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The Transplant Men
By Taylor Jane
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2009 Jane Taylor
All rights reserved.
"I am not generally what one would call a ready advocate. I avoid taking sides. But now and again I am compelled, from what seems to me a misrepresentation, or a distortion of facts as I know them to be, to state the case as I understand it."
He looks at the bundle of papers rather anxiously, rearranges several sheaths which are held together with an assortment of clips, and begins by quietly reading an epigraph, almost as a way of clearing his throat.
"The heart has reasons of which the reason knows not."
After a pause of some seconds, he adds the attribution.
He smiles lightly, possibly taking comfort from the authority of the name. Then his faltering start becomes an increasingly steady flow of words.
"The account which I am about to give is not altogether coherent, but then neither am I. For some forty years I have been dependent on a transplanted organ which sustains my existence. There are others whose life story mirrors that of a nation; mine, however, coincides with the history of a medical technology. It is a startling and in many ways a glamorous tale. Happily I have kept an extensive record of much which others may have lost."
Out of the corner of his vision he is vaguely aware of a red light, the eye of a recording device looking back at him. It disconcerts him. Or rather, it concerts him, as his mode becomes increasingly theatrical.
"History is an allegory of giving and taking. As a result it seems that an incalculable debt has been laid at my door, for which I will have to pay. There is no use protesting that it was my own brother whose exceptional gift afforded me an extended life. In the abstract record of obligations, someone has kept a note, and against my name in that invisible book is the defining legend: Guy Hawthorne. Recipient."
Pause. With a slight shaking of his head he reconsiders what now feels to him like a false start.
"Those comments had seemed a sufficient beginning. Are they adequate to an ending?"
Mentally, he shuffles again through the papers, tests an arrangement of ideas. When he begins once more, he has the flawless execution of an Olympic diver as he flings himself into his first tumble.CHAPTER 2
"My first concern is with the complex legacy of my friend, Chris Barnard. It is not necessary to make him more than he was in order not to make him less than he was. My hope is that through this account we might come to reassess the role which he played in the story of ourselves. He stands as a special type of Afrikaner on the cusp of South African modernity. I don't pretend to fully grasp what that means. But I sense that he is less significant for us in Africa than for his place in world history. I am inclined to say, in a sweeping gesture, that 'that is often the way'. However, it seems as true that 'this is seldom the case'.
"Chris's inspiration has led me to where I am. It was inevitable that we would become entangled. Some scepticism there may be about the link between us, but let me assure you that I would suffer almost anything before willingly drawing him into a sordid controversy. I write as a fan. Let that be clear. Still, I have no interest in justifying either him or myself. We have seen a great deal of that in the past decades.
"It is more important that the record be accurate with regard to his place in history, rather than with my own. This is not false modesty. Mine is not a straightforward narrative about a man with a unified idea of himself or his life. There are distinctive circumstances which may account for this. The one who acts is not necessarily the same as the one who gives account of that action.
"No doubt any man is composed of several parts. The jumble holds together somehow through combinations that are ever-changing. Many treatises in both poetry and prose have been written about revolutions in the realm of ideas; literature explores how the passions, too, are subject to periodic upheaval. Organic change — yes. King Lear will tell us about the process of ageing, but changing organs —? Almost nothing tells us about the significance of the transplant.
"We did not understand how it would leave us all undefended. This is not to say that sickness is a metaphor. Rather, it is health that is metaphorical. Oh yes. Because from the start we are infected with that which will kill us. And yet we assert (how many times a day?) 'fine, thank you, fine'.
"Over the past three hundred years the public stood by watching while the interpretation of the body was transferred out of the realm of art and into the sphere of science. Only a small community remained in touch with the body's meanings. So incremental has been the sea change that we scarcely perceived it. For the general population, it is as if we had sought to observe, from one of a pair of twin islands in a tropical bay, the events taking place on the island some thousands of yards away. Perhaps we have seen a hand waving, and have hailed or hallooed in return, only to discover that it was just a palm frond swaying in an unusual breeze.
"Several decades ago, I was part of — what? — a historical shift? We were a generation of scholars who believed that we could advance the total circumstance of the human being. So it was that I began to undertake the research which led to my personal encounter with the surgeon who performed the first successful human heart transplant, Dr Christiaan Barnard.
"That was how I thought of him then. It was a moment when we were extraordinary for something other than Apartheid. Chris represented hope. His work triggered events that would dominate my life and bring about a change in me.
"Oh, yes, Baaarnard!' a friend says with a drawl. 'He was a real showman.'
"It's not that I disagree, but if we regard the episode in this light we will fail to explore its real significance.
"Easy opinion has of late dismissed the first heart transplant as a piece of facile exhibitionism. But a revolution of ideas took place in that operating theatre; new passions were stirred. That's what I want to say. We began a journey which has turned the world inside out.
"Remarkable times are often tainted by the banal. As a result the surgeon who for such a time was on everybody's lips for a miraculous achievement has now largely disappeared from memory and what lingers, at worst, is a question about the legitimacy of his personal lifestyle; at best it challenges us about the legitimacy of the transplant as a medical procedure.
"From the start, people tried to interpret his motives as well as his achievements. 'Why had he done it?' was almost as important as 'how had he done it?' All of that speculation added to the controversy.
"No doubt he was not normal. How would an ordinary man scoop a beating heart out of the chest of one human being, in order to determine whether it would power another's body? 'That's witchcraft, not science.' Certainly I was initially terrified by his audacity. No doubt, doubt gnawed at my soul. Surely Chris could not have had common inhibitions or appetites? Decency imposes its own constraints on the imagination. Thank God.
"My mother always thought that a fair proportion of Barnard's genius lay in his beauty. Chris would have been striking in any gathering, even without his remarkable celebrity. One could be forgiven for inferring that his portion was well above that of other men. He was tall and lean in the elegant way of Fred Astaire, or James Steward, and his bearing was always upright, like an exclamation mark. Barnard's generation hadn't yet learned to admit that men might be self-regarding, and so in spite of his good looks, in the early years he seemed to be almost careless of his appearance. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth as we learned when he got older. He valued physical perfection intensely.
"I myself am just below average height, and while I am not unattractive, no one would consider me handsome. As such things go, I am almost invisible. Nonetheless I was able to forge a privileged relationship of affection with this man who belonged so absolutely to the world, this rather beautiful man who was a combination of poetry and the prosaic."
* * *
Speaking these words, he is very conscious of the video camera. Is his jacket too modest, or too assertive? He should have worn a shirt and tie rather than the polo neck. He had not considered that this would be his one chance at immortality.
These thoughts are unspoken but seem evident to me through a slight alteration in his physical attitude. He draws himself up, while dropping his shoulders an inch or so. For a moment he is viewing himself as the camera sees him. The signs are minimal, yet I understand them. I understand him.
* * *
"Chris's fame might have deterred another kind of man from pursuing a relationship with him. It would these days. Celebrity has become a sine qua non for us. It raises boundaries between us, and those who are extraordinary exist in a realm of their own. Back then it never occurred to me that I might not be of interest to him. That's what happens when you grow up in a small country. Unconsciously I assumed that I could have access to almost anyone. Based on this, I was brash enough to contact an individual who was already one of the most famous figures of our era. Perhaps that had merit, because here you are following the reflections of myself, a nobody. At this late hour, is it merely my relationship with him that you want to understand? It was simple. Our enjoyment of one another arose from the fact that we were both fascinated by him. Not even Washkansky's death could diminish Chris's appeal.
"For the sake of anyone unfamiliar with the name of Louis Washkansky, he was the man whose change of heart brought Barnard international renown. More directly stated, in December 1967, Chris sewed the heart of Denise Darvall inside the chest of Washkansky. You would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who did not know this back then, because it was heralded as the first. Not Louis, not Denise, nor Chris would ever be the same again.
"The operation divided international medical opinion on Barnard. Several saw him as the harbinger of the new. Many thought him a sensationalist. Some called for him to be deregistered. One influential colleague stigmatised him as a talented psychopath. None was indifferent.
"My first meeting with him was brief, at the funeral of Clive Haupt. Clive was the second South African heart donor. That was in 1968. There was such a crush of people that I just once got the opportunity to touch his sleeve. I remember that he did nod ..."
* * *
Hawthorne looks uneasy, and a momentary pause follows, as he considers how to proceed. His head twitches once to the left, a tiny motion that is probably more visible on video than it would be in the ebb and flow of everyday life, where the overall impression of his calm intelligence would dominate.
"I'm sorry, I'll read that again."
He winces when he recognises the well-worn phrase he has produced, which moreover has resonances of comic pastiche. His hand imperceptibly removes the folded square of a white handkerchief briefly from his pocket, and invisibly returns it. He glances up from his papers, and then provides a brief spontaneous interjection that takes the form of a gloss or commentary on his own words.
"I realise that my previous sentence should read 'did not' rather than 'did nod'. In fact I don't think that Chris actually greeted me. Certain people can affirm your existence simply through their presence. Sometimes a beautiful woman can have the same effect, when she affectionately takes your hand as she shares a confidence. My recollection is that his eyes suggested a momentary flicker of recognition. But he of course was mistaken. Perhaps he took me for the son of a family friend, or a boyfriend of his daughter. After which he seemed to realise his mistake and turned away. I still puzzle over what it was in me that Chris recognised. Nonetheless, the funeral was one of the great events of my life."
He turns back to his notes.
"Even now the entire Haupt saga remains remarkable. Defying prevailing attitudes, Chris had taken the heart of a coloured man, and had used it to fill the meticulously prepared cavity within the chest of a retired Jewish dentist, Philip Blaiberg. Haupt's community celebrated Barnard for ignoring race, so that even though it was Clive Haupt who had been the donor, the outpouring of gratitude was such that it seemed at the time as if Barnard was the gift-giver.
"While it was unusual in those days, it was not unsafe for a white lad to move through coloured society. Effie, our domestic servant, was herself of mixed African and coloured descent and she colluded in persuading my mother to let me go to the funeral in Salt River. Once or twice she said something which made me believe that she felt sorry for a young man who had recently lost his twin brother.
"Of course we project ourselves into others, and I imagined Effie herself had some interest in following these procedures through which a coloured man's heart had ended up inside a white man's chest. That may have been a misperception born of those times. Perhaps it was whites who were obsessed by race back then.
"Mother was not fully aware of how closely I was following the saga. I had just finished my matric exams and was in that agitated tedium which precedes the shift from school to university. The normal trajectory in those days would have been military service because conscription had just been introduced. I, however, had been exempted on medical grounds. The urgency of my desire to attend Haupt's funeral seemed to distress Mother. She sought comfort from family friends.
"'The boy has developed a taste for death,' she muttered to Uncle Enoch who had come round for dinner. He had been a regular at the house once my father disappeared. After coffee he sought me out where I was drawing in the study. I remember him as simple and honest, qualities not much valued by an adolescent boy in a melancholic state.
"'What's this about going to a funeral?' he asked. 'Of someone you don't even know? A coloured chappie?'
"I held my sketch book up to him.
"'And what's that?' he enquired. 'It's very good, but what the hell is it?'
"'It's a fence,' I responded. Then I added, darkly, 'It's a hole in a fence. Death is a hole in a fence.'
"There is real value in being able to scare an adult when you are eighteen."
* * *
At this point the recorded interview terminates. It is a great frustration to me that the intimacy of that spoken history is so limited in extent. There are one or two additional recordings which are not central to the case, and so they have not been transcribed here. Nonetheless these have no doubt also influenced my understanding as editor.
In addition to our minimal early contact, those materials perhaps have determined in some way the choices I have made in putting together this material. I regret the incompleteness of the video-memoir which is something of a novelty. Presumably Hawthorne's original intention had been to read the entire transcription of his narrative, doing the police in different voices, as it were. Some factor must have prompted him to terminate that plan. The remainder of the record exists only as an unusually detailed written document which is at times fragmentary and somewhat oblique. A reader can now only imagine what might have been the impact of a fully recorded and performed event.
Any gaps or incompleteness must be understood for what they can tell us about the state of his mind at the end. The record has been produced in a great outpouring over a period of some three weeks; at times it seems a torrent. On occasion remarkably detailed and personal, frequently remote and clinical, Hawthorne's memoir gives us access to his own distinctive imagination, as he reconstructs the historical events which he observed so closely. Few people have scrutinised the early years of the transplant as carefully as he did. We should not distrust his analysis simply because he happened to be both a witness and a subject of that history. Much of what we now have taken as our historical archive is based on just such testimony.
A large portion of his record arises from events which took place decades ago now, long before our historic transformation in this country, and must be read in that light. My objective had originally been to proceed without revealing too early what was to be the ghastly outcome. Such prefiguring can give a life the sense of being predestined. We would cease to see what was of interest and engagement in the ordinary circumstances of Hawthorne's existence, and everything would come to be read in terms of the final weeks in which he made those momentous choices. But actually much of the interest in these documents is that there is no obvious sign that the writer foresaw his destiny. There are certain preoccupations, of course, but the whole is not dominated by the ending, except in the mind of that reader with foreknowledge. Despite this I have been persuaded by the publishers that it is as well to give the reader some understanding of the significance of what they read, without which the book would have no drama, much like ordinary existence. Endings shape beginnings and so we read, as it were, backwards.
Excerpted from The Transplant Men by Taylor Jane. Copyright © 2009 Jane Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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