by Lara Santoro
How We Become Blind
Some of us remember this: We are children, lying in the grass, staring at the sky, and wondering when our futures will begin. We had time. It spread out before us like that sky or the grass that held our lounging bodies. Time. We had our fill of it, its vast limitlessness. We saw infinity there, but it was not enough. We longed for our older days not knowing that our time there, in our longed-for futures, would become eclipsed by The List of a Countless Things to Do.
And what, then, would become of this sky into which we had pointed at stars, or found fantastic shapes among the clouds, and wondered about the possibility of a rainbow’s pot of gold? The sky would continue to become what it had always been, a vehicle for weather and birds and dreams. It would remain there, always, as it is right now. But for us, the some of us children who had lain in the grass, speeding toward our tomorrows, the sky would narrow itself into that one more thing we just learn to accept, or, better, forget, on our journey of trying to remember the day we became blind.
In her first novel, Lara Santoro has set about the task of restoring our sight. No small feat. Santoro has chosen Africa, of course, a continent where we cannot forget the sky, and she pushes us out of our comfort zone and onto the path of remembrance and forgiveness. On this continent where 700 people a day die from HIV/AIDS--and often simply because they do not have access to what have become ubiquitous retro-viral drugs in the developed world--we come to terms with life as the many characters we meet have come to live it. Here, even the living are dying, or, as Yeats might proclaim, slouching toward their particular resurrections. For what is our human fall from grace without its promise of redemption?
Father Anselmo, as perhaps the conscience of this novel—and of our sense of Mercy/mercy—exhorts us all through his conversations with Anna, the journalist of our tale, we have only to open our eyes to see. Easier said than done, n’est-ce pas? As are our attempts at understanding the human trilogy of faith, hope and love. We are witness to character after character in this novel making, and often failing, in her attempts at grappling with just such an understanding. Santoro reminds us that love hurts (haven’t you heard) and sometimes it really is not all that pretty. But, like a casino in Las Vegas for some, for those of us who wake up to discover we are not so blind there comes a reckoning that it is the only game in town worthy of our perpetual, if flawed, service.
“There are no simple explanations, they don’t exist: the minutest crumb of human experience is an aggregate of at least a half a dozen elements,” Anna tells us, her readers; and like her, we know that we have stumbled upon this thing called humility, something the Africans have learned well how to serve. It may be difficult for citizens of a democracy to understand that somewhere else, like under the vast African sky, for example, pharmaceuticals belong to the privileged. In the case of such rampant HIV/AIDS infection, it means that life belongs to the privileged as well. In Mercy, both the novel and the African character for whom the novel is named, we learn about bravery in the face of such privilege. Time after time--the essence akin to God according to Father Anselmo—we witness our “privileged” characters come back from the dead. Thanks to Santoro, one or two of them return with her eyes wide open to remind the rest of us there is this task called seeing to attend.