Country Focus: Venezuela
By Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Introduction by Chris Adrian
Originally published in Spanish as La Enfermadad by Editorial Anagrama, 2006.
My edition: TinHouse Books, 2012
Time period: Contemporary
About the author: Barrera Tyszka teaches at the Central University of Venezuela and writes a column for the daily newspaper El Nacional. He co-authored a biography of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, which has been translated into English (see “Keep Reading!” below).
World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
In The Sickness, two interweaving parallel plots explore the psychological effects of illness on caregivers. In the first, Dr. Andrés Miranda finds out that his father has terminal lung cancer. He’s not sure how break this terrible news to his father, and he’s even less sure about what to say or do after. In the second, Dr. Miranda’s secretary Karina takes pity on persistent ex-patient Ernesto Duran, a hypochondriac who’s convinced he’s dying of a mysterious disease. Despite Dr. Miranda’s order to cut off all contact with Duran, Karina surreptitiously answers Duran’s emails in the hopes of dialing down his mania.
Barrera Tyszka’s fast pacing imbues The Sickness—particularly the latter plot—with the feel of a low-key suspense novel. It’s his keen and unsentimental handling of the first (and more resonant) storyline that elevates the book to a higher plane. Although his characters confront hard realities, their compassion for each other leaves the reader with a positive feeling. Perhaps this wry statement by Dr. Miranda will explain: “Don’t be so solemn about it, it’s not so bad. That’s why we live, in order to get ill.”
“What went wrong?” he seemed to be asking himself. He had sidestepped time rather successfully. Everything had been going relatively well until, one afternoon, that inexplicable fainting fit had stopped him in his tracks. It was that brief wavering of his equilibrium that had brought him to this place and abruptly transformed him into this weak, wounded, small—yes, smaller—person. The words “Sickness is the mother of modesty” came unbidden to Andrés’s mind. They appear in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. It’s required reading in the first term of medical school. The quote bothered him though. It struck him as not so much sad as stupid; behind it lay the desire to make of sickness a virtue. He looked at his father again. Isn’t sickness a humiliation rather than a virtue?
Venezuelan writers need to be translated!