Difficult Light by Colombian author Tomás González is a poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.
Our narrator is David, a painter by profession, who is now residing alone in a village in his native Colombia since the death of his wife, Sara, a couple of years ago. David’s specialty is capturing light in his paintings, and he has earned some renown for his craft. However, in his old age, David’s eyesight is failing because of macular degeneration, and he is gradually turning blind. The forms and shapes he discerns appear fluid and liquid rather than distinct and concrete. Thus, forced to give up painting, David turns to writing instead and this book in a way is his attempt to record some of the most difficult moments in his past.
In brief we learn that David and Sara marry in their early twenties, and despite some initial hiccups, theirs is a healthy marriage, only strengthened as the years roll by. Along with their three sons – Jacobo, Pablo and Arturo – the couple, after a brief stint in Miami, eventually move to New York. Sara and the boys settle down quickly in the megapolis, she in her new position as a counselor in a hospital, and the boys in college. David finds it difficult initially to adapt to the city, the noise is too much and the space is cramped. But a move to a larger apartment with a lot of light streaming in does wonders and David begins to make some strides in his art. With things coasting along smoothly, those are some of the happiest times that he recalls. And then tragedy strikes.
An inkling of this is provided in the first chapter itself. Indeed, I had to read the last couple of lines twice to make sense of what is happening, was it a translation mistake?
“…until I was awakened at seven by the knot of grief in my belly at the death of my son Jacobo, which we’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock in new York.”
The background to this development is this – Jacobo is on his way home in a taxi, when an oncoming vehicle driven by a drunk junkie rams into it. The taxi driver emerges unscathed, but Jacob’s life is shattered. The accident leaves Jacobo paralyzed from the waist below. But the irony is that while his lower body is now useless, the pain completely engulfs him. So soul crushing and immense it is that he begins to wonder whether death is not a better option.
This particular development and its harrowing consequences form the bulk of the book. Jacobo and Pablo, who in many ways is Jacobo’s anchor now, travel to Portland to induce death enlisting the help of a doctor.
I enjoyed nearly two years of artistic plenitude, a happiness that also brought with it pangs of anguish: I was finding treasures everywhere, like someone for whom the stones in the road were suddenly gemstones. How could I have known what was coming! Misfortune is always like the wind: natural, unforeseeable, effortless…
We are also shown a window into David and Sara’s personalities – David is the silent, melancholy type, while Sara is more extroverted and warm and able to connect with people better. David and Sara are extremely supportive of Jacobo’s decision, and yet the impending death of their eldest son is a source of heartbreak as well. When the doctor postpones the procedure by a few hours, David and Sara are filled with hope that maybe the doctor might not arrive or that Jacobo might change his mind. This heightens the narrative tension of the story, as the reader, while aware that his death is inevitable, is still left wondering whether Jacobo might not go through with it after all.
Difficult Light, then, is an unblinking meditation on grief, loss and our capacity for pain as humans. At a fundamental level, it questions whether an individual has the right to end his life rather than live an undignified existence of unrelenting pain. David and Sara, in their ways, understand the unbearable ordeal his son has to endure on a daily basis, and yet the hell that Jacobo experiences is something that only he can fathom.
Interspersed with this central theme, are David’s reflections on his paintings and the light he is always trying to capture. David also wrestles with the notion of fame. He craves for it in his earlier years, only for it to be denied. It’s only after Jacobo’s accident that fame and money come knocking on his door, and the irony is not lost on David – now he wants to shun the limelight, but has to grudgingly accept that the money is crucial for Jacobo’s treatment.
What I also liked in the book is the portrayal of David’s family. On the day of Jacobo’s scheduled death, the family members and friends gather around in their house to show support – not by continuously doling out words of comfort, but by just being there. The palpable sense of tension and anxiety is punctuated by moments of talk and camaraderie as the family navigates the seemingly endless hours of waiting.
So many years have passed since then that even the pain in my heart has gradually dried up, like the moisture in a piece of fruit, and only rarely now am I suddenly shaken by the memory of what happened, as if it happened yesterday, and swallow hard to contain a sob. But it does still happen, and I nearly double over with grief. But at other times, I think of my son, and then I feel such warmth that in those moments it even seems to me that life is eternal, restful and eternal, and pain is an illusion.
González’s prose is crystal clear, limpid and sensitive whether he is describing the anguish of his characters, the debilitating impact of grief as well as the healing power of art especially the joy of nailing it right. When showcasing the family’s plight around Jacobo’s fate, González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a beautiful book that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”