The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – The Sickness
The Sickness, Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s first novel, cannot be accused of false advertising, being, exactly as it states, a meditation on sickness. There is not even any hint of the metaphorical associations that the word may have in English: this is a novel about illness and how we cope with it. Tyszka sets out to explore sickness through two linked stories. The first tells of a doctor, Andres Miranda, who discovers his father is dying from cancer; the second, told largely through a series of e-mails, focuses on one of Miranda’s patients, Ernesto Duran, whose belief in his own illness is at odds with that of his doctor. In this way, Tyszka examines not only sickness, but the relationships it creates.
Miranda first discovers his father’s illness when he insists on a series of tests following a faint. As he discusses with a fellow doctor, the tests are conclusive:
“If he weren’t my father…you and I would have looked at the plates and concluded that there was no hope, that it’s the mother of all tumours, that the patient is basically screwed.”
Miranda now has to decide whether he should tell his father or not. In theory, he believes this is the right thing to do:
“It’s what I’ve always said, the position I’ve always defended: the transparent relationship between doctor and patient.”
This also includes telling patients when there is nothing wrong with them. One such case is Ernesto Duran, a patient whom Miranda now refuses any contact with believing him to be entirely healthy. Duran’s regular e-mails are read only by Miranda’s secretary, Karina. Duran has come to believe that only Miranda’s reassurance that he is well will prevent his sickness:
“But that is what I felt, that if I didn’t talk to you, I would pass out wherever I happened to be. I felt that I depended on you, that you were my guarantee that I wouldn’t collapse on the floor that very instance.”
When he writes, “I have a confession to make. I’m following you,” Karina takes fright and begins to reply to his e-mails as Miranda. For much of the novel, the two main relationships are therefore based on dishonesty: Duran believing he is communicating with Miranda, and Miranda taking a trip with his father without having shared his diagnosis. However, Tyszka is not one for melodrama and, while the dishonesty creates much of the novel’s tension, the author is not preaching at us. When Karina reveals her deception, Duran decides to continue to believe it is Miranda who is e-mailing him. When Miranda finally tells his father, his reaction is both realistic and ambiguous, making it clear that Tyszka is not offering us easy solutions. When asked whether he would have preferred not to know:
“His father stood for a moment pondering the question, as if the question were a peach stone under his tongue. Then, sadly, he went up to the door and into the building.”
Tyszka immediately moves into Miranda’s father’s point of view, and the novel moves on to deal with the questions that arise when death is certain.
The novel’s strength, a quiet and thoughtful examination of an area of life that is not frequently explored by literature (and, when it is, is often used as a metaphor for something else) is also its weakness. Characters tend to frequently generalise from their experiences, for example Miranda’s father thinking about his final weeks:
“That is another of the consequences of being ill: the private agony becomes a collective ceremony.”
The reaction is no doubt typical; the aphoristic phrasing is probably not. Tyszka also scatters the novel with quotations on illness:
“The words “Sickness is the mother of modesty” came unbidden into Andres’ mind. They appear in Roberts Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy published in 1621.”
While it’s possible that Miranda, as doctor, might have these quotations floating around in his head, and it illustrates a certain intellectual detachment in his character, it seems unlikely he would provide his own bibliography.
That said, The Sickness is a thoughtful and, at times, moving novel, and well worth its place on the long list.