By Chandra Ganguly
How do you make sense of life when your friend dies? How do you make sense of life when thousands were washed away by waters in a tsunami or killed ruthlessly in a genocide? How do you make sense of lives lived in pain whether due to atrocities committed by other or genetic mutations that make every day living a study in pain and forbearance? Peter Trachtenberg’s The Book of Calamities examines the meaning of life through these occurrences while asking five questions, “Why me? How do I endure? What is just? What does my suffering say about me and about God? What do I owe those who suffer?”
The book is a compelling first hand account of not just the author’s own suffering due to substance abuse, the death of his friends and his parents but also a first hand account of other people’s pain as he travels to places of strife such as Rwanda and Sri Lanka, follows up with families who lost loved ones on September 11, and interviews those in grief, seeking an answer to his questions.
The beauty of the book lies in the author’s ardent and almost unflinching seeking. He intersperses his travels and experiences with philosophies and religious texts from the Bible and Buddhism mainly but those chapters and paragraphs are like supporting documents, almost theoretical in their references. It is his travels and walks through the trenches of human suffering that pulls the reader in. How many people do we know who have travelled to Rwanda after the genocide or Sri Lanka after the tsunami? How many brave the hostility of these climates to ask questions? Trachtenberg recounts his experiences in such places and interviews people such as the Daley twins who suffered from Epidermolysis Bullosa, a form of affliction that made living in your own skin literally almost possible. The author befriends the people he seeks out in his journey to find a meaning and makes his research into suffering an empathetic and intimate look into lives we read about and normally keep at a distance. By describing his own sufferings, Trachtenberg draws us further into his story and his own search for meaning — “. . . suicide suddenly appealed to me as something I could do . . . I used about fifty Fiorinal and a razor blade that I was too squeamish to do very much with.” ( p. 57)
We human beings are notorious for our voyeuristic tendencies but the complex research, the self study, the interviews and the description of the people he meets come together to create a narrative that compels the reader to not only savour their blessings but also to consider greater empathy and questioning as a way of life. The very breadth of his travels not just geographically across the world but also to the different types of tragedies and their survivors leaves the reader breathless. Never is the immensity of what we human beings suffer as clear as on these pages. In all the stories, the reader is aware of what is going to happen — the planes will crash into the twin towers, the Daley twins will die, the tsunami will wash away those who will leave behind only memories and yet it is this combination — of self-search, research and both intellectual and empathetic reaching out to survivors to record their impressions and thoughts — that makes this book almost encyclopedic in its accumulation of tragedies.
Trachtenberg’s language is almost delicate in places, expressing certain human truths so simply that as a reader I had to stop and reread them to gather their immense import, “One way to tell that a population has been designated to suffer is when its suffering goes unremarked. Another is when the victims are blamed for their suffering.” (p. 368). The book ends with a story of the suicide of a friend. Like the other stories, even though it is a tragic tale, it is an empathetic examination of our struggle to be human and how hard we fight against our circumstances to find a solution to our sufferings, even when we fail. The Book of Calamities is filled with calamities but that is not what stays in the mind of the reader when they close the book. What remains is a sense of marvel at human forbearance against all our agonies and perhaps that is the only answer there is to suffering.
The reviewer lives in Palo Alto, California. She writes about the clash of cultures, loss of identities and the search for meaning. She is a pursuing her MFA in writing at Bennington College.