Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World

  • Sabina Berman, translated by Lisa Dillman
  • Henry Holt and Co.
  • 256 pp.

Amid the tuna-canning industry in Mexico, a young woman who struggles to navigate the world comes to an understanding of empathy.

Reviewed by Susana Olague Trapani

For Karen Nieto, the protagonist of Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World, Descartes’ maxim that thought comes before existence is a perfect example of humanity’s illogical nature and arrogance. She should know: She existed long before she thought.

Sabina Berman, a celebrated Mexican playwright whose work also extends into film and journalism, brings Karen into existence in this debut novel. Her wry prose and distinctive approach to what it means “to be” animate Karen’s struggles and triumphs in navigating a human world that she can’t understand.

When Isabelle Nieto inherits her family’s mansion and tuna cannery in the seaside city of Mazatlán, Mexico, she arrives to find that she has gained more than just a money-losing venture and decrepit house. Her niece Karen -- feral, speechless and showing signs of both autism and profound abuse -- surprises Isabelle by sleeping in a hammock during her first night in Mazatlán. Feeling a connection when looking into eyes that mirror her own, Isabelle works to bring Karen out of her internal world with discipline, aplomb and — like all parental figures — a few mistakes.

Karen’s first word, “me,” gives her identity. Her second word, “you,” is a challenge. Thirty-two years after her aunt teaches her these words, she still can’t conceive of a Me besides herself. Thus, Me becomes a presence of its own, moving beyond the object pronoun and into distinctiveness.

So begins Karen’s journey through life as Me, guided by her aunt and her “different abilities.” School yields little to Karen; instead, Isabelle brings her into the world of the cannery, a failing behemoth plagued by accusations of cruelty in its fishing practices. Karen possesses an incredible sensitivity toward animals, seeing them as the blameless losers to Descartes’ maxim.  Yet she takes to the cannery’s world, and embraces a stint on the cannery’s tuna boats, studies in animal husbandry, an attempt to humanely pack tuna and finally a business venture that brings wealth and the ire of eco-terrorists.

Berman’s Karen will draw comparisons to another autistic protagonist, Christopher Boone, from Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Yet they are quite different.  Christopher is driven by a burning question he must answer and experiences a transformation that helps readers see the world through his eyes. Karen’s life and attachment to animals are driven less by determination than by happenstance. Isabelle largely defines Karen’s direction, but and Karen’s dedication to animals comes across as passionless.

Berman’s no-holds-barred descriptions of tuna kills, tuna factories and pig slaughterhouses remind us that the food business is gruesomely violent toward animals. Nevertheless, Karen doesn’t serve as a defender for them until late in the narrative. Instead, she meanders her way to advocacy. While she will do much good in time, the journey doesn’t persuade me of Karen’s empathic link to animals. Unlike Christopher Boone, Karen seems detached from her own values, given her almost paradoxical relationship with animals: empathy mixed with the food industry mixed with chance.

Berman’s novel succeeds better in shedding a critical light on the people surrounding Karen. Although Karen finds it difficult to understand people and feels most at ease either hanging upside down clothed in a diving suit or lingering at the bottom of the ocean until her oxygen is about to run out, the funniest and most enlightening moments occur when Karen observes humans doing what we do best: being self-centered and ridiculous.

Whether it’s her distinguished yet egotistical professor’s reaction to her videotaping his lectures or her detailed evaluations of college-party hookups, Berman’s sardonic tone is on point. Karen’s abduction at the hands of eco-terrorists is a terrifying experience, but the misogynistic attitudes and over-the-top threats of the abductors say more about their assumptions and stereotypes than about Karen. No one truly understands Karen, though she seems to understand us right away, relaying our foibles and ludicrousness all too perfectly. Eventually she comes to recognize, perceptiveness and “different abilities” aside, that she too can fall into these failings.

Despite her limitations and seeming lack of empathy, Karen forges loving relationships, particularly with Isabelle. Though she must force herself to hug her aunt, the two develop a deep bond that serves as a pillar Karen can return to throughout the novel. Isabelle is forthright and honest with her niece, acknowledging her limitations but also highlighting and supporting Karen’s talents. Thanks to Isabelle, Karen is able to see the value in her life and what she can do with it by book’s end.

Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World is marketed as a comic novel; while Karen is certainly wry and astute in her observations, the label is misleading. The novel is more profound than comic. Karen is someone who can tell us about ourselves, about her view of our world and, at times, what makes her tick. The book explores how we place ourselves at the top of the world and how we can fail as its stewards, in often brutal ways. Yet it’s the connections we make to other living things, human and animal, that build our greatest strengths. Here we find Karen Nieto, knowing that to exist is to demand concern, a full and confident challenge to Descartes’ maxim. On the whole, Sabina Berman provides a sensible and innovative way to look at who and what we are.

 Susana Olague Trapani is an associate editor of The Independent.

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