The Sickness, by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, winner of the Herralde Prize, turns out to be a worthwhile read. A book designed for a cold winter night, sitting next to a fireplace with a glass of quality brandy and a good cigar roasting between your fingers. At 180 pages, it is short enough to finish during a cold evening and into the night. Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s prose is elegant. The story moves placidly like a small boat on its way into the unknown, gently flowing among the dark waves and turbulent waters that surround it. However small in stature, The Sickness, tackles the heaviest of issues, illness and death, with the courage not to hold anything back. As a reader your transplanted from your surroundings, into the world of death’s cruel calling for the life of an elderly man, and its effects on a strong body, a healthy mind, and, a happy family.
The novel is set in Caracas Venezuela. The main character is self-centered Dr. Andres Miranda, who’s father, Javier Miranda, is stricken with advanced stages of brain cancer. The discovery of the condition, is brought on by recent loses of balance, forgetfulness, and vomiting, that are experienced more frequently in Javier Miranda’s everyday life. Dr. Andres, performs blood work to diagnose, his father’s symptoms, which comes back normal. Being a studious doctor, Dr. Andres digs farther, and persuades his old man to take numerous MRIs and X-rays. Through these images, developed after the procedure and his colleague’s expertise, Dr Andres concludes that his father is in stage IV spinocellular carcinoma, with cerebral metastasis.
With the groundwork laid out, the presence of death, seeps inside the pores of every page. Death is imminent, and the reader is aware of this from the opening pages. The awareness of it, conquers your optimism, and takes you on a dark ride into the psychological and physical torments, that come with the territory. Like a horse in a race with blinders on, you’re able to shut out all hope of a happy ending, and, devote all your energy to understanding the vast scope of the topic, that Tyszka is about to unveil in the following pages.
The topic of terminal illness is unveiled, at first from the view of the son, Dr. Andres. Being surrounded by illness, in his working environment, fails to prepare Dr. Andres, to come to grips with it on a personal level. There is no nurse or social worker, he can send to face his fathers loving gaze, while disclosing to him, the unfortunate findings. The responsibility squarely falls on his own shoulders. The inability, to come to terms with it on a personal level, to face his father with the news, to imagine the world without him, forces Dr, Andres to buy time. This is done through lies and deception. Dr. Andrew shrinks under the pressure, a coward of sorts. As the days follow one another his lies become more extravagant, and encompass more people. Javier Miranda, must learn of his fate, not through the strength of his only son’s character, but through the transparency of his weakness.
“Javier Miranda stared at him, astonished, overwhelmed. He appeared to be trembling or trying hard to keep his body from trembling. He bowed his head, turned, and walked off into the shadow” p. 119
Javier Miranda is finally told of the severity of his condition, on the boat ride back, from a trip of deception. His son comes clean, opens up, and reveals his weakness along with the web of lies he weaved to protect it. The moment of truth, knocks Javier Miranda of his axis. He spins out of control and never regains the equilibrium to enjoy the little time left on this earth. While the illness weakens his body, depression conquers his mind. After the trip Javier shuts Andres out completely, and lives in secrecy. Javier closes his heart to his son, and the men drift farther apart. The act put on by Javier is childish (But isn’t it often found that older people resemble kids). Instead of taking comfort in family, he searches for comfort in a poor maid, and a support group, full of lost souls from various paths of life, seeking answers from a self help guru. Does he do this because he feels he can’t trust his only son anymore?
There are things to like about these characters, as well (Not all is bad). The relationship they shared after the loss of the mother and wife in a plane crash. The admirable father that Javier has been in raising Andres. The old school values of loving only one women in a lifetime, displayed by Javier and later followed by Andres. The prototype son, Andres, has matured into through the strength of a special bond father and son have established. There are positive qualities within the pages to seek out for a man. However these qualities establish themselves only through Dr. Miranda’s memories of the past. They are found in glimpses of memory.
The juxtaposition of the good/past with the deteriorating/present, aids Tyszka in the work, to demonstrate the raw power of illness. The cancer conquers a strong foundation that took a lifetime to build. A foundation that overcame all challenges.
Dr. Andres had always found strength in his father, the lack of strength, jeopardized by cancer, leads to everything unravelling, as answers turn into questions.
“For the first time, it occurs to him that the illness might take away from himself and his father something he had never thought it would: conversation, the ability to talk to each other. The illness is destroying their words as well.” p. 154
Especially lost is Andres when he discovers his father’s affair. The affair forces him to question everything he ever knew about his father. The affair is discovered from a mysterious phone call that leads to the love letters hidden in Javiers’ bedside stand. He tracks the women down through half a dry cleaning ticket, that was used by his fathers lover to write love notes. The woman (Ines Pacheco) shuts the door on him, without offering any insight. When he talks about the events with Javier, there is no answers to be found in the frail human. Just resignation to the illness and the wish for it all to end. With every day closer to death, Andres is more confused, Javier more depressed and weak.
The story ends, quite sadly, at Javiers bedside. The dying man’s last request is to hear his son’s stories of the past as the illness finishes him off. Dr. Andres how ever stays true to his character with tears and self pity. He is choked up by the very tears, and unable to talk. Unable to grant his father’s last wish.
“Talk to me,” he says again. “Don’t let me die in silence.” p. 188
The gripping relationship between father and son, the honest view of illness, the clever quotes found almost on every page of the text, the beautiful prose used to describe a dark and hopeless situation, the punch the work packs in 180 pages, the lessons of life hidden in the pages, are all reasons this work is high of praise. However as a reader I would hate to think that illness is able to destroy a person so quickly, to corrupt him to the point, where his lifetime of work is torn down by his self undoings through bad judgement and moral character. I hated how the characters behaved themselves, and can’t help to think that Tyszka, to paint the horrid picture of the concerned topic, needed to use such improbable characters (Just as a painter may need to use certain colors to paint a specific picture). Because if this is how we die, and comfort loved ones as they leave us, then we all need to do a better job.