[DEHAI] (Guardian - UK) Stitching up the surgeon's life - by Aida Edemariam

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From: Biniam Tekle (biniamt@dehai.org)
Date: Mon May 11 2009 - 10:59:09 EDT

Stitching up the surgeon's life
A story of Ethiopia's past half-century impresses Aida Edemariam

Aida Edemariam
The Guardian,
Saturday 9 May 2009

Abraham Verghese, an Indian, grew up in Addis Ababa, has lived in Madras and
various cities in America, and thus, regardless of temperament, would always
have felt something of a watchful outsider. This first novel was preceded by
two non-fiction books: The Tennis Partner, about his distressing friendship
with a drug addict and fellow doctor, and My Own Country, a memoir of
working with Aids patients in a conservative southern US town. Some of the
best passages in all three books are those in which he reads the language of
the body - its colours and betraying odours, its telltale pulses - and the
emotions that obscure and interrupt that language.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Chatto & Windus,£17.99Buy Cutting Stone at the Guardian bookshopCutting for
Stone - the phrase is from the Hippocratic oath - is about twins born joined
at the head, in a mission hospital in Addis Ababa half a century ago. Their
mother, a nun from Madras, does not survive the birth. Their father, a
British surgeon called Thomas Stone, cannot bear the loss and flees, so
Marion and Shiva are raised by two Indian doctors in the hospital where
their parents worked; both become surgeons. Verghese carefully (and
sometimes rather unbelievably - he is unapologetic about coincidences)
interweaves their story with that of Ethiopia's past half-century. About
three-quarters of the way through, the book moves to the US - as many
Ethiopians did, after the revolution that replaced the emperor with a
Marxist/military regime.

While I don't know Verghese personally, I know the streets and shops he
evokes, the hospitals; I know that his setting, seemingly so rich and
strange, is real. Only occasionally is there a wrong note or
mis-transcription from Amharic. In fact, when I worried about anything it
was for the opposite reason: when one twin becomes famous abroad for his
fistula operations, it felt rather too much of an appropriation of the
achievements of Reginald and Catherine Hamlin, the latter of whom was
nominated for a Nobel peace prize. Surely there were other procedures to
choose from? It is a little strange to move major revolutions by a year or
two, just to suit your plot. And there is too unquestioning a reliance on
Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor; Kapuscinski was himself an observer from
another land, and he had his own agenda. (As, apparently, did whoever
designed the cover: it's the worst kind of laziness to depict an "African
coastline" as if everything on that continent were interchangeable - never
mind that it's a book set in cities. What coast there was, until Eritrea
gained independence in 1991, consisted of desert and volcanic rock rather
than lush palm trees; Ethiopia no longer has a coast at all.)

But all the rich detail in the world is as nothing if you don't have command
of emotion and narrative. One could argue, given everything from ER to
House, that medicine cannot help but be dramatic, but that isn't necessarily
true: Verghese's achievement is to make the reader feel there really is
something at stake - birth, love, death, war, loyalty. There's no smug
postmodern self-undermining (otherwise known as irony) here: the mythic
arises seamlessly from the quotidian; telepathy or saintly intercessions are
simply accepted - as they often are in Ethiopian life. You conserve pages
because you don't want it to end.

But irony is a useful thing, too, when considered as an ability to hold
contradictory meanings in suspension. Richard Eyre compared this book to
Chekhov and Shakespeare, an enthusiasm presumably prompted by the variety
and colour of Verghese's world, its earthiness and drama, its concreteness
of detail and unselfconscious swing. And this, often accompanied by a real
delicacy and honesty, is pleasing, but there was an extra element I missed:
a serious playfulness of meaning, a compassion arising from an understanding
of perspective and of all that cannot be controlled.

This is a book narrated by a surgeon, and structured as a surgeon might
structure it: after the body has been cut open and explored everything is
returned to its place and carefully sutured up - which is not, in the end,
how life actually works. And, like surgery, there's a certain brutality
involved, particularly evident in the novel's gender politics. Of course the
narrator arises from a patriarchal society, but it is difficult not to feel
discomfited by the fact that the virgin/whore/mother/passive sufferer roles
of the women (particularly the Ethiopian women, who are prostitutes, or
servants, or simply available and, if not, righteously punished for their
wilfulness) are so unquestioned.

A major strand of the plot is the love that one twin, Marion, has for a girl
he knows from childhood, Genet; but there is surprisingly little imaginative
projection of what Genet might feel. Which of course is a character's
prerogative - except that it was a niggle I had with The Tennis Partner as
well: Verghese was recklessly honest about his feelings and vulnerabilities,
but there might have been a bit more sympathy for what his friend was
suffering. Perhaps this is a function of the detachment of observation and,
specifically, a medical manifestation of it: a doctor must be the most
attentive observer, but also, ultimately, a judge as well. And that is a
tricky place for a novelist to occupy.

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