Me Who Dove Into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berman
On I.Q. Tests, Karen Nieto scores between idiot and imbecile, but, as the heiress to a Mazatlan tuna-fishing business points out, “I have three virtues, and they are big ones” which give her “a big advantage over standard humans.” Those virtues: she doesn't know how to lie; she doesn't fantasize and so is not worried about things that don't exist; and, “I know that I only know what I know.”
The heroine of this short, stunning Mexican novel (translated from the Spanish) has got another virtue: She sees and expresses things so directly they seem skewed, in the twisted way that is often the only way truth can emerge. Like Jerzy Kosinski's Chauncy Gardiner, her wisdom is ignored (shunted, in Karen's case, as her family keeps her in the basement), then heralded. But Karen's insights really are insights, not just phrases repeated and misinterpreted. For instance, she describes “the standard human world” as “a bubble where...only what's human matters and everything else is either background, or merchandise, or food.” And her take on happiness: “In order to be happy, all you need to do is listen to your senses and not to Descartes.” As for communication, she says, “...I don't allow metaphors in my language system. Metaphors undermine the truth of your information. Why the hell can't you people live without metaphors?”
When Karen is a teenager, her family dies off, leaving the fishing business to an aunt, Isabelle, who returns from the U.S. to run it. The first thing Isabelle does is let her niece out of the basement, recognize her odd brilliance, and begin her grooming and education, eventually enrolling her in college. Soon Karen is donning a wet suit (as with many on the autism spectrum, she finds the tight binding soothes her nerves) and swimming with the fishes, who she understands better than she understands her own species. So when the industry is threatened by Greenpeace's objections to its inhumane practices, it's Karen who develops the plan to save it, and, in partnership with a predatory businessman, creates huge profits.
Sounds like the plot of a feel-good story about multiple intelligences and how differently-abled people could contribute to society if only we'd value their differences, right? Well, OK, maybe it is. But it never feels like it. There is not one drop of sentimentality or pleading or arguing or convincing or anything else that would turn this into an agenda instead of a story. There's lots of funny moments of Karen's world colliding with “the standard human world,” including the time she refers to as “How I Got lost in a Tokyo Bathroom and Had What I Believe Was My First Sexual Encounter,” when she discovers toilets with water-spraying jets in a high-end hotel. Then there's her fabulous temper, which makes her do the kind of poetically-justified things—like finally picking up and tossing said predatory businessman off the pier and into the ocean—that we only wish we could do. And throughout it all, there's her voice, curious and assured, calling out the contradictions of the world, discrepancies so obvious that standard humans like us can't see them.
Read this if you like your quirky underdog stories with a whiff of the impossible. And if you're a film producer, maybe the one who produced Amelie, buy the rights and turn this visual and sensory novel into a movie.