In a vision once I saw
Carole Angier is inspired by the story of a man born with just 'a speck of something like seeing'
Saturday 07 February 1998
by Stephen Kuusisto
Faber, pounds 9.99
Stephen Kuusisto's tragedy was being born blind - and perhaps equally not being born blind. For this book is about the extraordinary 40-year struggle of someone with "a speck of something like seeing" not to let the world know that he was, to all intents and purposes, blind.
Blindness was common in premature babies saved by the first generation of incubators. Kuusisto (born in 1955 in the US) came out with scarred retinas, nystagmus and strabismus: ie legal blindness, and no muscle control over his eyes. Not complete blindness: in some lights he could see a little; mostly he could sense at least shadows and colours. For half an hour at a time, with his nose against the page and with his left eye only, he could read. With telescopic lenses, enormous natural gifts and even more enormous efforts of memory and spatial orientation, he managed to walk, run, ride a bike, catch a football; to go to an ordinary school and university, to travel and teach, even - most longed for, and most despaired of - to make love, all without ever really seeing, or ever admitting to anyone that he couldn't really see.
He took the most ludicrous risks: his description of a blind boy riding a bike is pure fear. He is in constant pain, not only in his eyes and head but in his whole body, from the impossible effort to see. Once or twice he glimpses another solution, other people being dignified and safe with white canes and dogs. But he cannot ask for help, he cannot let go his fingernail grip on normality. In fact he never does.
Only external events - an accident, cutbacks - finally leave him unemployed and unemployable; and after 39 years he has to give in. At last he accepts his own cane, his own dog. And discovers - as he shouts out, in the last image of the book - that this isn't the end of the world at all.
is an impressive and frightening book. It is like another short and lucid horror-story of the season, Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: frightening not only because it describes someone else's nightmare (the voyeuristic reason), but because it describes everyone's - the inability to give up our worst addictions, such as those to acceptance and approval.
Like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly too - like any book that works - it is mostly very well written. Stephen Kuusisto is a poet, and his ability to convey his strange visual impressions, "at once beautiful and largely useless", is a poet's. Objects "wave like strands of kelp" and "buzz like early motion pictures"; it's like living in "a stained glass window", "a Jackson Pollock painting", "a kaleidoscope". But he can be too poetic ("God is edible"; "These are the threads of being").
I liked him on facts - on his guilty, denying parents, on his beloved guide dog Corky and the amazing, unknown business of their shared training. I wanted more of them, and less poeticising. Also, when he tries to be brave and funny it's all too predictable ("I've decided to trade my cane in for a dog, this damn thing just won't come when I call.") Well, he only gave up trying to be liked two years ago. When he lets go completely, he'll be terrific.
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