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Posted on 21 Jun 2022 in Fiction |

JONATHAN BAZZI Fever. Reviewed by Ivan Crozier

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Jonathan Bazzi’s autofiction gives an insight into living with HIV today.

Jonathan Bazzi came home from their philosophy class one lunchtime not feeling quite right. A fever came over them ‘and never left’. The result is Fever, an important contribution to contemporary queer autofiction and a fascinating account of HIV that takes this genre away from the heavy years of AIDS mortality to the current climate of [u+] undetectable living. The disease is not the same as it was in the 1980s and 90s, and young queers today are not the same people as the predominantly gay men who wrote about their experience of HIV/AIDS back then. Both of these factors make Fever a significant book.

Translated from the original Italian by Alice Whitmore, Fever is written in a staccato style that reminds one of gay autofiction pioneer Guillaume Dustan with its blending of memory, experience and conversation into sparse lines that move at a fast pace.

It is composed of two strands that alternate chapter by chapter: the fever, the search for a diagnosis, and the resulting construction of the author as a person living with HIV; and an autobiographical thread that describes how a young person growing up in Rozzano, a deprived working-class suburb on the perimeter of Milan, became a non-binary queer author with a unique account of living with HIV in a post-AIDS context. The two strands taken together mutually construct the author.

The fever becomes Bazzi’s obsession. They reluctantly move into the ‘sick role’ (a role of ‘sanctioned deviance’ as described by sociologist Talcot Parsons in 1951), first by dropping university to save all of their energy for teaching yoga, then, increasingly, searching for a cause for their symptoms and wallowing in sofa-ridden misery, unable to live their usual life. The fever exists, but resists interpretation. The pace at which these sections are written is remarkably febrile. The neurotic panic of a tender, reluctant patient with an overactive imagination is palpable.

We see them negotiating the medical system, buoyed by medical facts gleaned from the internet, reminiscent of the way AIDS patients of the Nineties resisted medical power by arming themselves with medical knowledge (Information = Power, as ACT UP has it). It is clear that Bazzi is an heir to these politicised patients. Thus we see them seek medical diagnoses and tests as well as consulting homeopathic practitioners, an active partner in the understanding of the pervasive fever that sees them consulting second and occasionally third opinions, not satisfied that they don’t have leukemia, or cancer, or a host of other potential ailments.

The pace of these sections changes when finally an HIV diagnosis is given. We see Bazzi becoming a new kind of person: someone living with HIV. The discovery is a total shock to Bazzi. They had never been tested. They had been in a monogamous relationship for three years, and it is soon revealed that their boyfriend is HIV negative, despite never using protection together. Their serodiscordant relationship becomes a framework for thinking about contemporary HIV life. ‘You have HIV. In the past those words were a death sentence.’ But no longer for those with access to treatment, which Bazzi does. A significant achievement of this book is to ‘update their views that are stuck in the Eighties,’ the time that the majority of AIDS literature focuses upon.

HIV, Bazzi tells us, echoing Susan Sontag, is ‘not an illness, but a metaphor’. It is no longer a metonym for death; nor is the HIV-positive person suffering.

HIV-positive people are no longer easy to spot like they used to be. It’s difficult to determine what’s true and what’s a legacy of the Eighties and Nineties.

Bazzi’s major service to readers is to challenge these outdated views. They do this by showing the reader in unflinching detail how they became HIV-positive: ‘an identity chosen for me by my body’. In doing so, they show no hint of shame. ‘I have something firm, an unalterable quality to show the world. Something I can’t shake off.’

As any good philosophy student should know, HIV is a condition that is co-constructed with doctors:

… we work together to keep me alive and in the best possible condition. We collaborate to keep the treatment working, to limit the side effects.

These medical sections are haunted by the spectre of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who succumbed to AIDS in 1984 and did more than anyone to frame our conceptualisation of medical power.

The second strand of Fever is the autobiography of a working-class queer. There are numerous factors relevant in this construction of the self: class, gender, family, ethnicity (the Neapolitan background on his mother’s side creates tensions with his father’s family, who come from the northern city of Milan; the book contains many untranslated passages in Neapolitan dialect, which only added to the sense of Bazzi’s alterity). Like much queer autoficton, Fever shows Bazzi growing up in a world that they do not really fit, especially in the ways that toxic masculinity polices non-heterosexual identity and non-masculine gender expressions. Playing with dolls as a child, a sometime interest in becoming a hairdresser, an exuberant fashion sense, a closeness with their mother: these are all used to show Bazzi’s gender non-conformity, their innate queerness. They escape this world through various obsessions (tarot cards, then taking his academic studies seriously, which eventually takes him to university as a philosopher). Throughout the book they also escape through their fanatical devotion to various boys, not always requited. They seem to love falling in love.

Fever is also a window into the sex lives of queer millenials. Although there is not a terribly strong emphasis on sexual encounters, the chapter ‘I’ll be there in half an hour’ describes Bazzi using the internet to look for sex partners. Their sex life is complicated, and their scattered analysis of what they are doing gives a real sense of their anxiety.

I both want and do not want to be humiliated, overpowered, violated … I’m also scared because I know sex is dangerous. You can get sick. Be careful, set clear boundaries. No, I don’t bareback. Condom or nothing … You can usually tell when someone is sick, anyway … The sick ones are always more brazen, more reluctant to use protection. They have nothing to lose. I’m so scared of getting sick that I can’t even bring myself to get tested.

Bazzi finds themself:

Torn … between the boys I fall in love with and the men I seek out for casual sex. The former are angels, the latter minotaurs.

Sometimes Bazzi is Madonna, sometimes they want to be a whore. This sexual complexity is palpable.

Every time I have sex without love I regret it. There’s a part of me that experiences sex only as violence, as theatre, as performance … Let yourself be dominated, fucked, defiled, while you dream of love, while you chase boys who don’t want to be with you.

So they confess that they end up ‘reliving the porn I watch on the internet’. Rough, toxic, dangerous, exciting, compelling. In their notebook they write:

I am dirty. I’ve let myself be contaminated. Artist, top of the class, the most special creature in the world, and now? You’ve ruined yourself. You’ve let old men fuck you.

Still, they continue with these casual encounters every three or four months, which clearly offer some kind of satisfaction, if not complete. ‘Sex erases me, makes me disappear,’ they note. A holiday from themself and their difficult life.

Ultimately this is a political work, autofiction that challenges stigma across multiple axes: HIV, poverty, Neapolitan ethnicity, toxic masculinity and gender norms. Bazzi’s proclamation of himself to the world is a defiance of the prejudices of those who seek to reject their queerness.

Most importantly, as we have seen, Bazzi works through his old attitudes towards HIV to adopt it proudly as an identity in itself, signing off written work as a HIV+ author.

HIV-positive people are everywhere; they are a silent, invisible multitude. And they’re watching you. They are your friends, your past and future lovers, your trusted experts … They look healthy, beautiful, gorgeous: the kinds of boys I would fall in love with on social media.

Jonathan Bazzi, translated by Alice Whitmore, Fever Scribe Publications 2022 PB 352pp $29.99

Ivan Crozier was a historian of psychiatry at UCL, University of Edinburgh, and University of Sydney. He currently lives in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales where he is writing a novel about the gay prison that existed at Cooma between 1957 and 1984.

You can buy Fever from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

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