We often pay little attention to our bodies until something is wrong. Usually it is pain or discomfort that forces us to examine the vessel of our soul a little closer, and even then it is solely with the purpose of eliminating the disturbing factor and getting back to our lives. Not so for the protagonist of Daniel Pennac’s Diary of a Body, who makes it his business to do the opposite and to document anything and everything that puzzles, frustrates, or fascinates him about his body, from the age of 12 until his death aged 97.
He begins after an incident at Boy Scouts, during a game of war, when, tied to a tree next to an anthill and terrified that the ants would eat him alive, the boy soils his pants. ‘I won’t be afraid anymore,’ he writes several times on the first page of his diary, and the next day he lists all the things he is afraid of (‘Afraid of soiling myself if I’m afraid’) and his resolutions of how to fight his fears (which he doesn’t keep).
A resolution that he does keep, mostly, is to stick to describing the physical, rarely venturing into the emotional territory that diaries usually inhabit. Love, hatred, fear, and grief all manifest through the body, and that makes the impact much more powerful, more tangible, even more accessible. Who hasn’t experienced, for instance, what Pennac calls ‘the physical sensations of intellectual work’? ‘The vibrant silence of books’ or the ‘sensation of gliding above the lines’ are enough to make me want to reverse time and go back to being a student (okay, maybe that’s just me).
Despite repeating time and time again that this diary is that of the body only, the protagonist – whose name we never find out, just the multitude of nicknames others have bestowed on him: my boy, petard, Papa, Monsieur, Grandfather – examines a number of concepts. Talking about the Resistance, Pennac speaks of the body as a representation of a fractured political scene which unites against a common enemy, like a creature whose body functions irrespective of its individual members. Addressing the death of his father, the diarist describes how, after his mother gets rid of all traces of the dead man, he becomes his father’s shadowless phantom, not eating, not speaking, and avoiding mirrors, until Violette, the woman who does the family’s cleaning, cooking and washing, gives him his body by ‘adopting’ him under her wing. When Violette dies, the diary becomes a way of staying physical, of not reverting to being his father’s phantom.
It is a diary of a body, but it is more so a diary of death, or, more precisely, of grief. The grief of losing one’s father, one’s adoptive mother, one’s youth, health, sex life, friends, freedom, choice, one’s grandchild. It is also a diary of life, of the way the body keeps us able to feel alive, to feel anything, to feel. Through a greater awareness of the body comes an awareness of the Self.
Any Cop?: Read it if you find the body fascinating and wonder how others feel when they pick their nose or what it’s like to get a catheter fitted. Be warned though: if you’re squeamish, or don’t like thinking about illness or death, it will at times be an uncomfortable read.