It’s always interesting to see the depths of feeling that can be conveyed via characters who do not feel as others do. Like Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger, characters with a different emotional composition from the average person present the opportunity to look at our own emotional judgments in a different way, a fresh way. This sort of difference can yield a more resonating insight than a more familiar emotional viewpoint, which may be so common as to be glossed over by a reader. Particularly because the viewpoint is unusual, more attention must be paid and a deeper level of engagement may be obtained.
Berman takes good advantage of this phenomenon in Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World. In the book, a story woman comes to claim her inheritance, the family tuna business. In the process, she discovers a feral child who may or may not actually be her niece:
She doesn’t speak, Gorda said, she just grunts.
The girl was dark-skinned, ashy, and skeletal–so skinny her rib cage stuck out.
She doesn’t eat with silverware, she eats with her hands, no matter what you give her, and if she’s by herself she eats wet sand.
Aside from the mat of hair on her head, the girl was hairless: not a single hair on her body, not even between her legs.
She spends all day in her cave in the basement or in her little ocean pool, stark naked the whole time. And she’s afraid of everyone but me. With me, she’s tame as can be.
Gorda smiled and said:
Tame as a doggy.
The woman, assuming the girl is her niece, teaches the girl (Karen) to talk and tries to teach her how to live in the world of people. This is lucky for the reader, as the book is told through Karen. However, though Karen does learn to talk and read, whatever abuse or neglect she suffered in her feral years is not without lasting consequence. There are portions of her, particularly emotion, which will never be like other people:
Yes, this was my book, she murmured, and kissed a page, which made no sense to Me. Do you like it Karen?
I don’t know.
What do you mean, you don’t know? Wait. Tell Me what it’s about.
It’s about . . . a girl named Jo.
Who has a boyfriend and then Jo cuts off her hair to sell it and buy food for her family because they’re hungry and then her sister who is prettier than her marries her boyfriend who is rich. That’s what it’s about.
But tell Me the story, Karen.
That is the story, I said, tensing up.
What do you feel when you’re reading it?
I feel that I’m reading it, I answered, getting flustered.
Don’t you sometimes feel sad, or, I don’t know, maybe like you want to cry.
No! And I banged my first down on the table.
And my aunt’s eyes filled with tears.
You feel nothing, she said very quietly.
Despite her differences emotionally from other people, Karen manages to make her way. She works at the family tuna business. She goes to college. In fact, Karen uses the unusual way her mind works to try to save the failing tuna business. In short, she lives a complete life.
As I mentioned before, Karen narrates the story. Berman handles this in an interesting fashion in that Karen in her narration seems more emotionally capable than she claims to be; she seems to utilize emotions in her reflection that she describes herself as not possessing. This stuck out at me at first, but it ended up working. After all, it isn’t that she doesn’t comprehend the mechanics of such emotions, just that she doesn’t feel them. As such, she can comprehend and follow the patterns of what someone else would feel in order to illustrate it doesn’t work that way for her:
I want you to know, he said looking at Me very slowly, that you’re very special to Me.
I’m different, I corrected.
Thank God, Ricardo replied.
He lit a cigarette sailor-style: unbuttoned his shirt, held it out against the afternoon’s soft breeze, lit his lighter behind the shirt, bent his head down with the cigarette in his mouth, and touched the flame to the tip of it.
Then, exhaling smoke, he asked Me:
Can I touch you?
He reached out a big hand to my thigh, and, startled, I raised my boot up to place it between his face and Me.
Okay, he said to the sole.
And he pulled his hand back to him and took his wallet out of his breast pocket and from that took out 2 very green little leaves and offered Me 1, and only then did I lower my boot.
We each tore our leaf, rubbed it between 2 fingers, smelled the fresh-cut lemon scent. In silence on the calm sea.
Then Ricardo said:
Funny. I just realized why I get sad when we’re together. It’s because I could be your father.
Hearing that unnerved Me. I began to dig the fingernails of my right hand into my palm, 1 by 1.
He clarified quickly:
No, no. It’s okay. Wait. All I mean is that your father might be my age. What are you, 17? I’m 34.
Then he murmured:
I’m a sad son of a bitch.
His announcements bewildered Me: first he might be my father, then his mother was a bitch. My heart was pounding and I had to take deep breaths to calm down. Ricardo did the same, breathing slowly and deeply.
In the end, despite Karen’s different emotional make-up, if not because of it, Berman manages to convey a surprising amount of emotion to the reader through Karen. At least for me, I found myself feeling for Karen in circumstances where she did not. I just don’t think the impact would have been as significant if Karen had felt things the way I did, since I wouldn’t have gone that extra step for her. The story is engaging, but the chance to connect with this character that connects so differently is the real joy of the book.