Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Jean-Dominique Bauby
(trans. by Jeremy Leggatt
Fourth Estate, 1998 139pp
ISBN: 1-85702-794-9

reviewed by Ann Skea

Jean-Dominique Bauby's "bedridden travel-notes" are a minor miracle. Not only because its author was suffering from Locked-In Syndrome, which is normally believed to prevent its victims from communicating at all, but also because his book is a rich and beautiful work of literature.

Bauby's imagination "takes flight like a butterfly" and his language is poetic, humorous and fluent: a remarkable achievement for a man who was obliged to compose and refine every sentence in his head, remember it, and then dictate it letter-by-letter with coded blinks of his left eyelid - the only part of his body which he could still control. Never was the phrase "done in the blink of an eye" more literally true: and never was its intimation of speed falser.

Nor is this a dull and gloomy story of the trials of an active man suddenly struck down by disaster. Bauby, imprisoned in his "giant invisible diving-bell", must have plumbed the depths of despair, but he tells us more about the marvels of the deep than about the monsters. Only in the penultimate chapter does he get around to the vertiginous "bungee jump" of describing his "last moments as a perfectly functioning earthling". Until then, there is so much else to do:

"You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas's court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain...."

Reliant on others for every painful detail of his physical existence, Bauby yet manages to joke. He nicknames the staff: "Big Bird", Prof., 'Rambo' and 'Terminator' (a couple of not-so-gentle nurses); and he contemplates the extermination of an irritatingly noisy toy duck. More than anything else, his determination, spirit and inner energy shine through, as he invents film scenarios, travel adventures and a play - the final lines of which sum up the tragicomic persona he struggles to adopt.

In the imagination anything is possible. Mr L., "Ambitious, somewhat cynical, heretofore a stranger to failure", is the central character of Bauby's play (to be entitled _The Pressure Cooker_ or _The Eye_). He re-enacts Bauby's own disaster but is miraculously cured. Yet, as in life, reality intrudes:

"Then it grows dark again and you hear the voice off - Mr. L's inner voice - one last time. "Shit! It was only a dream"."

Jean-Dominique Bauby founded the "Association du Locked-In Syndrome". He died in March, 1997, at the age of forty-five, fifteen months after suffering the massive stroke which damaged his brain-stem and left him with an active mind in a paralysed body. His book is a remarkable achievement by a brave and determined man.


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