asthmatic literature eider rodrigez   Writers have often been questioned as to why they write. There are a hellouva lot reasons on offer out there. Metaphysical reasons (“You become mortal so that you can then die”), aesthetical reasons (“the arbitrary way the potato-like nose and eyes bunched together on his face created a beauty handicap that made it difficult to feel easy in front of the people who lived around him”), or the most prosaic reasons (“because I don’t know how to do anything else”). But I do believe that, at the root of it all, there are many writers who would readily offer up another type of reason: neurosis. The writer digs deep into the rewarding neurotic element inside, and just makes up any old type of reason when asked just why it is they write.
Asthma is also neurotic. And there are plenty of asthmatic writers to be found out there. Asthma or breathing difficulties can drag the suffer to the brink of death every time they have a critical attack. An asthmatic moment is not the same thing as a non-asthmatic one. No way. First off, that person will clearly remember their very first attack and that life is something of little consequence that crumbles when we stop breathing. There are suffers whose caring parents will always fend off that threat, and breath is that smoky thread that keeps us tied to this world. A child who doesn’t have asthma is never going to reflect on things this way and the only thing that is going to trouble their sleep is the dragon or the poisoned apple.
It’s an old sickness. And Ventoline, that corticoid-stuffed plastic inhaler that asthmatics carry around with them, hasn’t always existed. In the ancient world, asthma was considered to be a sickness inflicted by the Gods, and along with remedies such as milk and sugar, linen, mustard and a cataplasm made up of turpentine oil, sacrifices and exorcisms were also quite commonplace. In Egypt, honey, milk, cumin and carob beans were used to try and cure asthma. A papyrus scroll revealed that myrrh and date vapour was inhaled by asthmatics using long canes. Camel and crocodile droppings were also held in high esteem as remedies. The Chinese, ever the more sophisticated, used acupuncture as a means of overcoming the sickness. As well as all the stuff mentioned above bleeding and purges were used in the Middle Ages, and Maimonides the doctor recommended that the asthmatic son of the Sultan Saladino quaff down large quantities of chicken soup “to finish off the devil that was slicing away inside him”. In the 19th Century, a quick black coffee and common thorn-apples were considered the most effective, and atropine in spray form or smoked in pipe came into use before the close of the century.
Asthmatic writers have often cited their illness in their autobiographies. Mario Benedetti dedicated a story to asthma, El Final de la Disnea; R.L. Stevenson suffered from asthmatic attacks as well as being riddled with tuberculosis and Charles Dickens suffered his most serious bouts of asthma while he was working in a shoe polish factory. Marcel Proust was rather a sick little child who wasn’t even allowed out of his house, never mind play. His only form of escape from his room was to be found in reading and writing. Elizabeth Bishop wasn’t let go to school until she was 16. The anorexic and bulimic Bronte sisters had asthma too. During his spell in prison for fighting fascists, Cesare Pavese kept all his other prison mates awake for hours at night with his wheezing. They let him out before his time was up because of it. Dylan Tomas was smoking his head off by the age of 11 and the silent gasping caused by his black tarred lungs and his asthma got him out of having to join the navy. Living with cats caused John Updike breathing problems and Julio Cortazar’s bronchus attacks often kept him away form the typewriter. Zoe Valdes needs a dose of Ventoline when she sees pictures of La Havana on her Trinitron screen in her house in Paris. The revolution didn’t make it any easier on Ernesto Che Guevara’s illness. Back home, corticoids were almost like family to Jon Gerediaga and Lander Garro, and Haritz Cano talks of an “an officious community” of asthmatics “conscious of their weakness and of the weakness of those around them, and the way they understand each other (...) totally aware of the solidarity between those who suffer the stark moments and those who don’t”.
Maybe, amongst writers, the person who has gotten most out of being asthmatic was Lezama Lima. In Paradiso, the Cuban strings really long sentences together, and the reader finds themselves struggling for breath by the end of the page. The reader makes their lack of breath their own, just like Lezama Lima and Jose Cemi, the star of the story, and they become one with asthmatic writing.