Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka (translated fiction)

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

"Tears are very unliterary: they have no form."

This is possibly the most dog-eared book I've ever had. Folding down corners is my method for marking significant (to me) passages, but it clearly wasn't working with this fiction novel because I was marking every page.  I'd never read this Venezuelan author before, but I hope to find more of his work translated into English.

Delicate prose, deep moral questions, and a stunning pace are what kept me hooked into reading this in one sitting.  The story itself is rather simple:  a successful doctor discovers that his father is seriously ill.  Their close relationship is strained as the son weighs the consequences of telling his father the details of his illness.  In the meantime, another man, virtually unknown to the doctor, begins stalking him, imagining that he holds the cure for the the list of complaints he suffers from.  There's a push and pull to the narrative, as the poignant moments between father and son,nuanced with shared memories of grief, intertwine with the creepy certainty of the stalker.

Because of the health issues that permeate the novel, questions about the nature of health and wellness are explored, but in a brief, compelling way.  The author cites quotes of famous authors, ethicists and physicians, but he's not showing off, they are actually appropriate observations of how the human body deals with illness.  These asides never go too long or feel like a lecture, they fit the material in the most uncanny way.

For example, Tyszka quotes Julio Ramon Ribeyro, who provides possibly the best explanation for the euphoria that exists after an episode of physical pain:

"Physical pain is the great regulator  of our passions and ambitions.  Its presence immediately neutralizes 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."

Tsyzka presents simple scenes with insightful observation.  On trying to read the face of a doctor while awaiting possibly bad news:

"It's the illustration that accompanies a bad diagnosis, the first installment of an expression of condolence."

On imagining his father's worries:

"Are the monsters of old age as terrible as those that assail us when we're children?  What do you dream about when you're sixty-nine?  ....Perhaps this is what his father dreams about:  he's in a laboratory, in the bowels of a hospital, surrounded by chemicals, sharp implements, gauze, and strangers all repellently dressed in white...."

Events proceed in unexpected ways, and as a reader, you never quite know what direction you're being pulled in.  You feel empathy and disgust in altering passages, and the underlying fear is riveting.  I did find the ending a bit confusing...I still am not sure I've understood all the implications laid out.

One scene confounds me:  It takes place on a ferry, where an obnoxious businessman makes a production of his 'importance' and maltreats his seemingly intelligent and kind wife, all the way to the point of beating her to the ground.  I'm not sure what the symbolism is, although I know it's present in that scene.  Is Tyszka trying to say that people are subject to humiliation, by oppression or illness, no matter how virtuous they are? 

In full, this is easily going to be in my list of favorites for the year.  While the subject revolves around illness, it never quite defines which 'illness' is being addressed:  is it disease?  regret?  evil?  The questions are posed, and only each individual reader can answer.

Special thanks to Paul Engels of Maclehose Press, London, for the Review Copy.

Additionally, I jumped the gun on this review:  it will be released in the US in 2012 by Tin House Books, but is available in the UK now.


  1. Wow sounds like a great book that really makes an impact. Will have to check it out.

  2. he did catch the whole circle of sickness sick people and those who think they are so well ,all the best stu

  3. Thanks for the review. I have not heard of the author before. Sounds really interesting.