For Part I, click here.
And then, there is the returning to a child again. For me, part of this returning has happened in my travels, in seeing how others view the world. Part of it has been my daughter, and her effervescence for life, lived only as a child could do it. For the grandfather, becoming a child again comes through meeting the deathless man.
The grandfather meets the deathless man during a tuberculosis outbreak, years ago. The man was drowned, but sits up at his funeral, only to be shot in the head by a frightened villager. Of course, this happens before the grandfather meets him. In dealing with the deathless man, first in a remote village during a tuberculosis outbreak, and then again at various points in his life, the grandfather begins to become young again. Naturally, he does not believe the deathless man — who would? — but continues to meet him again and again as he ages. In doing so, he comes to believe something about this deathless man, until their final breathless dinner a few hours before the hotel they are in will be bombed: so close to death, the fantastic, the unbelievable becomes believable. Through it, Obreht expertly skirts between folklore and reality: when Natalia becomes convinced she, herself, will find the deathless man, she ends us discovering something quite different, yet still develops a faith of her own.
While we see the grandfather become a man and then a child again, the novel truly is about death. It is about the superstitions we attach to death, the various truths we tell ourselves, the faith we hold onto. We follow doctors and an apothecary and taxidermists. In some way or another, all try to deny death, to either make it wait a few more years or recapture life in its glory. We are reminded of the certainty of death (as certain as coffee grit, according to the deathless man), and that we each must face it. Or, as Natalia tells us about the need for cadavers in medical school: “You needed it so you could take that first step toward nonchalance in the face of death.”
This is the gift of the novel. Nonchalance in the face of death. It is the role of doctors, but also of writers. Obreht writes a compelling and magical tale, but it is a tale to let us cope with our own mortality, a tale that borders on the fantastic because there is no other way to think about death, nothing in our modern minds to capture the finality of it. We must face it like the grandfather learned to face it: like a child. As he learned to believe in something beyond himself, so we too can embrace that possibility. Obreht gives us a tale that, eventually, allows for this possibility, of both escaping death and not escaping it; of accepting it and striving against it; of finding hope in it.