Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (called The Heart in its US translation) turned out to be just the book to read during these weeks of lockdown and restricted movement. Set in France, it’s a story of a heart transplant. Before starting, I knew nothing about the book and thought that it might be either a spiritual story where the person with a new heart develops some of the personality of the organ donor, or that it would be an edgy story about a black market of organ harvesters.
Neither of these plotlines are the case. It’s a simple story taking the reader from the sudden death of Simon, aged 19, to the donation of his heart into a woman in her fifties who’s suffering from mitochondria. Taking place in 24 hours, the narrative goes through the lives of all of those involved with the heart transplant, from his traumatised parents to the doctors and nurses involved with Simon’s care to the organ specialist, who matches the organ to the recipient. De Kerangal takes us into the lives of both surgical teams and the transport team that has to get the heart on to a plane and across Paris in a traffic jam. We also encounter Clare, the transplant recipient, full of fear and hope, knowing the difficulty of the procedure and the promise it brings. With the story of most of the characters being driven by a greater good, the book has been called ‘un chanson de gestes,’ a song of heroic deeds, used to refer to heroic epics of the Middle Ages.
In this modern tale, the writing is rich in medical detail and interwoven with psychological, philosophical and metaphysical perspectives:
‘The moment of death is no longer to be considered as the moment the heart stops, but as the moment when cerebral function ceases. In other words: I no longer think, therefore I no longer am. The heart is dead, long live the brain—a symbolic coup d’état, a Revolution.’
The heart’s journey has the pacing of an adventure story and is paralleled by the emotional journey each character undertakes. Though brain dead, Simon’s heart and other organs live on medically speaking and metaphorically for his family. Their coming to terms with their son’s death is both comforted and complicated by the realisation that he could help others live.
‘How long does it take them before they accept death’s new regime? For now, there is no possible translation for what they are feeling; it strikes them down in a language that precedes language from before words, before grammar, an unsharable language that is perhaps another name for pain. Impossible to extricate themselves from it, impossible to substitute another description for it, impossible to reconstruct in another image.’
As you can see from these quoted passages, de Kerangal is a lover of language, a true stylist. The novel is peppered with metaphors and analogies, along with the occasional pun – one character has the English name of Cordelia Owl, another, the head surgeon of the transplant team, is referred to simply by his surname, Harfang, which means owl in French.
There’s a lot more to say about the use of language in this story of heroes, but it’s better enjoyed when it’s discovered.