The Art of Death
Writing the Final Story
Ms. Danticat has written a short, self-referent book on . . . well . . . the one thing that proves that exercise, healthy food, giving up smoking, and living clean are, in the end, a pipe dream. It takes, we believe, someone with a fair-sized belief in their ability with words to tackle this, and to further believe that they can indeed capture the Art of it. For many of us, the art of death may mean evading it as long as possible until the body says, "I shudda stood in bed"
Throughout this small volume, Danticat circles around, repeatedly, the death of her mother, a poor Haitian immigrant, who lived most of her life in this country, working in the sweatshops of New York, and, at the end, died of a massive cancerous tumor. What we learn of her here reveals a quixotic character, possibly even a noble one: shy, unassuming.
Still, the coming of death to the one who gave us life implies tragedy; or, at the worst, much more than mere tautology. Danticat has thus given herself over to a daunting, if not dismaying, task. That of honoring her birthright.
Her technique in this volume is one of repetition, and endless incantations of other writers on death. We learn a great deal about these, her favorite writers: Haruki Murakami, Alice Sebold, Anne Sexton, Leo Tolstoi, most of all . . . Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez.
There is no crime in yoking other writers to shore up one's case, whatever it may be, but by citing fifty other writers and over eighty books in a hundred and seventy page pamphlet might be something of overkill, possibly putting it on the level not so much of a meditation but more of a doctoral dissertation. And, with Dandicat's references to her own works, it even gives one the feel of a sales pitch for readers to go out and pick up books she has published before.
The writer calls it The Art of Death. I suspect that a more honest title would be Death, Death, Death, & Death. For our thought is that if one dares to take on such a profound subject, we should be able to expect an excruciatingly powerful vision, a Götterdämmerung, a soaring masterpiece that will shake the reader to the core, ending either in awe or in profound sorrow . . . if not both.
This leads us to suggest that if we are in the mood for an extensive meditation on death, we'd probably not opt for The Art of Death. Danticat is a professional writer. Her list of prizes and publications at Wikipedia attests to that. Still, a simple mot may have sufficed.
Such as one that we came up with in a book we recently reviewed in these pages. It was the story of an appealing older lady by the name of Iris. Like Danticat's mother, she's suffering from advanced cancer. As Iris contemplates her own demise in The Enigma of Iris Murphy, she explains her unwillingness to go through that final insult to body and soul that gives one, at most, a few more months of life,
I would have done all the chemotherapy, but I could smell the Angel of Death everywhere. He smokes cigarettes, you know. What's the use of losing all of your hair and having surgery when the Angel of Death is smoking Marlboros in your backyard?
Or finally, think on Geoffrey Chaucer, whose words on the death of his brave Knight reach us here, seven hundred years later, to, I claim, grieve us, and grieve us deeply, make us wonder at the sweet genius of that writer.
Naught may the woful spirit in myn herte
Declare o poynt of alle my sorwes smerte
To yow, my lady, that I love most;
But I biquethe the service of my gost
To yow aboven every creature,
Sin that my lyf may no lenger dure.
Allas, the wo! allas, the peynes stronge,
That I for yow have suffred, and so longe!
Allas, the deeth! allas, myn Emelye!
Allas, departing of our companye!
Allas, myn hertes quene! allas, my wyf!
Myn hertes lady, endere of my lyf!
What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Allone, with-outen any companye.
Far-wel, my swete fo! myn Emelye!
And softe tak me in your armes tweye,
For love of God, and herkneth what I seye.***
With all this sadness in my heart, there is still no way I can tell you - - - you, the one I have loved the most - - - of the depths of my sorrow. But hereby do leave you the service of my ghost - - - to you, above all others, since my life may last no longer.
Alas the woe, alas the pain, that I have suffered for you, and for so long. Alas, this death; alas my Emily; and, alas the parting of our company. Alas, my heart's queen, alas my wife; my heart's lady - - - the most dear of my life.
What is this world? What does it ask of men? Now with his love, now in his cold grave, alone - - - with no one for company.
Farewell my sweet love, my Emily. Please take me softly in your two arms, for the love of God . . . and hear what I have to say.--- Carlos A. Amantea