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Fifteen selections--short stories, essays, and memoir--make up this collection. Two stories are notable: The Whistlers' Room and Atrium: October 2001 (see annotations). The title story is a translation and retelling of an obscure German tale published 75 years ago. Set in a military hospital in Germany during World War I, four soldiers share a common wound--throat injuries and laryngeal damage necessitating a tracheostomy for each man. This remarkable quartet of patients forges a fellowship of the maimed.
"Atrium: October 2001" describes the random meeting between a physician and a terminally ill teenager in the hospital atrium. The subject of death dominates their discussion. "Parable" chronicles an elderly doctor's efforts to comfort a dying man, and in the process, ease both their suffering.
Excerpts from Selzer's diary reveal much about the character of the author as well as the characters in his life. He also reminisces about growing up in Troy, New York. Approximately one-quarter of the book is devoted to Selzer's musings on works of art (sculpture and painting). Lighter fare includes a discussion of life behind the podium, a description of his home, and a new ending for A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
The unnamed narrator of the story is a "dreadfully nervous" character who disputes the allegation that he might be crazy. He contends that his disposition arises from a heightening of the senses: "Above all was the sense of hearing acute" (74). The narrator provides care for a wealthy elderly man. For some inexplicable reason, the narrator becomes obsessed with the diseased eye of the old man. The narrator likens it to a vulture’s eye and is so haunted by the Evil Eye that he decides to murder the old man.
He meticulously plans the murder. After one week of preparation, the narrator charges into the old man’s bedroom after midnight and kills him using the heavy bed the victim had been sleeping in to either crush or suffocate him. Even after the murder, the victim’s heart continues beating for many minutes. The narrator carefully dismembers the body in a tub. He conceals all the pieces under the floor boards.
At four o’clock in the morning, three policemen arrive. A neighbor heard a scream and notified the police. They are here to investigate. The narrator maintains his composure and even entertains the police. After all, he has committed the perfect crime. Suddenly, he hears a repetitive noise like the ticking of a watch. At first soft, the sound grows louder and louder. No one else hears it. What is the cause of the noise--paranoia, his conscience, auditory hallucinations, a supernatural clue, or (most likely) the sound of his own pounding heart? The narrator can no longer tolerate the thumping and confesses to the murder: "I admit the deed!--tear up the planks!--here, here!--it is the beating of his hideous heart!" (78)
The narrative of Pilgrim and his psychiatrist, Carl G. Jung, begins with Pilgrim's most recent unsuccessful attempt to kill himself. The surrealistic nature of the tale begins with this mysterious inability of the title character to exit life--a life self-proclaimed to have covered multiple incarnations over millennia each of which he has memory. His friend and his servants take him to Zurich to the renowned psychiatrist's clinic for institutionalization and therapy. Enter Dr. Jung, whose personal and professional life assumes a dominant role in the narrative.
As the story progresses, the reader learns from Pilgrim's journals the interstices of his seemingly endless voyage. While Pilgrim's tale--real or imagined--is progressively revealed, the immediate lives of the Jungs are explored in increasing depth. Layer upon layer of development of plot, past and present, is peeled away until Pilgrim escapes his prison and Jung's emotional chaos is exposed.
The story begins soon after the narrator has moved his elderly mother into Cherry Orchard, an "independent living" facility near his home in Providence, Rhode Island. Because of progressive dementia, she was no longer able to maintain her own home in New Jersey, or her relationship with Warren, her boyfriend of 20 years, with whom she spent part of each year in Florida. Thus, the narrator and his sister arranged for her move to an apartment in the exclusive Cherry Orchard, where her symptoms of Alzheimer's disease had to be hidden in order to ensure her eligibility.
The mother and son have never been close, especially after the boy's father died during his early adolescence. She was a pleasant, but distant parent, more interested in her own social and cultural affairs than in taking care of her children. The narrator is 34 years old now, married, with his own son. He has little emotional attachment to this woman who is slowing losing her mind, yet now he feels duty-bound to visit her at least weekly at Cherry Orchard.
The mother has almost entirely lost her short-term memory, yet at first blush seems surprisingly intact because of her ability to cover-up with social skills. She writes notes to herself. The texture of her life unravels. She begins to wander. Other residents complain. Occasionally a glimmer of insight appears, but quickly dies. Fighting his inclinations every step of the way, the narrator provides ever increasing physical and emotional support, while at the same time gaining a deeper understanding of how his mother was (and is). In the end nothing is changed--the mother spirals slowly downward. But in another sense everything has changed. The narrator concludes, "I had taken her in so that I could understand why I had agreed to take her. I would do it again."
The narrator is still grieving over the recent death of her father, D.M. He suffered from emphysema and died from a sarcoma of the intestine that metastasized to other organs. While visiting Sweden, the narrator explores the Royal Library. There she discovers the celebrated Encyclopedia of the Dead--a massive collection of thousands of volumes chronicling in detail the lives of ordinary people who have died.
She finds the biography of her father and takes notes while reading it throughout the night. Fifty years of his life in Belgrade are summarized in only 5 or 6 pages yet amazingly nothing seems to be left out. No detail is too small--the first day he ever smoked a cigarette, an episode of food poisoning, a love letter.
The text is illustrated with a picture of her father and an odd flower. Late in life, he began painting floral patterns like the one depicted in the book. According to the Encyclopedia, his interest in painting paralleled the onset and progression of his cancer. In fact, the narrator learns that the flower in the book closely resembles the appearance of the sarcoma that claimed his life.
Three stories are intertwined in this complex novel; in the end, they become one. In a series of flashbacks, the elderly Iris Chase Griffen writes of her long life. At the outset, newspaper clippings present three tragic deaths from 1945 to 1975: sister, husband, and daughter.
Iris's pretty, younger sister, Laura, died at age 25 when she drove her car off a bridge. Two years later, Iris published Laura's novel, Blind Assassin, to critical acclaim, projecting the author to posthumous fame. Only weeks later, Iris was widowed when her husband drowned. Then many years later, Iris's daughter, Aimée, breaks her neck and dies from the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse. Iris also loses care of her only grandchild, four-year old Sabrina. Iris looks back on the circumstances before and after these deaths.
Growing up in small-town Ontario without a mother, Iris was expected to look after Laura. But the younger girl's guileless intensity inspired exasperation and jealousy, as well as affection. In the 1930s, the sisters managed to hide a young radical, Alex Thomas, in the family attic before he escaped to Spain; they both fell in love. But at age nineteen, Iris is forced to enter a joyless marriage to wealthy Richard Griffen out of obedience to her father who hoped that the union would save his factory. It did not.
Laura is bossed by the politically ambitious Richard and his domineering sister, Winifred. Defiance and maternity allow Iris to carve out her own space within the confines of the social situation. But she is increasingly estranged from the romantic, inscrutable Laura who is eventually sent to an "asylum" where she has an abortion. Upon her release, the sisters reconnect, only to hurt each other with painful revelations (unrevealed here to avoid spoiling the effect for readers; some will have guessed them in advance).
The other two of the three stories stem from Laura's acclaimed novel "Blind Assassin," parts of which are interspersed. On one level, it relates the passionate affair of a refined woman (very like the author) and a political fugitive (very like Alex) who meet in his sordid hiding places. On another level, it is an Ali Baba-esque fairy tale, invented by the lovers, about a cruel society in which child-labor, ritualistic rape, and human sacrifice are routine. The killers are children who have been blinded by their enforced work knotting beautiful rugs.
Leo comes back to sell off the run-down family farm on the Italian coast of Tuscany, hoping for enough to finance his return to Chicago. He is plagued by memories. A tour bus is lured into Santo Fico--by ruse or by accident--and once the British visitors are safely ensconced in the hotel restaurant, Leo and his old friend Topo launch into the lucrative scam that they invented as boys: storytelling to "sell" a viewing of treasures inside the local church.
The "miracle" is the stump of an ancient fig tree that once sheltered St Francis; and the "mystery" a luminous fresco by an anonymous artist, possibly Giotto. Leo is encouraged by his dramatic success. But in the night, an earthquake severely damages the church. Yielding to temptation, Leo "saves" the fresco by stealing it in large chunks and hiding it under his bed. Surely now he will have enough money to escape.
The old priest is grievously saddened and goes on a hunger strike to expiate his own sins, on which he blames the desecration. The priest is cared for by his niece, Marta. Embittered by her late husband's infidelity and early death, she frets over her two daughters: one dutiful but blind; the other healthy but headstrong. Marta already resents Leo for some transgression in their past; rightly guessing his crime, she demands that he "make a miracle" for the priest.
Topo and Leo invent several, ambitious but preposterous scenarios, each of which flops spectacularly. The priest good-naturedly overlooks (or fails to see) their transparent ploys; yet he manages to perceive miracles everywhere else in the everyday atmosphere of his beloved village. Of course, Leo returns the fresco, of course he stays, and of course he finds love with Marta after all.
The practice of medicine in equatorial Africa is both a challenge and an escape for Dr. Koestler. The physician from New Zealand works at a Global Aid mission in Zaire. He has toiled there a long time but is still a loner. His best friend appears to be a pet baboon named George Babbitt. The monkey drinks whiskey and smokes cigarettes. It is a clever creature with a mean streak and is generally despised by everyone except Koestler.
Two young American doctors arrive at the mission to assist Koestler. While the three physicians and the bush pilot drink whiskey and smoke marijuana, Koestler instructs the new doctors on some of the laws of jungle medicine: Use only disposable needles and then destroy them. Never transfuse a patient unless they require at least 3 units of blood (since all blood will likely be contaminated by Hepatitis B or HIV). Safe sex means no sex. Speed matters. Avoid getting involved because feelings will inevitably obstruct your work.
Although a leopard is roaming outside the confines of the mission, Koestler ventures into the darkness of the jungle to search for George Babbitt who has run off with a bottle of whiskey. In a locale teeming with life, the physician remains essentially alone--by choice.
Four soldiers with a similar wound--laryngeal damage after being shot in the throat--share a room in a German military hospital during World War I. Each of them has a tracheostomy tube, and they can only speak by covering the opening of the tube with a finger. Because every breath or laugh generates the sound of a little whistle, these men are dubbed "whistlers" and their hospital room is named after them. The injured soldiers are Pointner, Kollin, Benjamin, and an 18-year-old English prisoner of war, Harry Flint. They undergo a series of painful surgeries (without anesthesia) to dilate the narrowed and scarred air passage.
The surgeon, Dr. Quint, is a compassionate man with incredible physical strength. He holds the "whistlers" in high regard. They in turn venerate the devoted surgeon. Pointner and Kollin die. Surgery on Benjamin and Harry is successful and their tracheostomy tubes are removed. They can now breathe normally and soon discover their new voices.
A very old Navajo grandmother believes it is time her 10-year-old granddaughter, Annie, learns to weave. Gathering her family in the hogan, she asks each of them to choose a gift they wish to have (Annie’s eyes choose the weaving stick) as she announces to her family that when the weaving of the new rug is completed, she will go to Mother Earth.
Determined to delay her mother from finishing the rug, Annie plans her distractions. She acts out in school, letting the sheep out of their pen, and, most significantly, unravels at night what her mother had woven during the day. The adults catch on.
The Old One’s gentle explanations of nature’s ways--the inevitability of death and the ultimate connectedness of the whole universe--eventually comfort and inspire Annie: "The sun rose but it also set. The cactus did not bloom forever. Petals dried and fell to earth . . . She would always be a part of the earth, just as her grandmother had always been, just as her grandmother would always be, always and forever." Annie picks up her grandmother’s weaving stick, kneels at the loom and begins to weave "as her mother had done, as her grandmother had done."