We're Not Here to Disappear

Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli and comes out from Otis Books/Seismicity Editions next week.

John Locke believed that a person is someone who is conscious of his own existence; this attribute was his personal identity and “without consciousness there is no person.”

Monsieur T. has stabbed his wife five times. He was found in the neighbor’s yard and subsequently interrogated by the police. His answers to their questions provide little or no pertinent information:

What is your name?
Not me.
What’s your first name?
It doesn’t belong to me.
And your last name?

Monsieur T. is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He is unable to connect with the wife and family he once knew, he struggles to interact in everyday social situations, he is frequently geographically lost, aphasic, and circumstances come to a head when he is arrested for stabbing his wife.

Rosenthal’s novel is part history, part investigation, and written like stream-of-consciousness poetry. I like that from the beginning she refers to Monsieur T.’s diagnosis as “A.’s disease,” a term that brings the focus to his experiences and conditions, rather than focusing the reader on their preconceived idea of Alzheimer’s.
This is a novel which requires reader involvement. If you are like me, you may end up reading this in small pieces in order to better digest it. I found that although it’s a compact book, the ideas represented are much larger. This novel rewards the thought and energy the reader gives to it.

Rosenthal drifts between narrators and narratives. The (his)story of Dr. Alois Alzheimer (whose name is eventually given to the degenerative disease) is interspersed with observations from Monsieur T., his wife, his daughter, and his doctor. Does the narrative history of Dr. Alzheimer provide the reader insight into Monsieur T.’s symptoms? It at least provides the reader insight into the “discovery” and naming of the disease whose key attribute is forgetting.

Is there something you’re afraid of?
I can’t tell you.
Recite me the alphabet.
I’m not dressed for that.

A 1990s study of Alzheimer’s disease observed that nursing-home staff assumed that patients living with dementia experienced life as meaningless. The nursing home staff (in the study) avoided all but task-oriented communication with those suffering from Alzheimer’s and related dementia. Another 1990s study described nursing staff’s observation of patients’ speech (or attempts at speech) as nonsensical and devoid of meaning, further contributing to the idea of the person’s loss of identity and self.

Although a reader may assume that Monsieur T. is losing his identity, it is not because Rosenthal has written him that way. [Spoiler alert] The deeper you get into the book the more you learn that what initially seems like Monsieur T.’s incoherent rambling is, in fact, based on his life experiences. I felt both relieved that Monsieur T.’s repeated references made some sense, and uncomfortable that I had previously assumed that they were a symptom and had no basis in reality.

This is a beautiful book, a thoughtful book, but by no means would I call it a comfortable book. Throughout the text are “exercises” that Rosenthal has placed which test the reader, not on what they have read, but on how they might approach problems faced by the characters.

Do an exercise
Calculate mentally the number of people you usually refer to in the past tense.
Not the dead of course, the living.

These exercises are poetic, shocking, and beautiful; at least I found them so. This was not a fast read for me, and the exercises are just one of the reasons. I wasn’t exactly “savoring” the book, but it was impossible for me to read it faster.

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was recently quoted as saying, “Why did people ask ‘What is it about?’ as if a novel had to be about only one thing.” We’re Not Here to Disappear is not about one thing; it’s not just about A.’s disease, families, memory, or identity. I believe that there’s something in this book for all those who truly love literature. This final excerpt from the book is one of my favorites, and one which I hope will show you the beauty of the language Rosenthal, together with her translator Béatrice Mousli, uses:

Don’t keep anything for yourself, let it out, all that is yours, you’ll see in the end what’s left, and if nothing is left it’ll be because you’ll have exhausted the whole of your possessions, of your memories, don’t hold anything back, let it all go, you’ll see what constitutes each hour, each minute, each second, nothing other than the unwinding of time at a rhythm you can’t know if you’re unencumbered and covered and filled with your story. After you shed yourself, you empty yourself, the outside enters, it enters again and again, it enters all the time.

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