desired in the time of AIDS

sleeping children

by Antony Passeron

Globe, 288 pages, €20

Longed for. A first name you. An obliterated existence. When, as a child, Anthony Passeron asked his father, a butcher from a Provençal village, about the furthest town he had been to, the answer was Amsterdam. The reason for this trip? Jaw clenched on the piece of veal to be cut and on the reluctance to break a silence of several years, this silent man cowards that he had to go there to look for Désiré, whose first name he matches with insults. I fell on a bonewrites Anthony Passeron. It was the first time in my entire childhood that I had heard the name of his older brother in his mouth. My uncle died a few years after I was born.»

write to remember

Neither the father nor the grandfather speaks of Désiré, the grandmother only to say the star in the sky that he would have become. The most talkative, the mother of the narrator and sister-in-law of the deceased, always stops quickly in her evocations to conclude: It’s all very unfortunate though. » Only the words of a book remain to bring Désiré back to a life of paper, and with him a village that has emptied, closed shops, missing grandparents and the sleeping children».

Heir to the first name of his paternal grandfather as tradition dictates, Désiré also benefits from a privilege that belongs to each eldest son, to be the favorite. While breaking with his family, he displays the ultimate sign of a social ascent relentlessly desired for generations: the butchery, pride of the family, enriched it, but it is far away that Désiré flies away, the first bachelor, to countries unknown to his family by arousing their admiration.

With a simple and straightforward pen, Anthony Passeron intertwines, in the reasonable scheduling of one out of two chapters, the family history and the story of AIDS research, from its beginnings to its first victories. The link is not an enigma: Désiré. In Amsterdam, he tasted the forbidden pleasure of drugs, especially heroin.

With the “French connection” that cooperation between the United States and France has not succeeded in eradicating, he finds in the hinterland of Nice the heroin that is injected into the veins by syringes passed from one to the other. With this epidemic, which leads to finding children sleeping in the streets of villages with a needle stuck in their arm, another one arises, that of HIV.

Sorrow, shame and loneliness

Anthony Passeron relates the first findings of French infectiologists and immunologists, Willy Rozenbaum and Jacques Leibowitch, which echo publications by American epidemiologists: the reappearance of extremely rare pathologies such as pneumocystosis and Kaposi’s sarcoma which seem to affect homosexuals. The writer crosses the wanderings of research and the groping knowledge of the French passed over in silence by their American alter egos, with the poignant denials of his family on the addiction of Désiré and the deterioration of his health.

By mixing intimate narrative, social chronicle and medical history, he brings face to face the disarray of doctors powerless to stop a carnage, despised by colleagues for their research on “marginals”, and the despair of simple people with struggling with feelings of shame and loneliness. Over 36 million people have died of AIDS worldwide since its onset.

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