A voice from a mute world sings. Irish poet's prose captures Britain's Whitbread prize
HE was locked in a world of his own - unable, since birth, to control the spasms of his face and limbs, devoid of speech and strapped to a wheelchair. No one knew his precise thoughts, though family and friends insisted his brightly blinking eyes endlessly communicated with uncommon subtlety. Then, the door of his mute world swung open and, in his own words, there was a ``dam-burst of dreams.''Skip to next paragraph
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Ploddingly, painfully at first, Christopher Nolan, at age 11, learned to type. The arduous feat was achieved with a ``unicorn stick'' secured to his lolling, jerking head.
It had taken years of practice. No one thought he could ever manage what was, for him, such a superhuman task: It can still take up to a quarter of an hour just to type one word.
But he did. Now, at age 22, he is being hailed a literary genius.
Indeed, in the face of stiff competition, the young writer from Dublin has just captured Britain's coveted Whitbread Book of the Year prize - worth $35,400 - for his second book, ``Under the Eye of the Clock.'' The book had previously won the prestigious Whitbread Biography Award. Mr. Nolan's first book, which went to press when he was only 14, was a startling collection of poetry and prose he had been creating and storing in his mind since the age of 3.
While those youthful writings brought enormous acclaim, in both Britain and Nolan's native Ireland, it's this second volume, an autobiography written in the third person, that's currently rocking the British literary scene. The reader is led through the looking glass into the life of a mute, profoundly handicapped person in a way that has never been achieved before. The style is shrewd, irreverent, moving, joyous, bold.
Nolan is adamant that pity is a false - indeed destructive - prism through which disabled people are generally viewed. In his own case, for example, he's not simply a person who writes rather well, if one takes into account a devastating handicap; this would be the common presumption. He is, as the eminent British critic and Oxford don John Carey has put it, a ``brilliantly gifted young writer,'' whose latest work ``would be possible to praise and analyze ... without reference to his physical condition.''
Ben Pimlott, a London University professor and chairman of the Whitbread biography panel, concurs: ``All one can say is that this is a very extraordinary book. It's a very powerfully written, very truthful book .... I certainly cannot think of any other quite like it .... Sympathy did not play a part in Christopher winning [the awards]. We [the panel] were very conscious of that danger ... and therefore one is actually inclined to lean over the other way. He won because of the merits of his book, period.''
But such is its appeal that Hollywood has already tried to latch onto it. A well-known Los Angeles film producer recently contacted Nolan with the hope of turning his book into a movie. He was wary, however, despite the prospect of huge sums of money. Rejecting the offer, Nolan wrote to the producer: ``Heretofore we have staged crippled man as an object of pity, patted him on the head, allowed sentimentality to flow all around him, and moved onlookers to tears. Now we're in the late eighties and therefore must not allow nuclear-age's children to seem as though they still look through the eyes of stone-age man. I want to highlight the creativity within the brain of a cripple and while not attempting to hide his crippledom I want instead to filter all sob-storied sentiment from his portrait and dwell upon his life, his laughter, his vision, and his nervous normality. Can we ever see eye-to-eye on that schemed scenario?''
The question was rhetorical. Hollywood being Hollywood, he felt strongly in his heart it could not.
Nolan's style of expression - which has already prompted critics to link his name with writers like James Joyce and W.B. Yeats - can only be described as arresting. Oftentimes, he melds poetic imagery with arcane vocabulary to create verbal pictures of uncanny force; language conventions are stretched to their limits.