Showing 1 - 6 of 6 annotations contributed by Galbo, Sebastian

Written on the Body

Winterson, Jeanette

Last Updated: Sep-24-2018
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In this uncommonly sensual novel, the narrator has neither name nor gender; the object of the narrator’s frenetic love is a woman, Louise, who is married to a prominent medical researcher. The marriage is loveless, without empathy, affection, and sex. Undaunted by Louise’s relationship, the narrator quips knowingly, “Marriage is the flimsiest weapon against desire. You may as well take a pop-up gun to a python” (78). Louise’s marriage eventually crumbles, and the lovers flee. Their happiness, though, is disastrously brief. Louise’s husband, Elgin, discloses to the narrator that, before their affair, Louise was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. As a globally distinguished cancer expert, Elgin exacts his revenge on the lovers by promising treatment available only at a clinic abroad, which would force the couple to split. Fearing that Louise will forgo treatment to stay (and eventually die) the narrator writes a letter pleading her to go abroad, then vanishes into the countryside—a decision that haunts the narrator for the rest of the novel.

In rural isolation, the narrator pores obsessively over anatomy books: “Within the clinical language, through the dispassionate view of the sucking, sweating, greedy, defecating self, I found a love-poem to Louise. I would go on knowing her, more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. I would have her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid” (111). In a kind of medicalized elegy, Winterson breaks the novel out into a standalone section divided into individual segments that juxtapose excerpts from anatomical textbooks with deeply felt recollections of the beloved’s leukaemic body. In one section, “The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body,” the narrator entreats, “Will you let me crawl inside you, stand guard over you, trap them [white T-cells] as they come at you?” (115). Winterson’s narrator, far removed from the realities of Louise’s treatment, apostrophizes her physical features, performing a kind of poetic embalmment of her lover’s body as she once knew it.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

Saadawi, Ahmed

Last Updated: Apr-19-2018
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Hadi, a junk dealer and storyteller of Baghdad’s Bataween neighborhood, scans the scene of a suicide car bombing. Hadi collects more than rubbish: amongst the smoke, dust, and the bloody debris of human bodies, he stoops to pluck the remnants of a nose from the wreckage, wraps it in a canvas sheet, and leaves the scene. Curating the remains of human bodies blasted asunder by suicide bombs, Hadi sutures bloody remnants to form a complete corpse, stowed away in his crumbling flat.

Necromania is far from the reason Hadi pursues his gory task: “I made it [the corpse] complete so that it wouldn’t be treated as trash, so it would be treated like other dead people and given a proper burial” (27). The nose from that day’s bombing was the crowning remnant that perfected the corpse. The corpse comes alive and exacts a series of perverse murders. It is rumored throughout the city that the mysterious corpse—or the “Whatsitsname” or “Criminal X,” as it is dubbed by the Iraqi Tracking and Pursuit Department—is a ruthless superhuman. Hadi’s Frankenstein stalks the streets of Baghdad to slaughter the murderer responsible for each limb comprising its body, justifying the killing spree as a “noble mission.” It realizes that, before it can destroy its final victims, the organs and limbs of its putrid body begin to rot.

Requiring new hands and eyeballs, the Baghdad Frankenstein must obliterate more people for fresh parts. The Whatsitsname realizes the corporeal conditions of his bloody mission: “My list of people to seek revenge grew longer as my body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end” (153). To survive, the corpse becomes entangled in an ever-widening web of killings.

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Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

From the late 18th to mid-19th centuries a peculiar trend swept through European fashion. Through couture and cosmetics, this vogue emulated the physical ravages of a much-feared disease, tuberculosis, aestheticizing its symptoms as enviable qualities of physical beauty. Pale skin, stooped posture, white teeth, an emaciated figure, and a white complexion that evinced delicate blue veins were lauded by the era’s posh fashion journals. Carolyn A. Day aptly terms this craze a “tubercular moment,” a cultural phenomenon that elevated the grim realities of physical illness to a plane of desirable beauty. Medical discourses promoting the fragility and refinement of the “sensible” body were inspired by romanticized notions of morbidity, suffering, and illness. These discourses coincided with the the ideologies of Romanticism, a philosophical movement that was popularly understood to be a counter-discourse to the Enlightenment through its emphasis on emotion and imagination. Day cites the English poet, John Keats, whose legacy emphatically contributed to the cult of sensibility, as he embodied a living example of the refined tubercular body endowed with artistic genius but doomed to illness. The male artist was an example of a body too sensitive, too delicate to endure earthly life, but one whose intellect left an indelible imprint on culture.  

The romanticized construction of tuberculosis, however, waned in the 1830s and 1840s due to dominant Victorian views that emphasized the inherent biological weakness of the female body. This shift in rationalizing consumption was the direct result of understanding women as burdened with a surfeit of sensibility. By contrast, consumption was understood differently to be an emasculating illness that denoted male weakness and was therefore no longer popularly considered to be a portent of gifted creativity. During this period, a number of women’s fashions dictated the tastes of the middle and upper classes. Corsets, cosmetics, and the gossamer neoclassical style of dress were used to emulate the frail frames, drooping postures, narrow torsos, and pale complexions of the consumptive body. Thin fabrics, sandals, and hair pieces also contributed to styling the ‘gorgeously’ spectral image of the tubercular body. Dresses were contrived to feature the bony wing-like shoulder blades of the consumptive back, emphasizing an emaciated frame. Physicians and cultural pundits condemned the trappings of this fashionable dress because they were thought to impose health risks. Tight corsets, for example, were considered to harmfully compress the lungs, while diaphanous dresses and sandals exposed women to cold weather. Despite the stentorian warnings of physicians, the tubercular wardrobe continued to house articles that were thought to excite tuberculosis.  


By the 1850s, public health and sanitary reforms reshaped cultural discourses that associated tuberculosis with beauty. Tuberculosis was gradually viewed as a pernicious biological force that needed to be controlled. As a result, the Victorian model of womanhood—the weak and susceptible female body—gave way to a model of health and strength. Literature, as Day points out, contributed significantly to altering the consumptive chic discourse and the link between tuberculosis and ideal femininity. She references Alexandre Dumas fils, whose influential novel, La Dame aux Camélias, presents redemption for moral transgressions through tubercular suffering. Through popular literature, tuberculosis was gradually supplanted from the sphere of upper-class women and placed in association with ‘fallen’ women, an unsavory association that led the genteel public to change perspective. Literary influence was important, but the increased visibility of consumption in the lower classes was likely the most visceral reality that forced upper classes to distance themselves from fashions that beautified the illness.

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Heartbeats

Dixon, Melvin

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Melvin Dixon’s poem, “Heartbeats,” portrays the steady atrophy of someone suffering a fatal disease. The anonymous narrator first appears as healthy and vigorous:

“Work out. Ten Laps.
Chin ups. Look good.
Steam room.
Dress warm.
Call home.
Fresh air.
Eat right.
Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.”

An undisclosed illness takes hold and the narrator copes with the impacts of a life-threatening disease:

“Test blood.
Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.”

S/he calls home, diets, tries to calmly recuperate, and focuses on maintaining peace of mind, “Breathe in. Breathe out.” The reality of death, or “It,” cannot be ignored, “Today? Tonight? / It waits. For me.” Dixon uses wordplay for “sweetheart” to bookend the poem.
In the third stanza, the narrator affectionately addresses his/her lover as “Sweetheart”; but, through battling the illness and experiencing its withering effects, Dixon cleaves the word in two in the final stanza, imploring the body to withstand the disease: “Sweet heart. / Don’t stop.”

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Life & Times of Michael K

Coetzee, J. M.

Last Updated: Jan-09-2018
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A civil war rages inexorably in J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Life & Times of Michael K. Details of the war are vague, but the fighting will determine whether “minorities will have a say in their destinies” (Coetzee 157). Riots splinter communities, peoples are displaced, the military patrols and slaughters, and prison camps are erected. The novel’s first half introduces an unlikely protagonist at the center of the bloody tumult: Michael K, a municipal gardener—a gentle “simpleton” with a harelip “curled like a snail’s foot”—who cares for his ailing mother in Cape Town (3). Sick and unable to work, K’s mother resolves to return to her birthplace and girlhood home, Prince Albert, a far-flung cluster of homesteads in the Karoo, where she hopes to convalesce peacefully. Their migration permits, however, never arrive, likely lost in the abyss of State bureaucracy. Gathering his mother and their few possessions in a makeshift wheelbarrow, K attempts the arduous journey anyway but the passage is thwarted by a government checkpoint. As his mother’s condition deteriorates, she is hospitalized and dies, her body cremated before K gives hospital officials consent.  

The novel’s lulling elliptical cycle pushes K along the currents of departure and circumvention, to capture and escape. Pressing on to Prince Albert where he will deliver his mother’s remains, K is arrested and incarcerated in a railcar where he and other prisoners remove landslide rubble from a remote part of the rail line. Released after finishing the labor, K arrives to Prince Albert where he settles on the property of the ramshackle homestead and begins contentedly scavenging. Far from the tremors of war, he hunts birds, nibbles roots and bulbs, turns over rocks for grubs, drinks from streams, and, in a fit of wild hunger, drowns and slaughters a wild goat. All the while he finds a package of pumpkin and melon seeds that for the rest of his time on the property he will sedulously plant and water— “[t]his was the beginning of his life as a cultivator” (59). Immersed in this blanched world, at the center of its arid winds and mineral expanses, K devotedly coaxes his mean crop to life. But the war encroaches on K’s hiding place and he absconds to a mountain cave where he hides, and nearly starves.  

The stillness, silence, and sunlight of the Karoo seep into K’s bones: “If I were cut, he thought, holding his wrists out, looking at his wrists, the blood would no longer gush from me but seep, and after a little seeping dry and heal. I am becoming smaller and harder and drier every day” (67). Imperceptibly, K becomes the ephemeral ‘stuff’ of this harsh land: “He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface on an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust” (97). K is shortly captured by the military and forced into a resettlement camp. Through the elliptical current of the novel, he escapes and returns to the Prince Albert homestead, where he finds his crop trampled. He nourishes the vines back to life and, in a moment of lonely exaltation, grills pumpkin flesh: “All that remains is to be a tender of the soil. […] He chewed with tears of joy in his eyes” (113). What K seeks, or what is seeking him, is a life of solitude, remote from peril and unrest, living in quiet reciprocity with the earth, exercising simple cultivation—a skill conspicuously anachronistic (but universally essential) in an age marked by the depravities of war.  

Wringing nourishment from veld-grown pumpkins, however, leaves K famished, and winds and squalls gut his makeshift shanty. Soon K is picked up, again, by a military patrol (he is suspected of abetting rebels camping in the mountains) that consigns him to a government hospital. The novel’s latter half is narrated by the hospital’s medical officer, a caring man who, doubtful of the war’s objectives, takes special interest in K’s recovery. By now, severely malnourished, K resembles “someone out of Dachau” (146). The medical officer is baffled by K, not for his uncooperative responses nor refusal to eat hospital food, but because of his status as a kind of ahistorical oddity in a time of modern warfare: “a human soul above and beneath classification, a soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring its wings within that stiff sarcophagus […] a creature left over from an earlier age, like a coelacanth or the last man to speak Yaqui” (151). The medical officer realizes K’s condition lies beyond simple diagnosis; rather, K’s body craves “a different kind of food, food that no camp could supply” (163). Sometime in the night, K vanishes from the hospital with his packet of pumpkin seeds, moving toward another remote patch of earth to cultivate.

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Another Country

Schoeman, Karel

Last Updated: Oct-24-2017
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In Karel Schoeman’s novel, Another Country, Versluis, an affluent and educated Dutchman diagnosed with tuberculosis, immigrates to Bloemfontein, South Africa, to convalesce. Bloemfontein in the 1870s, located within the remote interior of the Free State, is little more than a dusty outpost populated by first- and second-generation German, Dutch, and English inhabitants. As the novel quietly unfolds, Versluis’s tenuous recovery, and subsequent regression, are punctuated by his observations of the community’s struggle to both preserve and break from European culture to form a distinct South African identity.   Whereas Versluis cherishes his familiar Dutch customs and courtesies, here, in Bloemfontein, he must adapt to the community’s irregularities and gaucheries. Nevertheless, he is regularly astonished by the town’s culture of insouciance—a lack of punctuality, etiquette, and municipal orderliness; its sometimes frowzy fashions; disregard for conservatism; and ease among poverty, violence, and isolation. His observations, however, are not the mordancies of a snobbish European, but a wrestling with his sense of profound alienation as a precariously ill man living abroad in a strange country.   Informed that his case is terminal, Versluis resigns himself to the inescapable state of his life. With fresh sensibility, he embraces life in Bloemfontein, becoming more receptive to its people and daily life. Particularly, for Versluis, the veld—with its rocks, dust, succulents, and solitude—takes on a potent and portentous symbolism, as an immutable and implacable presence (and emptiness), much akin to the illness that is killing him. Within this ponderous flux of change, of a gradually evolving Africa, Versluis peacefully comes to terms with his imminent death.

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