How quickly could you make a life-giving decision?
Mend the Living is the story of a heart transplant, centred around Simon Limbeau, the boy whose heart is given, and his family. Taking place within exactly twenty-four hours, the novel traces the thrill of an early-morning winter surf session, the terrible accident that follows, and all the urgency and compassion of the hospital workers, and shock and grief of Simon’s family as they negotiate the question of organ donation. Maylis de Kerangal offers glimpses into the thoughts and affective lives of each of the characters, including Claire, the recipient of the heart, whose life has been limited by her condition, and who reflects philosophically on what it means to have someone else’s heart beating inside you.
Mend the Living is the English translation (by Jessica Moore) of the French novel Reparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal. (This book has also been translated by XXXX and published in the U.S. as The Heart.)
Marianne Limbeau enters the hospital through the main doors and walks straight to the information desk where two women are seated behind computer screens, two women in light-green shirts who speak quietly to one another. One of them has a thick black braid over her shoulder, she lifts her head to Marianne: Hello! Marianne doesn’t immediately respond, doesn’t know which department to go to – emergency, intensive care, trauma surgery, neurobiology – and struggles to decipher the list of services on a large sign attached to the wall, as though the letters, the words, and the lines were overlapping and she couldn’t put them back in order, couldn’t make sense of them. She finally says: Simon Limbeau. Pardon? The woman frowns – eyebrows thick and also black, they come together in a fuzzy cluster over her nose – Marianne starts again, manages to form a sentence: I’m looking for Simon Limbeau, my son. Ah. On the other side of the counter, the woman leans over the computer and the tip of her braid grazes the keyboard like a Chinese paintbrush: what’s the name? Limbeau, L–I–M–B–E–A–U, Marianne spells out and then turns toward the hall, immense, the high ceiling of a cathedral and the floor of a skating rink – the acoustics, the sheen, and the marks – scattered pillars, it’s quiet here, not many people, a guy in a gown and shower shoes walks with a crutch toward a pay phone, a woman in a wheelchair is pushed along by a man wearing a fedora with an orange feather – a neurasthenic Robin Hood – and far off, near the cafeteria, in front of the row of doors in the dimness, three women in white stand together, plastic cups in hand, I don’t see him, when was he admitted? The woman keeps her eyes on the screen and clicks her mouse, this morning, Marianne exhales her answer, the woman lifts her head, oh so maybe it was an emergency? Lowering her eyes, Marianne nods as the woman straightens again, throws her braid over her shoulder and with a wave of her hand indicates the elevators at the end of the hall and the path to follow to get to the emergency department without having to go outside into the cold and all the way around the buildings. Marianne thanks her and continues on her way.
She had just fallen back to sleep when the telephone rang, nestled in an interlacing of pale dreams that sifted the light of day and the strident, synthetic voices of a Japanese animation on the television – later, she would look for signs, in vain: the more she tried to round up the memory, the more her dreams dissolved; she couldn’t grasp anything tangible, nothing that could make sense of this shock that had happened thirty kilometres away, at the same moment, in the mud of the road – and it wasn’t she who answered, it was Lou, seven years old, who came running into her room, not wanting to miss a single moment of the show she was watching in the living room, and who simply put the phone against her mother’s ear before rushing right out again, so that the voice in the receiver also wove itself into Marianne’s dreams, growing louder, insistent, and it was only when she finally heard these words, please, can you answer me: are you Simon Limbeau’s mother? that Marianne sat straight up in bed, brain blinking awake in terror.
The doctor pulls her down the corridor toward the elevators, Marianne bites her lip while he continues: he’s not in this department, he was admitted straightaway to intensive care – his nasal voice crushes as and ens, his tone is neutral, Marianne stops, eyes staring, voice breaking: he’s in intensive care? Yes. The doctor moves soundlessly, taking small steps in crepe-soled shoes, he floats inside his white coat, his waxy nose gleams in the light, and Marianne, who is a head taller, makes out the skin of his scalp beneath thin hair. He crosses his hands behind his back: I can’t tell you anything more, but come along, they’ll explain everything, no doubt he was admitted there because of the state he was in. Marianne closes her eyes and grits her teeth, suddenly everything within her retracts, if he keeps speaking she’ll scream, or else throw herself at him and smack her hand over his stupidly verbose mouth, please God make him shut up, and as though by magic he lets his sentence trail off, wordless, and stops in front of her, head wobbling on the collar of the pink shirt; stiff as cardboard, his hand comes up palm open toward the ceiling – a vague gesture in which all the contingency of the world fans out, the fragility of human existence – then falls back to his side: the ICU knows you’re on your way, someone will come to meet you. They’ve reached the elevators and the meeting comes to an end; the doctor indicates the other end of the corridor with a movement of his chin, and concludes, calm but firm, I have to go, it’s Sunday, emergency is always crowded on Sundays, people don’t know quite what to do, he presses the button, the metal doors open slowly, and suddenly, while their hands are once again shaking each other, he smiles at Marianne, a smile from rock bottom, goodbye ma’am, be brave, and turns back toward the cries.
He said be brave, Marianne repeats these words to herself as she goes up another floor – the path to Simon is long, these corridors like labyrinths are trying – the elevator is papered with signs and union flyers, be brave, he said be brave, her eyelids stick together, her hands are damp, and the pores of her skin open because of the heat, a cutaneous dilation that scrambles her features, goddamn “be brave,” goddamn heat, isn’t there any air to breathe?
The intensive care unit takes up the whole east wing of the main floor. Access is restricted, signs saying Hospital Personnel Only are posted on doors, so Marianne waits in the corridor, ends up leaning against the wall and letting herself slide down to a crouch, head moving right and left without lifting from the wall, she taps her head against it, digs in gently with the back of her skull, face lifted toward the fluorescent tubes that run along the ceiling, lids closed, she listens, always these busy voices that badger or update each other from one end of the corridor to the other, these feet in rubber soles, gymnastics shoes or ordinary little sneakers, these metallic jinglings, these ringing alarms, these rolling stretchers, the continuous rustle of the place. She checks her phone: Sean hasn’t called. She decides to move, she has to go in, approaches the double fire door edged in black rubber, stands on tiptoe to look through the window. It’s quiet. She opens the door and goes inside.