Representation of Chronic Illness in Claudia Piñeiro’s Elena Knows
Recently a friend casually commented that perhaps an illness could change her life, give her a new or better perspective because she cannot seem to find how to move forward. It is a general idea, perhaps influenced by movies like Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand (1971) or second hand/lived experiences, that illnesses change life, give us a new lens to appreciate every single moment, every single breath.
People forget the nuances of being sick. There’s absolutely no way of predicting how an illness might appear in two different people. There are common symptoms and yet there are cases of rare ones showing up first. They are not entirely wrong to assume that being sick can make one grateful, not take things for granted, appreciate the body that they have been given, make the best of the life they have. For it might or might not be there the next moment.
But, the thing is, such a change of heart usually comes with illnesses that can be cured. Aforementioned instances can be seen in the lives of people who have either survived an illness or have almost made peace with the fact that they are soon going to die. That is to say, there’s a beginning and an end. From symptoms to cure. From diagnosis to prognosis. There’s a certain timeline filled with protocols of medications or lack thereof in terminal cases.
None of these apply to chronic illnesses because by definition these illnesses have no cure. They are managed by various means, mostly by medication supplemented by certain changes in lifestyle. In such cases, the first instance isn’t merely to accept that a person is sick but to process that the person is going to continue being sick. The pain might never end. The future becomes more uncertain and unpredictable. For someone chronically ill, the unpredictability can be fatal. Building a routine helps. Their lives begin to revolve around the medication because one skipped pill can affect their whole day. There’s a complete lack of control over one’s body. It’s the body and mind acting against the person, the two things that belong to us betray us.
This betrayal is one of the most painful feelings to suffer from. It brings in unprecedented rage. You want to do something, your body won’t allow it or your mind won’t. You are divided within, dissociated. You cannot figure out who’s in control. Suffering from a physical illness, your mind wants to move forward but your body might not support it. Suffering from a mental illness, your body might be completely healthy but in a state of ennui. Suffering from both together, the betrayal hits worse. Who’s in control? Who do we get upset with? What do we do with this life? How do we live? And most importantly, how do we make it through one day at a time?
Elena Knows by the famous Argentine crime fiction writer Claudia Piñeiro, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle, deals with themes of chronic illness, abortion, marital rape, physical body and control over it, and church, connected together with the larger hallow around motherhood. The crisp telling focuses on a day in the life of the protagonist in Buenos Aires, a sixty three year old mother (Elena) suffering from Parkinson’s trying to find the murderer of her daughter (Rita) who was found hung from the belfry of the Church. The book was originally published in 2007. It was translated by Frances Riddle and published by Charco Press in 2021. The book is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022.
(Irrespective of many important themes mentioned in the novel, I have chosen to restrict myself to the representation of chronic illness)
In her novel, Piñeiro creates an unlikely heroine/detective, an old mother who cannot move her body without taking pills that help circulate dopamine from her brain to legs that eventually help her move. The novel is divided into three sections based on the times when Elena has to take her pills in order to get through her day which involves, getting out of her house and taking the subway to reach someone who can help her in solving the mystery of her daughter’s death.
In the first chapter itself we see Elena waiting for the pill to have its effect. As she waits, she contemplates the relationship that she has with her mind, body, and Parkinson’s. Piñeiro, with her clever narration, provides a critique of what is to be a woman in this society.
“And she wonders if Parkinson’s is masculine or feminine, because even though the name sounds masculine it’s still an illness, and an illness is something feminine. Just like a misfortune. Or a curse. And so she thinks she should address it as Herself, because when she thinks about it, she thinks ‘fucking whore illness.’ And a whore is a she, not a he.”
“…the order only reaches her feet if the dopamine takes it there. Like a messenger, she thought that day. So Parkinson’s is Herself and dopamine is the messenger. Her brain is nothing, she thinks, because her feet don’t listen to it. Like a dethroned king who doesn’t realise he’s not in charge anymore.”
Elena’s physical body is distorted, her neck is stiff. Her sight is fine but the bent neck doesn’t allow her to exercise her eyes. The narrative makes no attempts to keep the ugliness of Parkinson’s away from the reader. It’s very direct in expressing the slow deterioration of the body and Elena’s inability to take care of herself. She needs constant care from getting up, going to the toilet, having a wash to eating, moving, sitting down, and returning to sleep. With her bent and stiff neck, she cannot control her saliva from drooling.
She thinks, “She’ll probably never feel clean again; there’s no cure for her illness. There’s just palliative care, little tricks to help her do things she can’t do anymore, bibs, but no cure. She will be sick as long as she’s still alive…”
Interestingly, Piñeiro doesn’t create a victim out of Elena despite the gross and pitiable description of her state of being. Elena wants to live, she wants to defy the illness. The only way she can live is by engaging in a war against a body that won’t obey her, a mind that’s as useless as a decorative piece on the mantel.
For example, “if her arm won’t go into a sleeve ever again… then there won’t be any more sleeves…” Elena, as an act of defiance, chooses to wear shawls then on. She isn’t willing to give in to the illness. She goes on to question why she says that she has Parkinson’s when it is the other way around. The disease has her, she didn’t ask for it, she didn’t choose to have it. She has no desire to keep it.
Elena Knows brings to the forefront the perception we have about illnesses, the language that the sufferer and outsiders use for such illnesses. It’s not merely about self-pity and eventual degradation of one’s identity. It’s what the chronically ill person goes through every single day lacking the ability to control herself. It’s an attempt to find a meaning and a mission to keep living a life in a body that doesn’t support her, in a world that cannot come close to understanding her.
Piñeiro goes a step ahead by showcasing the bitterness between Elena and her daughter Rita. In her forties, Rita is the primary caretaker of Elena. Despite the illness, Rita is disgusted by her mother’s state of being. She is not polite about expressing it. She takes it as it comes but eventually dreads cleaning up Elena the whole time. Rita doesn’t have a life of her own. So much so that she has to get up at night every time Elena has to use the washroom. She barely gets any sleep of her own till it’s morning again and she has to be at the beck and call of her mother’s illness.
It can be assumed that Rita is being an ungrateful daughter when her mother is the one suffering. Taking care of the sick is a daunting task. It needs patience, above all. Yet again, the case changes when it comes to chronic illness. Patience of the caretaker is put on trial because she knows this is her life now. There’s no end to it till Elena dies. However, in the novel, Elena ‘knows’ that there’s still love between them. Their changing relationship in the face of Parkinson’s is not a question on the love they share. However, it is left to the reader to make what they may of the mother-daughter relationship.
There is a wide range of (celebrity) literature that talks about surviving acute illnesses. These are filled with lessons and appreciation for life. There is literature, rather pragmatic, about how to cope in sickness. But chronic illnesses continue to be underrepresented. This is not to say that Elena Knows can be a general case of Parkinson’s. It is one case specifically created to suit the other aspects of the story. This, however, can be seen as a representation to chart common trends of suffering and trauma caused and dealt with by the chronically ill.
- Akankshya Abismruta
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