Friday, September 3, 2010

A Difficult Subject

It's not easy to read a book about torture. It's uncomfortable being confronted with cruelty and brutality, and in the wrong hands the story can make a reader feel exploited or dirty.

But in In The Company Of Angels Thomas Kennedy leaves the reader with feelings of respect and hope. His main character is Bernardo "Nardo" Greene, a Chilean teacher who was imprisoned and brutally tortured during the Pinochet regime for teaching political poetry, while his wife and children were”disappeared”. He now lives in Copenhagen where he is being treated by a psychiatrist at a torture rehabilitation center. Occasionally the novel, which is written in the third person, switches to first person as the psychiatrist, Dr. Kristensen, who has already helped Nardo regain the use of an arm paralyzed by psychic rather than physical injury, wonders how much more he can do to help this damaged man, but also questions whether he would be strong enough to endure torture, or whether he would be capable of inflicting it.  It is a question I ask myself as well.

One day Nardo sees a beautiful Danish women, and wonders if he will ever be capable of loving a woman again, either physically or emotionally. She is Michela Ibsen, and she too has been damaged. She has suffered through a marriage in which she was abused, and lost her teenage daughter to suicide. Her current boyfriend, ten years her junior, is immature and possessive. And to top it all off, she has two aging parents residing on separate floors of a nursing home, one suffering from dementia and the other from cancer, neither of them particularly grateful for the visits from their devoted daughter. Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it?

But eventually Nardo and Michela meet, and Kennedy does a masterful job of portraying the painstaking progress that each of them make toward healing and toward understanding. Both are survivors struggling to reclaim their lives, and Kennedy presents them with empathy but without sentimentality.

Note: Thomas Kennedy is a New Yorker who has lived in Copenhagen for many years. He has published more than 20 books, enjoys an international reputation and has received numerous literary awards and  honors.  But this is his first novel to be published in the United States.

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