Translated by Margaret Jull Costa


The title of this short South American novel seems apposite, given the current climate (my husband is currently confined to one room and waiting for the results of a coronavirus test). However, the book has nothing to do with COVID-19, thankfully.

Published in 2006 in Venezuela as La enfermedad, the English translation appeared in 2010, and The Sickness was deservedly shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now absorbed into the International Booker Prize) in 2011. Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s writing has drawn comparisons with that of J. M. Coetzee (who I have to confess I have never read so I can’t comment – he’s on my list for South Africa!).

Dr Andrés Miranda is a doctor who hates the nitty-gritty of the human body (he hated practicals in medical school), and when he finds out that his father is terminally ill he struggles to confront, or even communicate, the truth. Meanwhile, he is deluged with e-mails from a sort of hyper-hyperchondriac, Ernesto Durán, which he refuses to deal with and filters off via his secretary, Karina. Karina, a bit bored, is also lonely, and on the advice of a friend embarks on a surely ill-advised course of action.

The book is darkly humorous, and although it deals with serious issues it is entertaining, often mordantly funny and frequently profound. Despite the novel’s brevity (150 pages), the main characters are fully realised and complex, with the individual mixture of flaws and strengths that makes us human. The action moves along swiftly, in crisp prose, so that amid the thoughtfulness of the writing the pace of the plotting never drags, and it all comes to a satisfying ending.

I also liked this carpe diem quote from Julio Ramón Ribeyro that is reproduced in the novel:

“Physical pain is the great regulator of our passions and ambitions. Its presence immediately neutralises all other desires apart from the desire for the pain to go away. This life that we reject because it seems to us boring, unfair, mediocre or absurd suddenly seems priceless: we accept it as it is, with all its defects, as long as it doesn’t present itself to us in its vilest form – pain.”

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