The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps
By Diogo Mainardi
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Other Press, 2014
166 pages, $14.99
Reviewed by Nathan Leslie
- Diogo Mainardi’s son Tito has cerebal palsy.
- Diogo Mainardi has written a compelling memoir, The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps in 424 brief snippets (steps) about his son’s cerebral palsy—all of which is really less about his son’s cerebral palsy, per se, and more about the author’s riffs on his son’s cerebral palsy. This is one of those books. You know the type—The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, How Proust Can Change Your Life. Pomo as hell—with a list structure at the core, multiple visual implants, graphs, asides, connections, allusions, footnotes. It pushes the envelope, but in a congenial, easily-digestible manner.
- The author riffs wide and far—Rembrant, Vincent Price, Neil Young, John Ruskin, Christy Brown, The Pogues, X-Box (Assassin’s Creed II), Hitchcock, Abbott and Costello, and so on.
- At 166 pages, the book is a quick read. One could likely finish the entire kit and caboodle waiting for the dermatologist.
- Initially Mainardi sounds a bit callous, though “bristling” may be a better word. Annoyed. Peeved, even.
- However, his memoir generally moves from anger to acceptance to a kind of blissful happiness.
- The listing technique is effective in that it captures Tito’s steps (the number thereof) as he walks with his father through Venice. Venice plays a key role in this memoir. However, the steps are a chance for the father to ruminate. He ruminates quickly.
- The beach of Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro also plays a key role.
- Mainardi’s riffs are frequently circular in nature, like running jokes. One of the repeated concepts is blaming Tito’s cerebral palsy on ______________ (as in, fill in the). Pietro Lombardo, an amnihook (he explains), Napoleon. And so on.
- Another circular riff connects the author to an artist or architect or significant famous person in terms of their equivalent devotion/fascination. #129: “I am the Claude Monet of cerebal palsy. Tito is my water lily.” #119: “I am the Simon Wiesenthal of cerebral palsy. Josef Mengele is dead. Tito is alive.” Like that.
- The author also riffs recurrently on food that killed significant famous people (Christy Brown’s pork chop, for instance), falling, and of course, toward the end of the book especially the process of walking.
- The repetition is meant to reflect the circularity of Tito’s story, which it does. It circles and circles and circles. It may also grow tiresome or gimmicky to certain readers.
- Mainardi is a proud father, as indicated by the many pictures of his son—often walking.
- This is not a politically correct book. The author refers to his son as “a cripple” and “deformed.” He is not unloving, just making a point by leaving his words unminced. The point has to do, it seems, with how those of less than “normal” physical or mental capacities were treated in the past—he lingers on the Third Reich and Ezra Pound’s vile quotations in particular.
- In a previous era, Tito would not be allowed to live, the author makes clear. “In one of his experiments, Josef Mengele selected two boys—one of whom was disabled—and cut them in half lengthways with a scalpel. Then he sewed one child to the other: back to back…as if they were Siamese twins.” One of these unfortunate children was also named Tito.
- The book is inventive and quirky, qualities I enjoy especially in an author with whose work I am unfamiliar. The book stayed with me, left a pleasant aftertaste.
- The allusions and connections mirror the process of surfing the web. We never stay with one thought too long, but rather bounce around. The numbered “steps” are like so many abbreviated Wikipedia entries, blended with the author’s experience with his son. And like the Internet, The Fall is highly visual and acquiescent.
- I was glad to read Mainardi refer to the issue of exploitation in the latter stages of the book. Throughout the first portion of The Fall a queasy feeling kept bubbling up in my intestinal regions and I didn’t have a name for it. But when Mainardi mentioned the E word, the pieces came together for me. “I exploited Tito’s cerebral palsy and I continue to exploit it,” he writes.
- He comes to this realization, in particular, when reflecting on Rembrandt, who the author claims similarly exploited his son Titus—Rembrandt’s primary model for portraits. Mainardi’s means of exploitation have to do with using his son as the subject matter for his weekly column in a Brazilian periodical. Also, this book.
- It is important that Mainardi acknowledges this—he is nothing if not honest throughout The Fall. Whether it is true or not is up to the reader, but at least he points to the possibility. And it is a possibility.
- The conclusion of The Fall leaves the reader with the strong impression that the author has transcended his anger at his son’s condition and entered a period of full embrace. “Fatherhood became my ideology,” he writes.
- This is less a study of the experience of cerebral palsy—either for Tito or his son and more a reflection about the historical and personal context around Tito’s condition.
- If you want the former, Mainardi has certainly given the reader a working bibliography.
- The Fall is a compelling read and I recommend it, if for nothing more than a taste of something different. Form meets function In Mainardi’s The Fall—quite well indeed.