Me, Who Dove into
The Heart of the World
Lisa Dillman, Translator
(Henry Holt)Karen Nieto is autistic. This means that in IQ tests they class her as "idiot." Her fellow students often remind her that she is thus an idiot, as do her teachers.
Also, being autistic, she doesn't like being touched, has her own language (often repeating words), maintains distance from other people, is very very literal, and misses things like body language ("Please express your objection in words; I don't understand the language of arm-waving," she says to an angry man.) But, like her fellow autistics, she has surprising areas of pure genius. In her case, it has to do with tuna fish.
Yes, tuna fish. Seems her aunt owns a tuna fish plant in Matzalán, and Karen who feels at one with all living creatures (outside of humans) comes up with an idea for undersea cages --- thirty of them --- where tuna can thrive in a paradise garden. There they'll grow fat and complacent and kick out the dolphins and begin to breed in the wild again.
Me Who Dove has several subplots, for this is not a simple tale of people getting rich running a tuna factory in Mexico. For example, we get to know --- in spades --- Karen's autism and its concomitant anxieties. If one doesn't care to touch or be touched, how does one deal with the complexities of human interaction? How does one, for instance, handle the simple handshake?
Karen is on business in Japan --- don't ask how she got there --- and is determined to break herself of the disgust she feels when she is called upon to shake hands. The first time around makes her vomit. Second time, she starts in by concentrating on counting the five finger bones. She finds that if she thinks only of these bones anchored to the wrist, she can tamp down her feeling of revulsion.
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There have been a few sensitive fictional accounts of the life of the autistic. There is Temple Grandin's Thinking In Pictures from twenty years ago, and another more recent novel by Sharon Heath, A History of My Body --- her obsession being "relativistic and nonrelativistic quantum mechanics, with a special interest in Schrodinger operations." This present volume overshadows these others with its delicate edge of whimsy. Karen finds unusual connections in her world. For instance she surmises that all Japanese "have a high degree of autism:"
They don't shake hands. They greet each other from a distance, nodding their heads. They are either sweet and as friendly as little ducklings or as ferocious as sharks. And they are more attentive to things than they are to people.
Berman has the happy ability to draw us so far into Karen's world that we become a bit autistic, too. Karen's direct, no-nonsense aunt Isabelle --- fading out towards the end as her memory abandons her --- turns autistic in her final days on earth. She opines that "in their relationship to nonhumans, civilized humans are all autistic."
In her last words she crowns her niece as the one on whom we can pin all our hopes for mankind: "You," she says to Karen,
who are not alienated from slaughterhouses or from shit, who didn't let anyone separate you from Nature, who uses language but can leave language behind for hours, for days, you're my hope for the human race.
Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World has many sweet touches like this. There's Karen's love affair with Charles Darwin (she can recite the first three chapters of On the Origin of Species by heart). There is a gentle mockery of eco-terrorists ... who blow up the family tuna plants and kidnap her. There's a sly passage on the anthropomorphism of ants: Being human, we have to ask "who's the boss of this society?" Of course we concentrate on the one "who doesn't do anything and everyone attends to" who "must be the boss, and they called her queen."
§ § §
Me Who Dove has a great, jokey ending. Karen reveals herself to be the author of the book (Ms. Berman tells us) and questions herself as to how she should title it. She makes a list. (Autistics are evidently great at making lists.) Her #1 title is Me and the Tuna. Then there's #3: I Am, Therefore (and with Difficulty) I think. (She has a special loathing for Descartes.)
And finally, for #5, she comes up with Me Who Dove. But then, "It sounds odd, I think. It's grammatically incorrect or something. I don't know." So, she tells us, the title will somehow encompass
the final phase of the only original idea I've ever had in my life, an experience that I decided not to recount out of modesty.
This is offered to us, mind you, on the ultimate pages of a book that is the recounting, in wonderful detail, of that all too original idea.--- Lee-Anne Winters