Let’s get crackin’ with a book that virtually no one reviewed this year, for some reason. (Just PW, the Miami Herald, and, weirdly, Oprah, from the looks of it.) It’s a little bit of a button-pusher, an issue-driven novel, perhaps, narrated by a weird, autistic Latina. Written by award-winning Mexican playwright, (she's won the Mexican National Theatre Prize four times) poet, and now debut novelist, Sabina Berman – that’s right, faithful reader – a lady writer. What a strange tale this is.
Karen Nieto is one of the oddest, most endearing narrators you'll meet - a highly functioning autistic (unfairly described as being "between imbecile and idiot") who, after living a feral childhood in the crumbling remains of her family estate, becomes the owner of the fading Consolidation Tuna cannery. She spends a lot of time walking around in her wetsuit and flippers but manages to use her off-the-charts spatial reasoning to turn her company into the world's first humane (and highly lucrative) tuna fishery.
The inevitable comparisons to other autistic-narrator novels aside, (Curious Incident and even this year's Panorama City) this one has a lot more to do with humanity's place in the world and how we treat the rest of the living organisms we share it with. C'mon, we all know we treat everyone else on the planet like shit. Through the naïve eyes of Karen, fixing things - especially our food industry - is a no-brainer, a simple matter of turning off our species-centric hubris. Her repeated challenge to Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" statement gradually becomes the heart and soul of this story: she unravels it & flips it around, since first there's general existence and only after that can we begin to think.
And what makes humans so sure that thinking is the most important activity in the universe? Who told them that thought is the 1 activity that distinguishes the superior from the inferior?
I, on the contrary, have never forgotten that first I existed and then, with a lot of difficulty, I learned to think.
And every day that is my reality. First I exist and then, and only sometimes, and with great difficulty, and only when strictly necessary, do I think.Not exactly the words of an "idiot," are they? If we exist, then so does everything else - like bluefin tuna, for example - so, let's just be cool & not presume to be better than anyone else. I may have made this sound like some deeper, existential work that is hard to wrap your head around unless you're a Descartes scholar, but c'mon, you know me better than that. I did find the philosophical theme to be a little vague from time to time, but ultimately came to the conclusion - since, like Karen, you're left to gradually sort things out on your own - that it's all about humanity's stewardship of the planet. Like it or not, we are kind of running the show here, so we'd better be cool about it.
But really, though, the novel is just as much about Karen's evolution from grunting, incoherent feral child to environmentally friendly multi-millionaire. Despite her origins, she becomes a rather astute and savvy businesswoman, running her company the way that she thinks it should be run, despite what "advisors" and shareholders may tell her. Granted, she likes to get in the water and swim with her tuna friends now and again, but still, an amazing, beautiful evolution in the hands of Berman.
"People with different abilities are the ones who make different contributions to humanity."The words of Karen's aunt while telling her that Beethoven, Darwin, and Einstein were also autistic. Karen wonders if they were all just crazy. Berman lends Karen a stunning, hilarious, and lyrical voice, once she figures how to communicate with humanity. An overrated prospect, in actuality, which is why she prefers to confer with sea life who "don't make up things that are not real." Since she's our first person narrator - the book is written as a memoir written by Karen - we see the world through her eyes, which is the perfect method of easing the reader into her worldview. Yes, first we simply exist - let's get our heads around that first before we start lording the fact that we think over all other creatures. I'm down with that.
Buy Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World from your local independent bookstore.
Go to #9 on the 2012 Catapult Notable list.