Friday, December 18, 2009

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

In the early 1990s, when I first discovered Tracy Kidder, I inhaled The Soul of a New Machine, House, Among Schoolchildren, and Old Friends. While I was spending months reading Kidder, Deogratias, the young Burundian man who is the subject of Kidder's newest book, was spending months trying escape genocide and civil war in his home country and neighboring Rwanda. Deo eventually found his way to the United States, and the first half of Strength in What Remains intercuts Deo's memories of his youth, his flight, and his early years in New York.

Deo's youth in a cowherding Tutsi family was certainly challenging, but he pursued an education and was a medical student interning in a rural hospital when the killing began. The story of what happened to Deo during the months he was fleeing is harrowing, perhaps only bearable because Kidder presents the events in a matter-of-fact tone. When Deo happens upon a baby clinging to the breast of its dead mother (one of many dead bodies at the site) and must leave the baby because he cannot help it, the horror is overwhelming. It is not surprising to learn that this is one of the incidents that haunts Deo a decade later, when he is still struggling to reconcile what he experienced with the possibility of living some kind of normal life.

Even when he reached the United States, Deo faced years of struggle--he slept in Central Park for some months; worked delivering groceries for a pittance, many days barely eating; and spent hours in the library and Barnes and Noble, surrounded by books he couldn't read but that still provided comfort. Despite the truly awful things he experienced, Deo was in some ways lucky. He survived an attack on the hospital where he was working because he forgot to shut and lock the door when he hid under the bed--the open door convinced the militia that he had fled. Other people repeatedly reached out to help him, both in Burundi and New York. Indeed, a former nun named Sharon found a couple, the Wolfs, who took Deo in and became his de facto parents, helping him enter Columbia University.

The first half of the book is written as though Kidder simply took the story as Deo told it to him and reframed it in third person, without interpretation. In the second half of the book, Tracy Kidder enters the story as an authorial presence. In 2003, Kidder met Deo in Boston, where he was studying public health and working for Paul Farmer at Partners in Health (the person and organization who were the subject of Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains). In this section, Kidder, writing in the first person, describes visiting significant sites in New York with Deo and then spends an extended period on a trip to Africa that he took with Deo in 2006. Deo was by then a medical student at Dartmouth but was also trying to build a clinic in the small community in Burundi where his parents were living. Here, Kidder shares his own interpretation of Deo's actions and explores the conflicting needs to forget and to remember.

Strength in What Remains (the title is from a Wordsworth poem) is a powerful work. The first part of the book becomes more and more difficult to read as we learn more about what Deo endured. I was grateful for Kidder's presence in the second half , helping me make sense of Deo's experiences and, perhaps, protecting me from their weight. And Deo himself is an inspiration, scarred but not broken, able to move to what Kidder calls "that place beyond horror," a place that few of us can imagine.

Favorite passages:

Deo looked forward to those times after sunset, when, all the chores done, his grandfather would tell stories, out in the mountains and especially back in Butanza. Children were warned not to traffic in made-up stories during daylight hours. If you did, you'd never grow up, the adults said. But fictions were permitted at nighttime, especially stories told by elders.

Nothing had come of the threat. It was like the noise one hears lying in bed at night, a noise outside the house. As time goes by you doubt the noise was real, and then again you don't.

I imagined him sitting late at night in one of Butler Library's twenty-four-hour study rooms, poring over the likes of Kant and Hume and Plato, his favorite of all the philosophers he read, looking for a means to close the gap between what he'd experienced and what he was able to say, looking for something reliable in a world that had become untrustworthy, looking for some sort of structured belief, some grand encyclopedia with an index in which he could look up "genocide" and learn where it fit in the universe. He was, I imagined, looking for an antidote to loneliness, both cosmic and personal. And needless to say, he hadn't quite found it.

A lot of Western thought and psychological advice assume that it is is healthy to flush out and dissect one's memories, and maybe this is true. And yet for all that, I began to have a simultaneous and opposite feeling: that there was such a thing as too much remembering, that too much of it could suffocate a person, and indeed a culture. Our tour of sites began to seem relentless. Observing Deo's endlessly renewed sorrow, I found myself thinking that there was something also to be said for a culture with a word like gusimbura.

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