Two Mentions of Addis Ababa in One Week

I’ve been gone. I’ve been living in Addis Ababa for the last couple of weeks. I’ve just finished reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, and truly, I wish it weren’t over. Although now, my life seems ridiculously plentiful and straightforward in comparison.

When I began, I have to admit I sighed a little, seeing that it was going to be another epic novel chronicling generations from the old country, right up to contemporary days in the U.S.A. like Middlesex (which was also a great read). And then I sighed again when I saw that I’d be reading through a political uprising in Ethiopia – I don’t have anything against Ethiopia – but I since I know next-to-nothing about that country, I knew I was going to have expend energy paying close attention to the text. But Dr. Verghese, who teaches medicine at Stanford, has supernaturally well balanced right and left lobes going for him. By that, I mean, Verghese’s prose goes from detailed specifics of a surgical maneuver to an infant’s poetic rhapsody upon discovering a breast and he manages to keep it all fascinating; Verghese is a brilliant and rich writer. Some books I read (Shanghai Girls by Lisa See), and I think, I could totally be a writer like that – other books, like this one – I finish and think, oh dear God, I could never be such a writer.

I am so enamored of this book that I am recommending it to both my parents as summer reading for our cruise in July. (My dad’s treating the family to a 10-day cruise up the Northeast coast and I’ve nominated myself as the official summer book guide: Mom – The Help by Kathryn Stockett; Dad – Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese; Sue – The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins; Joss –  Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; Songbae – The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan)

I’ll let the text speak for itself. Marion and Shiva are identical conjoined twins, who are surgically separated at birth. This passage describes Marion in the arms of the housekeeper/nanny. I want to share a second excerpt, where Ghosh teaches another doctor how to perform a vasectomy, but we’ll see how long Christian naps.

I whimper on Almaz’s shoulder, perilously close to bubbling cauldrons.

Almaz puts down the stirring ladle and shifts me to her hip. Reaching into her blouse, grunting with effort, she fishes out her breast.

“Here it is,” she says, putting in my hands for safekeeping.

I am the recipient of many gifts, but this is the first one I remember. Each time it is given to me it is a surprise. When it is taken away, the slate is wiped clean. But here it is, warm and alive, eased out of its cloth bed, bestowed on me like a medal I don’t deserve. Almaz, who hardly speaks, resumes stirring, humming a tune. It is as if the breast no more belongs to her than does her ladle.

Shiva in the pram puts down his wooden truck, which saliva has digested to a soggy pulp. It is, unlike his anklet, separable from him if need be. In the presence of that magnificent one-eyed teat, Shiva lets the truck fall to the floor. Though I have possession of the breast, stroking it, palpating it, I am also his amanuensis.

A rapt Shiva spurs me on and sends silent instructions: Throw it to me. And when I cannot, he says, Open it and see what is inside. That, too, is impossible. I mold it, indent it, and watch it rebound.

Put it to your mouth, Shiva says because this it the first means by which he knows the world. I dismiss this idea as absurd.

The breast is everything Almaz is not: Laughing, vibrant, an outgoing member of our household.

When I try and lift it, to examine it, that teat dwarfs my hands and spills out between my fingers. I wish to confirm how all its surfaces sweep up to the summit, the dark pap through which it breathes and sees the world. The breast comes down to my knees. Or perhaps it comes down to Almaz’s knees. I can’t be sure. It quivers like jelly. Steam condenses on its surface, dulling its sheen. It carries the scent ot crushed ginger and cumin powder from Almaz’s fingers. Year later, when I first kiss a woman’s breast, I become ravenous.

A flash of light and a blast of crisp air announce Rosina’s return. I am back in her arms, removed from the breast which vanishes as mysteriously as it has appeared, swallowed by Almaz’s blouse.

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