Living with the dying

The Sickness
Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Maclehose Press; £12.99

“BLOOD is a terrible gossip, it tells everything.” This is the verdict of Dr Andrés Miranda, who has had a long relationship with illness.

Miranda’s passion is trying to understand the workings and limitation of the human body, but patients are a somewhat tiresome element of that. “Doing something to a living body,” we are told, “interfering with another’s breathing, intervening in another’s blood, invading another’s flesh was not an important part of his vocation”.

It is no surprise so that he views sickness in similar terms. It is “a mistake, a bureaucratic blunder on nature’s part, an absolute lack of efficiency,” and it is only when his own father is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer that he comes to understand illness on a more intimate level. Miranda, who has delivered such dreadful news many times, now finds himself incapable of telling someone so close to him that he are going to die.

A believable, sensitive mediation on love and loss, this debut novel from Venezuelan Alberto Barrera Tyszka proves to be an engaging, readable exploration of death and dying. The sickness of the title refers not only to that of Miranda’s father, but also to the hypochondria of another patient, the anxious, obsessive Ernesto Duran, who writes email after email to Miranda. Receiving no answer, he resolves to stalk the doctor not because he wants to, “but out of sheer desperation”.

Duran, of course, is perfectly healthy. Miranda has confirmed it many times, yet the notion that he is sick has become so integral to his personality that he cannot truly live without it. Where Miranda’s father wishes to be left alone, Duran demands attention, which he eventually receives from the hospital secretary Karina, who is slowly drawn into his world when she begins to write back under Miranda’s name.

Through the careful orchestration of these characters, Tyszka offers meticulous observations on the process of facing one’s greatest fears. Miranda, in particular, is a case study in denial. Trying literally to escape into the past, he takes his father on a trip to Isla Margarita where they once went when he was a child. It is a wonderful sequence, veering from the poignant to the comic and back again.

The novel is artfully translated by Margaret Jull Costa. It is this clarity which allows Miranda’s emotional turmoil to be so affecting and which heightens the effects of Duran’s increasingly desperate pleas. Through the lens of Tyszka’s vivid writing, Miranda comes to understand he must tell the truth to the man who raised him just as his stalker and secretary come to realise that their true motivations lie not in mania or altruism, but in loneliness.

It is difficult to recommend the book without a caveat however: the painfully studied demise of Miranda’s father may upset some readers as Tyszka’s great skill is to evoke an emotional response from a series of lightly sketched but nonetheless highly believable epiphanies. Indeed, the characters here only grow through their burgeoning awareness of mortality, something which results in a story which is as true to death as it is to life.

Ultimately, it is a tragic novel, albeit one with considerable heart.


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