Bury the dead and Mend the living – réparer les vivants (The Heart/Mend the living by Maylis de Kérangal, book review)

My grandmother mentionned this book to me, a while ago. She said “it’s a book about a heart transplant, it is well written, you should read it”. I know one should always listen to one’s grandmother, and that I in particular should have paid attention because when my grandmother finds a book well written she usually means business (she’s hard to please, in the best of ways of course), but in that case I heard the part “it’s about a heart transplant ergo it is for you” and was – at the time – tired of reading books about medicine. Well, I picked it up despite it and, of course, my grandmother was right. This truly has, as a main subject, the heart of Simon, a young man who dies suddenly, and what becomes of it in the rushed hours after death, when it is decided that it could be transplanted. And from this death – the surreality of it, for the parents, who have to grasp what a cerebral death is, the enormity of grief, the impossibility of death for the living, the young, the healthy, to the symbolic meaning of the heart as much more than a pump, and the difficulty of the decision of donating, for the family, it covers a mountain in a few pages. Everything is true, is well said, in sentences flowing in a fast heart beat, nothing is superfluous, nothing is romanticized but, in this short window in the life and death of a few people, everything is there. And as it ends, leaving you breathless and unsure of the future of this heart beating anew in another person’s thorax, and wanting to carry on with the parents of this young man, the nurses and doctors you meet briefly but who are all so real, so raw, you realize your own heart has been beating frantically with it, all along. 

I could go on and talk specifics but I think the simple truth is there: listen to my grandmother, folks, as for once a french book I’m raving about has been translated (the title is alternatively (I guess there must be a US and UK title) The Heart:a novel or Mend the living, which is much closer to the original title and echoes a quote from Platonov that one of the characters has kept with him: Burry the dead, mend the living. A noble pursuit.


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