10 Discussion Questions
for Born Twice
by Guiseppe Pontigga
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Giuseppe Pontiggia (1934–2003) won Italy’s highest literary honor, the Strega Prize, for Born Twice, a novel about a father who tries to understand his brain-damaged son and deal with the cruelties inflicted on children with disabilities. A review of the book appeared on March 8, 2007, on One-Minute Book Reviews and is archived in “Novels” category and with the March 2007 posts on that site.
Questions For Reading Groups about Born Twice
1) The cover of the paperback edition describes Born Twice as “a novel of fatherhood.” How accurate is that description? What is this book “about” besides fatherhood?
2) Born Twice is about a teacher whose son, Paolo, suffered brain damage at birth. [Page 21] Paolo has dystonic spastic quadriparesis, which affects his ability to speak and move. [Page 25] Compared with other books about serious conditions, Born Twice offers relatively few medical details. It doesn’t analyze research on the disease or end with a prognosis for Paolo’s adult life. When doctors appear, Pontiggia tends to focus on their personal reactions to his son’s condition. Why?
3) Pontiggia said in interviews that Born Twice grew partly out of his experiences but that he didn’t want to write an autobiography because it would have “enslaved me to the literality of facts.” And some critics have called the book a “fictionalized memoir.” How might your view of the book differ if the author had called it a “memoir” instead of a “novel”? How would it differ if you learned that Pontiggia didn’t have a brain-damaged child and had made everything up? What are some of things that make this book succeed despite the ambiguity about its genre?
4) Questions about what is and isn’t “normal” arise frequently in the novel, including in the chapter, “What Is Normal?” [Page 28] But Pontiggia’s message is more complex than, “People with disabilities are normal” or “People with disabilities aren’t normal.” What is saying about what we call “normality”?
5) Frigerio suggests ”it’s not by denying the existence of difference that we can fight it, but by modifying our image of the norm.” [Page 28] Translator Lawrence Venuti praised the idea in a review of Born Twice but added: “Yet this remark erases important distinctions — is race or sex the same as a birth defect? — and seems to argue for the misguided notion that one must ‘fight’ difference instead of negotiating or respecting it. Still, Frigerio’s memoir compellingly argues that the limitations of others can be valuable in revealing our own.” [The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 13, 2002] Pontiggia does at times seem to draw parallels between cruelty to people with disabilities and mistreatment groups such as homosexuals or women who victimized by “psychological rapists.” [Page 54] What do you think he is saying in this book about Italian society or Western culture?
6) A psychiatrist might say that Frigerio and his wife, Franca, were at first “in denial” about their son’s disability. For example, they reject a physiotherapist who shows them how Paolo may walk. [Page 27] But Pontiggia and his translator avoid the word “denial” and other terms that we are used to hearing in discussions of serious medical conditions. How does his book benefit from this?
7) Frigerio’s 80-year-old father-in-law loses memory late in the book because his cerebral cortex has begun to atrophy. [Page 182] His situation has obvious similarities to Paolo’s, so this section helps to give the novel thematic and structural cohesion. Pontiggia uses scenes involving other characters in this way, too. What are some of them?
8) The tone of this book shifts at times – for example, from outrage to humor. What parts do you find ironic or amusing? Why do you think the tonal shifts occur? How would you describe the overall tone of the book? [If you see an emoticon instead of the number 8, it is accidental.]
9) Pontiggia is an epigrammatic writer who salts his book with memorable lines such as, “”No autocrat ever had as much power as the one who ignores all the limits.” [Page 62] What are your favorite lines?
10) Many novels about illness involve medical breakthroughs or near-death experiences that lead to major changes in at least one character. Not Born Twice. The most dramatic event occurs in the first pages when Paolo is born. What are some of the ways in which Frigerio does change? What kind of transformations have occurred in him and others by the last page?
Born Twice won the Strega Prize, Italty’s highest literary honor. How does it compare to recent novels you have read that have won American prizes such as the National Book Award? Do you think this novel could have won a major award here? Why or why not?
Born Twice. By Giuseppe Pontiggia. Translated From the Italian by Oonagh Stransky, 192 pp., Vintage, $13, paperback. Published: October 2003.
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