The Fall: A Father's Memoir in 424 Steps
Diogo Mainardi’s THE FALL is a memoir told in 424 short passages --- the same number of steps Mainardi’s son, Tito, walks to the hospital where a medical mishap left him with cerebral palsy. More than a simple counting of steps, the book combines art, world history and passages from famous literature to show the patterns, circles and unavoidable situations that led to Tito’s condition.
When THE FALL begins, we learn about the hospital where Tito was born. Designed by Pietro Lombardo in 1489, the Scuola Grande di San Marco is known for its beautiful façade --- a façade that once gave Mainardi the courage to bring his pregnant wife into the hospital known for its mistakes. Mainardi includes a painting made by Canaletto in 1725 to show that every event in Italy up until Tito’s birth would contribute to the event in some way. He points out a couple in Canaletto’s painting and claims that it just as easily could be him and his wife, Anna, journeying to the hospital to wait for their son to be born. Because Lombardo designed this exquisite building, he becomes the first target of Mainardi’s blame.
The next man Mainardi profiles is John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, who wrote the three-volume The Stones of Venice, a history of Venetian architecture. Though Ruskin did not contribute to Lombardo’s design in any way, he gave modern art-lovers the clues for interpreting its architecture. Furthermore, Ruskin’s argument that the architecture of a place has the power to shape the destiny of its inhabitants would one day encourage Mainardi to equate the beauty of Scuola Grande di San Marco with an innate goodness. Even Napoleon Bonaparte must take some of the blame, as he was responsible for transforming the confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Marco into a military hospital in 1808. This military hospital would begin a long history of medical frauds linked to the name Scuola Grande di San Marco.
"One of the great strengths of THE FALL is its history of cerebral palsy, told from the incredibly personal perspective of a father who knows he just as easily could have lost his son if he were born in a different time."
At this point, it may seem as though Mainardi is a whiny, possibly crazy old man, poring over history textbooks in order to distance himself from his son’s condition. I assure you that nothing could be farther from the truth. In a country as steeped in art, culture and history as Italy, Mainardi would have to be blind to ignore the past around him. In placing “blame” on the men who contributed to it, he is turning Tito’s life into something grander and universal, a metaphor for the passing of time.
Interestingly, when Mainardi finally conveys the story of his son’s birth, it becomes very clear that the presiding doctor, Dottoressa F, is actually to blame. Her unnecessary amniotomy performed on Anna bungled Tito’s birth, causing something infinitesimal in his brain to be damaged. Despite these facts, Mainardi does not include the doctor in his list of the blamed, though he does include her amniohook. Dottoressa F is not worthy of being included in Tito’s grand history.
One of the great strengths of THE FALL is its history of cerebral palsy, told from the incredibly personal perspective of a father who knows he just as easily could have lost his son if he were born in a different time. Particularly haunting is Mainardi’s telling of exterminations of children with “worthless lives” during the Third Reich. In a surprising twist, one of the most famous doctors who participated in these killings, Josef Mengele, would flee to Brazil after World War II and succumb to a brain hemorrhage on Enseada beach --- a beach where Tito has now waded and splashed, dancing on the skeletons of those who would have wished him dead. Mainardi’s penchant for the circular takes an amusing turn here, highlighted by an adorable photo of Tito on the very beach where Mengele died.
While Mainardi’s knowledge of history is impressive and his research thorough, THE FALL is much more than a history book. With every bit of seemingly irrelevant history, Mainardi is able to find some connection to his son, making his narrative circular, as he is quick to point out. Splattered throughout the lessons are brief, powerful imageries of Tito, sometimes in the form of pictures of the delighted little boy. We learn that while Tito’s movements can be spastic, he has learned how to fall so as not to hurt himself, and that every fall is followed by laughter. We are also shown how Tito has learned, particularly since the birth of his little brother, to walk, communicate and transcend his cerebral palsy. Most importantly, we learn that Mainardi’s love for Tito is powerful, eternal and circular.
I won’t say that THE FALL isn’t difficult to start --- it takes a few passages to understand Mainardi’s interest in history. But when he begins to talk about his love for Tito, his worship of him, even, it all becomes clear. All of history is about Tito because Mainardi can think of nothing else. Cerebral palsy, the struggle between intellect and savage nature, becomes the perfect metaphor for human history, and Tito is merely the vessel of this metaphor. Heartbreaking, astonishing and wise, Mainardi’s telling of Tito’s story is not to be missed. If you’re wondering now why the author chose to focus on a trip of 424 steps, it is because he wanted Tito’s greatest accomplishment yet to bring him back to the scene of his first fall --- circular.
Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 10, 2014