"Epileptic." by David B., translated by K. Thompson. (2005). London: Jonathan Cape. 366 pages.
This is an autobiographical book, earlier serialised in French. It speaks of many things, mostly about growing up in France in the 1960s and 1970s with an older brother who starts having epileptic fits around the age of 11 and whose condition steadily worsens. For years the family goes the rounds of consulting medics and surgeons, and then 30 different kinds of alternative treatments, macrobiotic communes, mysterious Eastern practitioners, various religious gurus and weird belief systems. None of them is effective (according to most of the reviewers -- but perhaps they didn’t actually read the book, and just relied on their mental clichés). One practitioner’s treatment ran in parallel with a cessation of fits for six months; but that man was then indicted for practising medicine while unqualified, so he had to leave the country... a shattering blow to the mother, who is the main engine for the family’s search for some kind of salvation.
The story is told in black and white graphics or cartoon strip, through the eyes and startling imagination of the budding young artist-author (both parents are art teachers) with occasional inputs from his small sister, and the looming presence of the older brother. It is interpenetrated with symbolic imagery from the religious and mythical worlds of Africa, the ancient Middle East and Asia. Interestingly, the author recognises that some of the time he hated his brother, or hated the destructive condition within his brother, and he depicts himself sometimes lashing out cruelly, though mostly just putting up with having his life overshadowed by the dragon that was chewing on his family. He battles his own demons by drawing them and constructing a world of images in which there is some familiarity, and some level of calmness, if not safety or hope. Many of the perceptions of childhood come through with great freshness – the confused and apparently irrational world of adult behaviour is sharply depicted.
It is rare to find a book about disability that gets deep into the claustrophobic skin of the family containing the ‘sufferer’, or that depicted the slow growth of awareness in the younger brother, through into adulthood and an artistic career, until finally he has difficulty recognising the shambling, battered, incoherent hulk that his brother has become. The sufferer himself is of course mostly portrayed from the outside, but there is credibility in the fluctuation between his appearing pitiable, or manipulative, or behaving violently and intolerably toward others. The father, ‘clinging to a traditional Catholic background’, is rather wooden, but the mother is more sympathetically portrayed, as the now-adult author appears from time to time questioning her about what happened at different stages of their painful pilgrimage, and she displays more common sense and retrospective insight than might be expected.
The translation to English isn’t brilliant, but is quite adequate. The book could perhaps usefully have been shortened by 30% -- but there’s no correct length for a book of such peculiarity. It seems to show, in quasi-religious terms, how epilepsy as a catastrophe hit this family, marking them all for life, without any solution or salvation being reached. (The community, society, the people of France, appear from time to time as a sea of eyes gazing and gawping at the twitching limbs and drooling mouth of David B.’s brother). A rather powerful statement from the shadow-side.