Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World
by Sabina Berman, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
reviewed by Cecily Parks
Henry Holt, 2012. $24, 256 pages.
Review published in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion magazine
THE NARRATOR of Sabina Berman’s novel Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World is Karen Nieto, an autistic woman whose exceptional connection with animals, particularly tuna, leads her to revolutionize her family’s tuna cannery in Mazatlán, Mexico, and then the tuna industry at large. As Karen struggles to make tuna slaughtering more and more humane, she faces the United States Trade Embargo on Mexican tuna, corrupt Mexican politicians, a jealous colleague, a craven venture capitalist, animal rights terrorists, and, finally, the quixotic nature of her mission. Political without being pedantic, Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World draws on real-life events to create a story that contributes to contemporary conversations taking place in the field of animal ethics and in the food movement. For readers familiar with these conversations, the character of Karen Nieto will seem awfully indebted to Temple Grandin, an animal welfare expert who revolutionized the cattle slaughtering industry in the United States and Canada. Grandin, who is also autistic, has written extensively about animal behavior, autism, and how autism allows her to understand the way that animals think.
In Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World Karen criticizes the human world for being “a bubble where nothing that isn’t human is really seen or heard, where only what’s human matters and everything else is either background, or merchandise, or food.” One of this novel’s pleasures is that it permits the reader to see the world from outside this bubble, from the perspective of someone absorbed by the natural world and its animal inhabitants. When Karen, as an adolescent, learns to read and speak, she is supplied with labels upon which to write the names of things. She is most interested in the names for the things she sees outdoors. She places “a label on each of the trunks of ash, avocado, and willow trees, and labels on some branches and on some leaves and on a nest, and on the very end of the highest branch of the tallest willow in the garden . . . a yellow label around the little foot of a black bird with a red chest, which surely said r-o-b-i-n.” Later, when she begins working for her family’s cannery, Karen dons a wet suit and swims with wild tuna to better identify with them. The tuna, in turn, sense her compassion: “2 big tuna stayed behind to swim on either side of Me. Without touching Me, they kept Me at ½ a meter’s distance. For an hour I did nothing to stand out, aside from existing in a form different from them, which I hope did not stress or offend them.”
Berman employs stylistic quirks to emphasize the extent to which Karen approaches the world from a unique vantage: drawings appear in the text, and Karen uses Arabic numbers rather than spelling out words such as “one,” “two,” or “three.” Berman (thanks, in part, to her translator, Lisa Dillman) has created a sympathetic, idiosyncratic, and engaging voice in Karen. The question of whether or not the superficial quirks of this voice authentically indicate autism is one the novel raises but this review cannot answer. Like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this book asks: How do autistic people tell their stories differently from others? How do they think differently from others? Karen, contradicting Descartes, declares: “First I exist and then, and only sometimes, and with great difficulty, and only when strictly necessary, do I think.” Through her acute sensitivity to all living beings, Karen demonstrates a different way of interacting with the world, and the wonderful difference that it can make.