“The Helena Experience”, by Hanna Bervoets: prohibited hybridizations

Dutch writer Hanna Bervoets.

“The Helena Experience” (Ivanov), by Hanna Bervoets, translated from Dutch by Anne-Laure Vignaux, Le Bruit du monde, 352 p., €23, digital €16.

In the 1920s, a Russian biologist named Ilia Ivanov (1870-1932) attempted to create, through artificial insemination, a half-human, half-ape hybrid. Supported by the Soviet regime, his experiments failed, but it is not impossible that they were at the origin of the mutation of the immunodeficiency virus in primates and then of its transmission to humans… After the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was inspired by the first experiences of the mad scientist for the sketches of an opera, Orange (1932), the Dutch writer Hanna Bervoets takes up the subject in The Helena Experience. The story begins in 1927, in then-French Guinea: two female chimpanzees from the Conakry Botanical Garden are inseminated with human sperm. Two years later, in the Soviet Union, Ivanov imagines the opposite experience (simian sperm and human volunteers)…

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Hanna Bervoets multiplies the round trips in time. A leap forward and here we are in the 1990s. Felix van der Elsken, a journalism student, is doing a study semester in New York. In view of an article for the university newspaper, he is interested in the work that a scientist, Helena Frank, devotes to Ivanov’s experiments and their link with AIDS. Like the whole of the gay community, to which he belongs, Felix fears having been contaminated by the nascent scourge. As for Helena, convinced that the origin of the disease is to be found in the hybridization attempts carried out by Ivanov, she decided to continue her work.

Another fast forward… When, in 2014, back in the Netherlands, Félix learned of Helena’s death, he wanted to reconstruct this period of his life to tell his companion about it. He rereads his notes, listens to the recordings of the interviews made with her. Again shaken by the fascination that Helena exerted on him at the time, he discovers above all the terrible manipulation of which he was the object.

In hindsight

Amazing how Hanna Bervoets manages to adapt her narrative styles to different periods of the story, according to the chronology of events, whether they are real or fictional. As much as Ivanov’s attempts in Africa and the USSR are imbued with a chilling objectivity, so are the hypnotic memories that Félix tries to bring together to evoke, twenty years later, his stay in New York. Looking back, the adult he has become strives to reconstruct this decade marked by doubt, mistrust, misinformation and disbelief in the face of the ravages of the epidemic.

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