No detail of the human body is spared in Daniel Pennac’s aptly named Diary of a Body, the fictional (but very real) account of one man’s physical state from pre-adolescence to death.
This novel approach starts out refreshing. Pennac presents familiar bodily functions with an unflinching honesty not commonly found in popular culture, but his observations are spot-on, humourous and always tasteful, even when the subject matter would not be kosher for the dinner table.
He describes taking a satisfying dump - ‘Looking down on an impeccable turd, all in one piece… with a smell but not a stench, cleanly severed and of a uniform brown, produced with a single push causing a smooth exit, and leaving no trace on the toilet paper, I have the sense of a satisfied craftsman: my body did its job well.’
This is one of Diary’s greatest strengths - with the human condition of birth, growing up, aging and death at its core, everyone can relate to it, nodding at experiences they identify with or learning about those that have yet to befall them.
There comes a point in this chronologically written diary, which is marked both by date and the narrator’s age, down to the number of days, where everyone will arrive at the same stage of life as the protagonist.
As we move past that point it is all unchartered territory, and a shared understanding of physical experiences turns into an early warning about what lies ahead.
Once he hits 52, the narrator describes, in multiple entries, the sensation of forgetting. ‘The sudden disappearance of data once known: bankcard code… telephone numbers, first and last names, birthdays, etc, are crashing into me like meteorites. It is the shock more than the forgetting that shakes my entire planet.’
It is sensitive insight into aging - not just what happens, which is common knowledge, but how it feels to realise youth and seeming invincibility have slipped away.
Diary Of A Body
French writer Pennac’s astute observations, translated into English by Alyson Waters, are written simply and matter-of-factly, all the better to convey the physical effects of time on the human body.
As Pennac expounds on these observations, personal and biographical indicators of the anonymous narrator are glossed over.
Pennac, through his first-person protagonist, deliberately shys away from overtures of emotion in order to present a focused account of his physical being. He takes a wife, fathers two children and becomes a grandfather, although none of his loved ones are discussed far beyond their physical state.
Because of this, the concept loses some of its shine as the narrator navel gazes through adulthood and then old age.
Reading a novel requires some degree of emotional investment in the characters, though it is sometimes difficult to remain invested in a protagonist who staunchly avoids discussing his own feelings, even as he navigates challenging life events such as his grandson’s unexpected death from liver failure at 25, or losing his childhood buddy to long fight with cancer.
If his readers want to feel for him, Pennac refuses to let them. Even in his final days this dying protagonist asks no pity - ‘Now, my little Dodo, it is time to die. Don’t be afraid, I’ll show you how.’
Still, it is to Pennac’s credit that we feel for this protagonist, having just walked a lifetime in his shoes.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.