“Tito has cerebral palsy.” So reads, in its entirety, the first chapter of Brazilian journalist Diogo Mainardi’s odd and enchanting new book, “The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps.’’
In 2000, Tito suffered a brain injury at birth because of a botched obstetrical procedure. Mainardi and his wife were living in Venice at the time, but later moved to Rio de Janeiro where Tito learned to walk with a walker and to communicate, using a device that translated Tito’s thoughts into his father’s voice.
This device serves as a central metaphor in “The Fall,’’ which is as much Mainardi’s story as his son’s — though the two are inseparable. “I am Tito’s father,” Mainardi writes. “I exist only because Tito exists.”
Mainardi covers, in 424 chapters or “steps,” none longer than a short paragraph and some consisting of a single declarative sentence or photograph, Tito’s birth and childhood, the arrival of a second son, the family’s move back to Venice in 2010, and the malpractice suit against Dottoressa F., the obstetrician responsible for Tito’s disability.
Tightly threaded through this somewhat conventional narrative of tragedy overcome by love and perseverance, though, is an original and fascinating tour of Mainardi’s own far-ranging intellectual life. Mainardi detects echoes of Tito’s cerebral palsy in references as diverse as Proust, Neil Young, Auschwitz, Mark Twain, the fall of the Bastille, U2, Le Corbusier, and Rembrandt.
The relevance to Tito of some of these is clear: Neil Young has two sons with cerebral palsy; people with disabilities like Tito’s were murdered at Auschwitz. The dots (or steps) connecting others to Tito are less direct: In 1867, Mainardi notes, Mark Twain wrote that watery Venice, “ . . . must be a paradise for cripples, for verily a man has no use for legs here.” The exact day Mainardi was born in 1962, Le Corbusier was invited to design a new hospital in Venice. But the architect died six months later, and the plan was scrapped and so decades later, Tito was born — and injured — at the old hospital. “An event that occurred on the day of my birth could, therefore, have changed Tito’s birth,” Mainardi observes.
This wild assortment of associations and coincidences, presented in a series of highly stylized miniatures, could have read like a clever parlor game. But Mainardi’s emotional intensity and honesty ground “The Fall.’’ Paternal rage, fear, guilt, and joy suffuse every page. Less universal but no less affecting sentiments appear, too. Mainardi recalls his response to his wife’s apprehension about delivering a baby in the Venetian hospital “known for its medical errors” but with a magnificent 15th-century facade: “ ‘With a facade like that,’ ” Mainardi said, baldly and prophetically, “ ‘I could even accept having a deformed child.’ ”
No matter how far Mainardi strays in his musings — Abbott and Costello to Ezra Pound — Tito is never more than a step or two away. Throughout “The Fall,’’ Mainardi repeats the refrain, “That’s what Tito’s story is like: circular.”
Several memoirs, including Vivian Gornick’s “Fierce Attachments’’ and Abigail Thomas’s “Safekeeping,’’ are composed of short sections, reflecting the memoirist’s desire to make meaning out of the chaotic shards of life. In “The Fall,’’ this technique has an additional significance. Mainardi mimics in prose Tito’s jerky movements. We learn, in fact, that 424 is the largest number of steps Tito has taken. In another line simply and elegantly translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Mainardi states: “Tito’s cerebral palsy became my second language.”
Any parent of a child with or without a disability will appreciate its eloquence.Suzanne Koven is a primary care doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and writes the monthly column “In Practice” in the Globe. She can be reached at www.suzannekovenmd.com.