Will Provoke Your Thoughts … Could Change Your Life
Let’s start at the beginning: it took a long time to write this review – to be able to write this review – because this book was so singular, in such unobvious ways, that the musing after finishing took far longer than the reading. This is a first indication that a book has much within it: that it isn’t swallowed like a cultural chicken nugget and forgotten, but that it demands engagement – unless one only wants a chicken nugget, consumed and then no more. One supposes some could take this book that way, but this reader is not one of them. So it’s the path of the unique meal of unexpected delicacies and resonances that keeps nourishing long after one (thinks one) has risen from the table.
On the face of it, the story is simple and clear. Amelia Banis was an adopted child who had a fraught relationship with her adoptive father, Diederich – German-born, fatefully so in 1938, who survived World War II and his father’s time in a Soviet prison camp to become almost a caricature of the closed, reactive Teutonic patriarch. His Swiss-born wife, Lilia, is Diederich’s polar opposite in her kind, quiet ethereality. Between these two extremes Amelia grows up, and one senses that from the beginning Amelia and Diederich are naturally entangled, the more so for the Diederich refusing to admit the existence of any emotions save irritation, exasperation, and anger – determinedly directed at all but himself.
The Last Year is a memoir compounded of a beginning in the big picture and zeroing down inexorably into an event-by-event recounting of the eponymous final year of Diederich’s life.
This is no spoiler, for Ms. Banis tells us at the very start, with a striking first chapter opener with her making hospice arrangements for this monumentally stubborn opposite number and ending with his taking his final breath with Amelia and her husband by his side. There is no escape for Diederich, no roseate deathbed realization. The following twenty-six chapters show how the Diederich-Amelia dyad stretched and spun and writhed – never severing – its way to that final end. Reading this beginning, the author’s necessary and ingenious avoiding of the boredom of a linear decline to death (just desserts) or an unlikely pink rainbow scene (the old devil had a heart after all), one feels right away in good hands. She is taking care of us, too, and will make sure it’s an interesting ride. One thinks of Akira Kurosawa’s epic 1952 heart-movie, Ikiru, which begins with a shocking closeup of the protagonist’s abdominal X-ray, which the businesslike narrator informs us shows terminal cancer. Mr. Watanabe is to die, as we are all to die, so this will be the story of what he does with his time, his last months or days or year.
What comes next in Banis’ book is one of the great memoirial narratives of the details of a life. One looks in astonishment at the clarity of recall, the outpouring as if from a cosmic high-pressure pipe in which all the facts and details must emerge – not in a chaotic spray, but remorselessly marched forward and set down. The style is accessible, often wry, but the mental intensity is palpable, and one knows through the grip of the force behind it that this book had to be written. This is no guarantee of a book one must read, and at some points this reader, though compelled by something to hold on, blanches at the detailedness of the tale. One does not read an airy summary of happenings showing the working-out of some abstract pattern familiar or new: one reads things as they happen at the moment, in William James’ “great blooming, buzzing confusion,” before any narrative or intuitive smoothing and completing. It makes for an inescapable tension if one stays on for the ride and a compelling hold on one’s attention.
One could see some readers getting off the ride, perhaps easily. It is a mark of the advancement of Ms. Banis as writer – this is a first book – that she makes things neither easy for the reader nor contrives any difficulties. Her sentences are almost steel-edged in their clarity and decision – one is unsurprised to read in the biographical note that in her working life she is at a high level in business – and are resolutely extrovert in declaring what happened out there, in common space, observable by anyone with eyes and ears. The details, the outward turn, the powerful will behind the word-engraving – it is, as the story goes on, almost too much.
Leave aside that one felt compelled to hang on. Leave aside that one knew how it would end. It ended at the beginning, in the extinguishing of the locked, fixed will of Diederich. There is the curiosity to see where it is going – with the end at the beginning, one wonders what beginning will prevail at the end. But that too can be left aside, as a desire that will be closed – fulfilled or disappointed – by the last page.
What came to this reader only in the long musing afterward was that the key to it all was carried by, shown by, could only be displayed by, the unrelenting detail as the tale goes.
To begin, one is given one of the great portrayals of an absolutely fixed will in Diederich. One would have to reach into the non-fiction ponderings of D.H. Lawrence on this same matter, or to Jack London’s incomparable Wolf Larsen, to see the male will portrayed as so profoundly locked back in its own redoubt, never relenting, never ceasing its vigilance and teeth-baring at the approach of any who would dare approach the cave.
We then have the narrator, who is no plaster saint and who portrays herself losing patience, wanting to leave Diederich to his own devices, self-doubting, self-berating – yet she, of all, without claiming any great merit for it, takes care of Diederich, endlessly, against his own resistance all the way to the moment of his death.
The driver for the great pour of detail is just this: the locked will of Diederich and the will of Amelia, equally strong, to see him through, whether he rejects it or not. He is an immovable object of refusal, and she is an unstoppable force of care. The explosion of detail comes inevitably from this irreconcilability.
Yet, again, this is not all. There is something carried by means of the detail that is never spoken, never hinted, yet now, after a few months pondering this singular tale singularly told, is clear. Amid all the details there is nearly nothing explicit of the spirit, of the soul, of ethics. Amelia is held to the vocation of care for reasons she cannot, being immersed, fully know – no more so than Diederich understands his position. In their way, each is acting completely truly to their nature, with no time for reflection or artifice. One leaves with the details of an intimately personal story, and for this reader the unspoken came out as they, afterward, arranged themselves as they would, as though the writing were continuing within oneself: that this is a profoundly moral tale, the more credible for being not a fiction and the moral nowhere announced or even whispered.
The moral is this: that at each moment in life, we choose a better or worse course, particularly in dealing with our fellowman. Diederich in time became little more than a ruined body hosting a psyche ingenious in endless forms of rejection. Amelia for most of her journey with Diederich is at the very edge of being able to go on, but carry on she does – for the sake of seeing it through, for caring for the most impossible among us. It is so without reward that it has not even the satisfaction of duty performed. She staggers on because, by some light within her, often buried but still known, it is the right thing to do.
And this was the turning point of finding a deeper sense: at any moment, Diederich could have changed course, even in the smallest extent. At each momentary turn, unconscious as he was of it, he was choosing, choosing to shut himself off from the sunshine of an adoptive daughter caring for him beyond what would even be the expectation of blood. That is his true death, before his heart ceases: that he turned away from the land of life, from a steadfast hand extended from it to help him come as close to it as he liked – or even to cross over. Diederich, refusing to be die and be born again, lives not even once. It is merely an existence that ends.
Diederich dies, enclosed. Amelia, her husband, and their children recover and move forth. Again, as with Kurosawa’s Ikiru, the protagonist’s death is not the end. There is a coda of dispersion back-into-the-world, of the taking care of things. And so the world of the book ends, and we are back in our own lives. And we wonder that things feel different than before, and wonder at this curious, powerful book that made it so.
This would make a powerful play, readily staged – and even more so a feature film. In the right hands, with the right casting, the two leads could strikingly explore the infinite complexities we humans make – and break – in our relationships.
One hopes for more from Amelia Banis’ hands. There are presumably no more Diederichs to be told, so one would see what her determination to tell will do next. In the next volumes one, too, would wish to see beneath the extrovert horizon and within the aura of the author. Through The Last Year we are very much in her strong hands, and one wants, at the end, to challenge the author, in the same manner as her very being challenged her adoptive father, to surrender the control and give more of her subjective self, whether she writes again in the first person or not, and to show us in tale and writing-style more of the unexpected mysteries and potentials for change she drew from within herself in telling the story of a year of crisis.