Thursday, 31 January 2013

The essence of being

It took considerable courage for me to put down everything, block out the noise and pick up the book. Its overcast outside, the kind of weather one would expect to encounter in London NOT Johannesburg in early summer. Its Saturday and I don't need to be at work. Exhausted after a week of traveling to the school where I try my best to teach students for whom school seems an unnecessary stumbling block, staying in bed a bit longer than usual was especially welcome.

I recently received five copies of Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. Reading Ghost Boy was not going to be easy. Martin Pistorius's life story is a moving one, since he fell ill as a child and became trapped in an unresponsive body. Yet, once he came out of his coma no-one actually knew that he was  intelligent and completely aware of his surroundings. In fact, he could follow conversations. Being placed in front of a TV for long periods meant that he was "re-schooled". While other stimuli like the radio also sometimes filled his days, it only became apparent much later that there was a real boy inside the awkward-looking body. However, Martin couldn't react and communicate - it was as if he didn't exist. Few people would actually look at him or speak to him directly, apart from his parents and of course a few care-takers that assisted him medically.

In Ghost Boy, Martin describes his journey from falling ill and the slow progress in getting his body to come alive again. The frustration of learning how to communicate makes for compelling reading. Martin's progress in this regard is closely linked with the development of artificial communication made possible by progress in computer technology and work at the University of Pretoria, amongst others.

Its a story of a life as a ghost boy that nearly became trapped in a permanent state of lock-down. It is, however, also a story of the triumph of the human spirit in the wake of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Being locked down in an unresponsive body and a seemingly inability to escape from this state underlines the one thing that sets humans apart: we communicate not only what is real, but also what we imagine. Martin's vivid descriptions reminded me once again of this distinguishing factor. However, what could have easily become a heavy script is often well-balanced with a light-heartedness stemming from Martin's long intelligent 'observer status' unknown to the people who came into contact with him or merely passed through his immediate environment. In his book Martin manages to reflect upon his experiences in a way that is inspiring and gripping. He does this in a style that is undramatic without diminishing the real horror of his condition, especially revealing the truth about the abuse he suffered at the hands of some of the caretakers.

Thank you Martin for not giving up.

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