Breathing in a Plague

27 November, 2020

Untitled drawing by artist  Roshanak Aminelahi , pen on cardboard, 20 x 20 centimeters (2018).

Selîm Temo

In the third vol­ume of his mem­oirs Breath: A Deci­sion*, Thomas Bern­hard writes about spend­ing time in a hos­pi­tal ward for the near­ly dead after con­tract­ing a severe lung infec­tion caused by influen­za. Though he was only eigh­teen years old, he was placed in a geri­atric ward full of old men “whose death was judged immi­nent [when they] were tak­en out of the ward along the cor­ri­dor to the bathroom”—a blind­ing, flu­o­res­cent-lit bath­room for those whose light is about to go out. When it is young Thomas’ turn to be brought to the bath­room, he starts to think about what he should do to show that he is still alive. He moves his fin­gers, but this may as well be seen as a post­mortem spasm and the per­son who would take him to the bright room might not regard this reflex as a strong enough sign of life. Final­ly, it occurs to him to breathe. He breathes, per­sis­tent­ly breathes. 

• • •

My son, who ran around to find a stretch­er for me, held my hand and told me the same sen­tence that I had uttered to him years ago: “Don’t be afraid!” Eigh­teen years ago, he did­n’t under­stand what “Don’t be afraid!” meant, because he did­n’t speak a sin­gle word yet. Through his lungs, col­lapsed because of high pres­sure, the breath he was exhal­ing and inhal­ing was fill­ing up his bel­ly like an expand­ing and con­tract­ing bel­low. With great dif­fi­cul­ty, I took him from the poor mater­ni­ty ward to a pri­vate hos­pi­tal. The tube con­nect­ed to the ven­ti­la­tor went into the left side of his chest and resus­ci­tat­ed him. His fingers—that now move with ease over the strings of his guitar—were not quite as long back then. He was bare­ly hold­ing onto my pinkie that I thrust through the incu­ba­tor’s tiny open­ing. Last year when I felt his hands while on the stretch­er, I remem­bered that moment of his fee­ble breathing.

The sec­ond thing I remem­bered was Bern­hard’s breath, he who nev­er for­gave the Aus­tri­ans for greet­ing the Nazis in Leipzig with so much gus­to and who pre­vent­ed his books from being sold in Aus­tria. And the young Thomas’s breath that became the only sol­id proof of life once let out. 

In the inten­sive care unit where I stayed, there were patients with seri­ous con­di­tions. It was like a morgue for the liv­ing. An elder­ly man looked as if he were wait­ing for judge­ment day. He did­n’t seem to be in a hur­ry as he ful­filled his reli­gious duties. With­out any reac­tion, he was watch­ing the injec­tions, check-ups, and blood pres­sure mea­sures, breath­ing in and out like a rur­al pub­lic offi­cer wait­ing in line patiently.

On my left, a woman whose body had aban­doned her was con­stant­ly uncov­er­ing her­self. The sense of pri­va­cy that was long gone for her still exist­ed in me, so I did­n’t look at her again, but tried to hear her. She was some­times act­ing as if she were throw­ing off the bro­ken Turk­ish sen­tences and return­ing to Kur­dish, to the lan­guage of a life she aban­doned or as if she want­ed to live once again. 

The man on my right seemed to be con­cerned only about the part of his body that breathed. With his body stiff­ened like a horse at the edge of life, he was only breath­ing through his nose. He was alive, but about to be tak­en to the bright room. 

I sup­posed there was ice gel on my back. I could­n’t stop shiv­er­ing. Some­how, I was­n’t able to feel any warmth toward my own body that just tried to aban­don me. Also no one was treat­ing me like some­one with a body. 

At the wee hours, they brought in some­one around fifty-five years old whose lungs had col­lapsed. His chest was like a black­smith’s bel­low, ris­ing up and down. His body was shak­ing so uncon­trol­lably that the tubes, lines and valve sock­ets in var­i­ous col­ors and shapes kept com­ing off. His hands and feet also looked as if they were about to break off from his heav­ing chest and burst open onto the faces of the nurs­es with slen­der wrists. These were more like the mus­cle move­ments of a dead per­son than those of a liv­ing one. 

The med­ical staff came to tell me that they had to move me to anoth­er bed to accom­mo­date a new­ly arrived patient since my bed was attached to a machine that the oth­er beds weren’t. They took me to the right side of the door and to the left side of the man with col­lapsed lungs. They attached few­er cables to my body, put anoth­er blan­ket on me, and then I start­ed to breathe deep­er. A friend of mine who worked as a doc­tor at the same hos­pi­tal came in with a poet­ry book in his hands think­ing that I could read poet­ry there! I thanked him and asked if he could move me to a pri­vate room, only if he thought I was well enough to be moved. I heard the news that the patient who was giv­en my bed died short­ly after I was final­ly brought to anoth­er room. The echo left by his hands and feet that were no longer his kept beat­ing up my con­scious­ness all night long. 

 • • •

I haven’t smoked since that day and have been treat­ing this gift of sec­ond life well. 

When var­i­ous pro­fes­sion­als on duty announced that the inten­sive care units had almost reached capac­i­ty, if not already, and that the doc­tors had to choose who to let live and who to let die, I thought about three things: My lit­tle son who had clung onto my pinkie with his four tiny fin­gers, young Thomas who unveils his alive­ness through breath­ing, and my breath bestowed on me for the sec­ond time. 

If you ask me, what is col­laps­ing is not only the med­ical sys­tem, but civ­i­liza­tion. The mem­bers of the Frank­furt School were preach­ing the “promesse du bon­heur” that they bor­rowed from Stend­hal and yet the Nazis arrived! This pan­dem­ic seems to sig­nal the dig­i­tal dic­ta­tor­ship. 1984 might come, “with a lit­tle delay,” in 2024.

Those in pow­er advise us to stay home and not vis­it the emer­gency rooms. How­ev­er, this col­lapse is caused by them. As eager to kill their own cit­i­zens as well as oth­ers, they can’t han­dle this infec­tion since they seem to thrive on death, not life. For this rea­son, if we sur­vive this pan­dem­ic through sol­i­dar­i­ty with each oth­er, we should go out to pro­tect the world bestowed upon us for the sec­ond time and breathe togeth­er. This is how we can prove that we are alive.

 * Pub­lished in Eng­lish as vol­ume 3 out of 5 in Bern­hard’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Gath­er­ing Evi­dence.

This essay first appeared in Kur­dish as “A Breath” in Xwe­bûn and appears here trans­lat­ed by Selîm Temo and Öykü Tek­ten, with trans­la­tion appre­ci­a­tion to Miri­am Atkin and kudos to Ammiel Alcalay for the intro­duc­tion to TMR.

Poet, translator and scholar Selîm Temo.

Born in Mêrî­na, Bat­man in 1972, Selîm Temo is a Kur­dish poet, schol­ar, trans­la­tor, and edi­tor. Temo stud­ied Anthro­pol­o­gy in Ankara Uni­ver­si­ty (BA) and Turk­ish Lit­er­a­ture (MA) in Bilkent Uni­ver­si­ty where he also received his PhD degree. He has authored more than thir­ty books, includ­ing Kur­dish or Turk­ish poet­ry, trans­la­tions, antholo­gies, chil­dren’s books, nov­els, and news arti­cles. Temo is cur­rent­ly a vis­it­ing schol­ar in Paul Valéry Uni­ver­si­ty of Montpellier.


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