A Novel of Fatherhood
by Giuseppe Pontiggia
Review Charlie Dickinson
translation by Oonagh Stransky
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, 192 pp., ISBN: 0-375-41310-3
first novel translated into English is a confessional memoir by the father
of a developmentally-disabled son. Told thirty years after son Paolo's
birth, BORN TWICE recounts with absorbing precision how the father changed,
coped, and celebrated his son's "birth in life." As a doctor
wisely advised the parents of three-month old Paolo: "These children
are born twice. They have to learn to get by in a world that their first
birth made difficult for them. Their second birth depends on you, on what
you can give them...."
Somewhat slim at 192 pages, the often short chapters (38 in total) make
for an episodic and chronologically jumpy account of what actually happens
to the son. That is, BORN TWICE is less about the son's life and more
about the psychological history of one father who realized a richer fatherhood
than he might have expected.
Articulate and intelligent, Professor Frigerio wins us over with compelling
honesty about numerous internal conflicts and external clashes he fought
to be a good father. He shares guilt with us: Did having an affair while
his wife was pregnant cause her to have labor complications? He tells
of bargaining with the Almighty for Paolo's partial recovery from his
disability. He tells of medical arrogance in the name of supposed authority.
A leisurely read fashioned with exquisite control of language, BORN TWICE
gives meditations upon seemingly every issue that might attend what at
first glance would seem a hopeless family tragedy.
Ultimately, however, we witness a father's love helping the son transcend
his disability, to realize what the words of the dedication to BORN TWICE
say, "For the disabled who struggle not to be normal but to be themselves."
But as the professor emphasizes, there is another thread to the story
about his Paolo. And that is the story of what Paolo gives to his father.
In numerous vignettes about the truth of disability, we learn it's not
inability, but more different ability. In the diversity of human experience,
the professor notes ability is relative and cites Paolo's abilities that
he personally lacks.
Reading BORN TWICE brought to mind that Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe's
life during the last thirty years has similarities to Professor Frigerio's.
Oe's son Hikari, born mentally retarded, developed a special facility
for composing short musical compositions (Oe recalls young Hikari was
especially fascinated with the singing of birds). Like his father who
was awarded the 1994 Nobel laureate in literature, Hikari Oe is also an
award-winner: His 1992 CD Music of Hikari Oe won Japan's top prize for
classical recording of the year. Echoing the fictional Professor Frigerio,
Kenzaburo Oe is convinced his son helped him gain a deeper appreciation
for the mystery of human life.
For the reader who wants a moving account, however, of the fatherhood
experience enriched by an exceptional, though nominally "disabled"
son, BORN TWICE is the book to reach for. For the reader who wants to
learn more about what the exceptional, if disabled, can achieve, search
out accounts of Hikari Oe on the Web or read ROUSE UP, O YOUNG MEN OF
THE NEW AGE by Kenzaburo Oe (English translation ,2002) for that novel
incorporates many autobiographical elements of the Oe's lives together
as father and son. And, yes, both Giuseppe Pontiggia and Kenzaburo Oe
are to be praised for being witnesses to the fullness and diversity of
human experience in the particular of those we must not ignore.
© Charlie Dickinson
< Reply to this Article