Sabina Berman: Me, Who Dove into the Herat of the World

Sabina Berman is a well regarded playwright, film director, and screenwriter, having written a screenplay for, among other things, Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love for director Alfonso Cuarón (though it has not been made into a film yet in the nearly eight years since it was announced). I was looking forward to her novel, Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World (Mujer que buceó dentro del carazón del mundo, 2012; tr. from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, 2013). Sadly, I’m afraid this one was not for me.

Review copy courtesy of Picador.

Review copy courtesy of Picador.

The premise is interesting but I admit to going into this sceptically. When the book begins, an older woman named Isabelle Nieto goes to Mexico to take over the family’s failing tuna company after her sister died. Upset about this twist of fate, Isabelle is surprised to find a feral child roaming around the basement naked. This is our narrator, first known as Me, when she finally gets a hang of the language and can use it to differentiate herself from her surroundings, and finally as Karen Nieto, when Isabelle gets her more fully domesticated, though her perspective on the world remains different from Isabelle’s:

I make note of that because it’s been the biggest difference between [Isabelle] and Me: she thinks that words are things in the world, whereas I know that they are simply pieces of sound and that the things of the world exist with no need for words.

As we might expect, Karen is supremely gifted but deemed an idiot. She suffers greatly as she goes to school and, finally, out into the larger world of college and business. It’s inspirational as she learns to fight against even the most intimidating of foes. Inspirational, but familiar.

Where the book was unfamiliar, and much more interesting to me, was in Karen’s portrayal of her hero, Charles Darwin, and her foe, René Descartes. Darwin represents a world that respects animal life, the give and take, the organic flow of the world. Descartes represents the world of rationalism, a world that fails to see the beauty of being more fundamentally one with the creatures around us, a world where language and rationalism has usurped our ability to connect.

Here is the curious thing: Descartes lived in the 17th century, and Darwin lived in the 19th century, and yet humans keep being educated by Descartes. They keep being trained during the first 2 decades of their lives to think that they are their thoughts and that thinking is the highest act of all and what undeniably sets them apart from other species.

It’s true that thinking sets them apart from everything, but that’s because they’ve been educated by Descartes and not by Darwin.

Eventually, Karen becomes active in animal welfare, ultimately creating a more humane tuna processing plant.

I suppose one of my problems with this story is the use of language. On the one hand, Berman cleverly has her narrator who hates metaphor basically avoid metaphor. Karen sees the world in a literal way, and metaphors make no sense. On the other hand, the book itself, written from Karen Nieto’s perspective, felt overly lyrical. In other words, this narrator who doesn’t fully trust language, uses it to abstract effect. Furthermore, the attempts at playing with form mimic familiar lyrical writing, not a new perspective. It just didn’t quite work for me.

Though that did keep me from plunging into this story, perhaps my major gripe is that Karen Nieto, at least in her older years when she becomes active in animal welfare, is clearly based on one of my personal heroes, Temple Grandin, whose work is inspirational without resorting to rote lyricism and sentimentality.

No, this book just didn’t do it for me.

2 thoughts on “Sabina Berman: Me, Who Dove into the Herat of the World

  1. tolmsted says:

    I have two copies of this one sitting on my shelf and never found myself in the right mood. You just summed up all the reasons perfectly – the character so obviously based on Grandin, the “inspirational” storyline, and a child narrator who doesn’t fit in but finds a place for herself in the world… perhaps in my teens, but these days not the book for me.

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