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Every few years without any fanfare, a book comes along and quietly announces itself to its fortunate readers: something sui generis, original, defying common precepts of what the reader believes he is reading. Lucky me, I’ve just read Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall, which fits into this category. The publisher refers to the book as a memoir; yet it reads more like fiction than fact (though I know that isn’t so) because the unique structuring of the narrative progresses as the narrator, Mainardi, who is Brazilian, relates the gorgeously loving story of his attachment to his son, born with cerebral palsy. If you have read Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree (his brilliant study of families adjusting to children who are born “different” than their parents), you already have a context for The Fall. It’s love, the extraordinary feeling that can develop between parent and child, once the initial shock of the birthing difficulties are understood.
Nor is/was it always this easy—far from it. Mainardi refers to Hitler’s euthanasia program, instigated in 1939, with Gerhard Kretschmar’s elimination after the child was born with several deformities. The boy’s father wrote that “the Führer was very, very interested in my son’s case. The Führer wanted to solve the problem of people who had no future, whose lives were worthless. That is why he had granted a merciful death to our son. Later on, we would be able to have other perfectly healthy children of whom the Reich would be proud.” Euthanasia for such children (and those with other difficulties, such as cerebral palsy) was the context that prevailed in many countries, not just Germany; it’s the on-going shock and re-education for many parents that Andrew Solomon writes about throughout his lengthy book.
Even before Mainardi and his wife went to the hospital—the beautiful Scuola Grande di San Marco, in Venice—for her delivery, he had worries about possible complications. The hospital was, in fact, notorious for its medical mistakes. Why then go to that hospital? He told himself, it’s a simple delivery. How difficult can that be? Well, just about everything that could go wrong did and the child lost oxygen for just long enough that he was born with complications. Reproducing an image of the heart monitor for “the exact moment when asphyxia caused a dramatic fall” in his son’s heart rate, Mainardi describes this as “the first of his falls. The original fall.”
The fall or—more accurately the falls—is what Mainardi’s book is about, for this amazing parent was determined that his son, Tito, would walk, in spite of numerous clinicians telling the parents that there son never would. Mainardi had a series of walkers built for his son, increasing in size, as the boy grew larger. “Anna [his wife] and I learned to celebrate each step taken by Tito, however wobbly.” There were multiple mishaps, initially resulting in minor injuries. But, then, with his father walking behind him, slowly Tito not only increased his steps but he learned how to fall so that he wouldn’t hurt himself. He, also, learned how to talk after his younger brother was born. That was when he was four. And then, the initial steps by him began. First 16 steps; then 27; then 27 became 44; 71; 118. And finally, when he was about ten, 424 steps, unassisted. A minor miracle.
What is so marvelous about The Fall is the author’s daring juxtaposition of images (mostly photographs or paintings but also newspaper articles and charts) that accompany his story of his son’s 424 steps. There are images of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, designed by Pietro Lombardo, in 1489. Multiple photographs of Tito growing up, even one of an amnihook, the instrument that the doctor used during his son’s delivery, rupturing the amniotic sac. And there are so many references to historical figures who wrote about the Scuola Grande (such as John Ruskin), but also citations to Abbott and Costello and their multiple hijinks that led to numerous falls; even photos and references to Christy Brown and accounts of how he overcame his own birth defects. It’s a funny, sad complication of slapstick and tragedy, though the latter is never permitted to dominate the story. There’s never any pity, which is extraordinary.
Mainardi stopped writing fiction, but wrote about his son’s progress frequently in the articles he wrote weekly for a Brazilian newspaper and—finally—in this glorious celebration of care and his affection for his son, composed of 424 brief, numbered sections of the story of his son’s rebirth and, one might say, flight.
Father and son never gave up and if that isn’t an example of faith (without the religion) I don’t know what is.
Once again, Margaret Jull Costa, the translator, shows her stuff.
Diogo Mainardi: The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps
Trans. By Margaret Jull Costa
Other Press, 169 pp., $20.00
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.