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Book Review: The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning 

click to enlarge Little, Brown and Company, August 2009, $23.99.
  • Little, Brown and Company, August 2009, $23.99.

Dispirited and disfigured Rwandans attempt ongoing reconciliation through grassroots genocide tribunals. A bereaved family confronts consequences of 9/11. Tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka question faith and fate. A wrongly accused prisoner sits for years in a death-row cell. Twin sisters afflicted with a rare, tortuous congenital disease live out brief, noble existences. Whiting Award-winning writer Peter Trachtenberg tells these and other stories in The Book of Calamities, an ecumenical meditation on the question: What does it mean to suffer?

With enlightened sensitivity, Trachtenberg combines reportage, personal narrative, and moral philosophy to explore “suffering as a spiritual phenomenon,” weighing its effects in terms of large-scale social injustice as well as individual tragedy. “Everybody suffers,” the author concedes, “but Americans have the peculiar delusion that they’re exempt from suffering,” a misapprehension his book “is meant to address.” Trachtenberg achieves this goal, particularly in allowing voices of those who have experienced extreme physical or emotional hardship to emerge.

Divided into five sections relating suffering to circumstance, endurance, justice, God, and obligation, The Book of Calamities unfolds and doubles back on accounts and theories of misfortune as culled from the author’s experiences, interviews, observations, and readings in religion, philosophy, history, and literature. Moral scope (spiritual or judicial) and catastrophic contexts (global or local) are examined through in-depth consideration of religious classics, such as the Book of Job and Digha Nikaya (discourses of the Buddha), as well as writings by early Christian-era philosopher Anicius Boethius, Holocaust-survivor psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and Judeo-Christian moralist Simone Weil, among others. The book’s narratives do not neatly coalesce in a grand articulation, but rather collectively illuminate a timeless, worldwide continuum of suffering. In a chapter titled “The Purpose of the Blindfold,” Andrea Yates’s notorious 2001 killings of her children and subsequent trial (leitmotif for the author’s summoning of various Greek tragedies, notably “Oedipus Rex”) is interspersed with a chronicle of Rwandan atrocities.

A better reporter and storyteller than philosopher or theologian, Trachtenberg writes most forcefully when relaying eyewitness travels (from the Catskills to Calcutta) or personal biography (his previous works include the memoir 7 Tattoos). For instance, he recounts the cancer battle of onetime coworker “Linda,” who stood by the author during his former years of substance abuse, and whose passing awakens him to the consequences of suffering. Elsewhere, he offers a compelling description of a five-day Buddhist retreat he attended at a “holistic education center in upstate New York” (not far from his current Rhinebeck home) among Vietnam vets, invited by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Fleeting yet poignant applications of Trachtenberg’s broad learning—he quotes a single line from Hannah Arendt and presents a brief synopsis of the Edwardian short story “The Monkey’s Tale”—convincingly merge with the story, which culminates in the revered teacher’s “closing dharma talk,” in part spoken directly to the vets, whom he urges “to give up their pain, to relinquish their special claim on it.”

Delivered overall as if intended for ongoing contemplation rather than immediate understanding, in the manner of an extended Zen koan, The Book of Calamities raises more questions than it resolves—perhaps deliberately so. Trachtenberg guides readers toward compassionate acknowledgement of the suffering of others, a necessary step on the path toward spiritual becoming.

Peter Trachtenberg will appear at Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, on 9/12 at 7:30pm.

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