which I know very little about.
Despite these claims of ignorance, Fever is especially enlightening about the social experience of illness – the way a series of rituals and performances play out around the sick body, and how these work to assign a range of social roles.
Central to the plot is the diseased body, which provides evidence, clues that propel the story of disease and thus must be controlled and traced, described and monitored. “I prepare my body fluids for research. My body takes on a new meaning.”
Doctors are the other protagonists in this drama, and they have a crucial narration role. They are “priestly”, with the power to assign the sick “to a community” and assign them “a story, a case study”. And of course the main setting for such a performance is the hospital, ‘the place where you are either reborn or die’.
Despite the urgent pace, Fever reminds that the story of illness isn’t all dramatic climaxes. Chronic illness also involves very mundane and administrative tasks. Appointments, referrals, tests, prescriptions; maintaining and processing medical records, payments, insurance papers. This is the daily work of being unwell. Bazzi records it in fragments of a conversation that is overheard in waiting rooms.
“Do you have a health insurance card? Excuse me, did you provide a urine sample?” “That will be 27 euros and 80 cents.”
Importantly, the dramaturgy of illness creates and recreates interpersonal roles and relationships. For example, Jonathan’s partner Marius tests negative and this changes their relationship greatly.
The couple is now sero-discordant (where one person is HIV-positive, the other HIV-negative): “Asymmetry is established.” Marius’ blood “has been questioned, and it tells a different story.”
And what if, despite existing stories and social roles, your own illness ignores the established parameters? For Jonathan, HIV is a “catalyst” and their bodies an “amphitheatre,” but there will be more to the story of their fever before it resolves — if it ever can.
The Memoirs on HIV and AIDS
Fever has been hailed as one of the “first contemporary personal stories of living with HIV”. Despite the more than 37 million people in the world living with the infection, this is a fair description.
A large number of HIV/AIDS diaries and memoirs were published in the 1980s and 1990s. The best known are written by white gay men who experienced extreme physical suffering and often social isolation in the early years of the AIDS crisis.
Among them are works by David Wojnarowicz and Paul Monette in the United States and Derek Jarman in the United Kingdom. In Australia there was the extraordinary AIDS diary inappropriate (1990) by Eric Michaels, lecturer in anthropology at Griffith University. Much more famous is that of Timothy Conigrave Holding the man (1995), which was adapted for the stage and eventually the screen.
HIV/AIDS was – and remains – a carrier of heavily political meanings and these works had a witness function. They offered the experience of an individual, but also testified to experiences of political abandonment and the failure of state institutions to respond adequately to HIV/AIDS. Such testimonies enabled the expression of grief and mourning, but also formed the basis for activism and political action.
These works also developed new experiential and expressive languages for thinking about disease. By doing so, they helped transform the public understanding of HIV. In addition to incendiary activist campaigns and other forms of cultural production, they played an important role in changing phobic and discriminatory narratives about HIV.
Fever is an heir to this tradition, but it is a story about HIV in the ‘post-crisis’ era.
Today, HIV-positive people in treatment have a negligible viral load and are largely unable to transmit the virus. Treatments have progressed so significantly that they have fewer and fewer side effects; new developments promise drugs that only need to be taken once a month or every two months. And yet older ideas about HIV cast a lasting shadow. As Bazzi writes, “people living with the condition are still subject to a toxic mix of invisibility and guilt.”
A lack of conversations and stories Addressing the contemporary experience of living with HIV can add to and exacerbate this stigma.
Bazzi is explicit in their refusal of this course of action, “rejecting the tradition of shame and discretion”.
Fever is indeed a landmark in that sense, because while the stories of the crisis era abounded in all genres and forms, very little media and literature has now documented the experience of living with HIV.
“My HIV diagnosis is an irrefutable fact,” concludes Bazzi.
“I have HIV – that just means I have to go to my doctor a lot and do a lot of tests. Just like millions of other people in the world, for all sorts of reasons. Everything else is extrinsic. Put there by you, by us.”
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