[BOOK REVIEW] " FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON " / by Daniel Keyes, 1966
[SOCIAL AND PASTORAL BULLETIN No. 153 / Feb. 15, 2010]

This is my second time to deal with a novel in this Book Review section. This time I have selected an American science fiction novel published in 1966 which became a world best seller. Years later it was also translated into Japanese. I can still remember how greatly I was moved when I read it. I am introducing it here because it appeared again as a pocket book in Japanese in 1999 and in less than a year had 27 printings. This novel is a lovable masterpiece transcending all times.
Most science fiction novels have as a selling point the surprising originality of their plot, and thus it is considered taboo to reveal the whole story in a review like this, but I don't think this taboo applies here. The story is quite simple. Charlie, suffering from mental retardation, goes to study at an academy while working in a bakery. As a result of brain surgery his intelligence develops to such a great extent that he becomes a super-genius for a time, until it is discovered that the operation was a failure. The novel spells out, in the form of a diary, the 11 months left to Charlie till he relapses into his former mental condition.
What makes this novel interesting is the mental status of Charlie, whose intelligence improves in such a way that his memory, knowledge, and awareness of other people clear up like the sun chasing a fog away. The literary style of the diary shows this skillfully. At the beginning of the diary the Japanese translation uses almost no Japanese characters or cut sentences. Former remembrances are ambiguous and there seems to be no understanding whatever of what people say. Then, little by little the literary style becomes refined, his memory returns and what people say is understood. If everything ended there, it would be a happy story.
However, the realities of the surrounding world begin to appear openly and, as a result, Charlie finds it difficult to trust people. The workers at the bakery whom he thought were his companions have been making mockery of him. His disability occasions family conflicts up to the point of provoking his parents' divorce. He also finds out that the university professor who performed his operation did it not as the result of a noble vocation but just to acquire fame. The improvement of his intelligence so much desired by Charlie discloses the ugly realities present in the world.
Charlie soon changes into a superman and with the progress of time tends to think of everyone as stupid, so that people around him become afraid of him and avoid his company. Charlie starts to feel lonely. Then, the least he can do is to dedicate himself to research, and one day he discovers a fatal mistake in the surgery that was performed on him and realizes that within a short time he will be reverting to his former mental disability. Fear strikes him deeply. The diary shifts gradually into a childish literary style, while Charlie fights desperately with the decrease of his mental faculties. The ambiguity of his memory and social awareness returns. The shift in literary style manifests this dramatic reversal.
The Japanese introduction to the novel presents letters sent to the author by two people. One of these is a gentleman who, worried about his advancing age, compares Charlie's fear of the diminution of his mental faculties with his own fear in confronting old age. The other person is a girl with learning handicaps who is the object of bullying at school and superimposes Charlie's attitude on her own. How much the human capacity of mental recognition influences people's relationships with others! Without doubt, this could be the main reason why this book remained a best seller for so long.
Moreover, this novel contains hidden secrets for people to continue living. What do people need to obtain happiness? Where are the values of a human person? What does it mean to have true respect for other people? Charlie's suffering points to many actual realities.
"Algernon" in the title is the name of the mouse used in the laboratory in preparation for the operation performed on Charlie. The experiment with Algernon, before that with Charlie, resulted in the improvement of its brain followed by its decline and premature death. Normally, Algernon's body would be incinerated, but Charlie buries it and at the end of his diary asks to have people visit the grave and offer flowers even after he will have completely forgotten about Algernon because of the decline of his mental faculties. Are not, most probably, his last words a testimony of his real compassion? This book, with its sad ending, is the most beautiful novel I have ever read.

(Shibata Yukinori, Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)
=====     Copyright ®1997-2007 Jesuit Social Center All Rights Reserved     =====