Skin by Sergio del Molino review – a meditation on psoriasis and the psyche | Books

Sergio del Molino was 21 when he first experienced symptoms of psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes an overproduction of epidermal cells, resulting in flaking on the surface of the skin. These scales appear as red spots that crack and sometimes bleed. For the next 20 years, Del Molino endured considerable physical discomfort – arthritis, back pain, chronic fatigue – and body shame; he avoided wearing T-shirts and shorts, and even in the height of summer he had his shirt buttons fully closed. Medical interventions provided only limited relief until a drug called adalimumab brought the disease under control.

Del Molino achieved literary notoriety in his native Spain with an award-winning memoir about the loss of his baby, who died of leukemia before his second birthday. La Hora Violeta (2013)published in English as The Violet Hour (2016) – was a scholarly essay on bereavement and mortality. In his latest book, published in Spain in 2020, and translated into English by Thomas Bunstead, the story of his illness is a springboard for a far-reaching meditation, in which the author revisits the lives of several notable psoriasis sufferers – from notorious thugs such as Joseph Stalin and Pablo Escobar to literary deans John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov – to explore the link between the skin and the psyche.

That Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936-38 was orchestrated by two fellow psoriasis sufferers – secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov and prosecutor Andrei Vishinski – strikes Del Molino as a coincidence worth considering: “What is the probability that a dictator with psoriasis recruits two henchmen with psoriasis? the same disease to carry out his most ambitious plan of extermination? He playfully suggests that we could think of the crackdown campaign as pure psychodrama – an industrial-scale revenge fantasy: “It was all about skin irritation, rheumatic pains, shame.” Conversely, on a happier note, Updike credited his psoriasis with driving his talent, remarking in his memoir that: “Whenever in my timid life I showed courage and originality, c is because of my skin”.

A common theme is the chicken and egg question of whether ill health determines mood and character, or the other way around. The onset of Nabokov’s psoriasis during his French exile in 1937 coincided with his extramarital romance, which was enough to convince him that it had been brought on by stress and guilt, and that he should end the affair. ‘case. Perusing Nabokov’s letters to his wife, Vera, Del Molino observes that Nabokov’s tone changes markedly after obtaining free skin treatment from a fellow émigré: “As soon as the psoriasis is treated, the irritation in the The person’s words also disappear, a boil goes into the things they say and their adjectives become scaly.

The great strength of the thematic memoir – the very elasticity of the format, which makes it possible to link all sorts of disparate things to a central concept – can also be a weakness: if the hook is too tenuous, the reader begins to feel patronized. Del Molino’s chapter on pop singer and psoriasis sufferer Cyndi Lauper, in which he celebrates her 1983 hit Girls Just Want to Have Fun and makes a compelling case for radical leisure politics, is one example. The link to Lauper’s psoriasis — which materialized more than two decades after its peak in the 1980s — is misconceived. Similarly, a chapter on skin color and racism, while compelling and insightful, sits a bit awkwardly alongside the rest of the material.

In fairness, del Molino’s digressions are generally good value for money. There is a touching anecdote about the time he unwittingly gave a lung cancer patient a cigarette on an oncology ward, which prompted sober reflection on the flat, quasi-militaristic rhetoric around terminal illness: “Society has all the time in the world for optimists. fight, and not at all for cantankerous old men who smoke cigarettes in hospital wards. The sentiment is reminiscent of Anne Boyer’s powerful cancer memoir, The Undying (2019), who dissects this question at length.

The idea of ​​a correlation between physical and moral ugliness takes us into tricky ethical terrain. When Del Molino speculates that “those who have become monsters because of skin conditions have a desire to pass on their blemishes, rashes, and wounds to everyone else,” he’s relying on an age-old misconception. Pop culture is full of malevolent villains who are embittered and vengeful due to disfigurement or disability. The trope plays on and reinforces ableist biases, but its psychological plausibility makes it enduringly appealing. Skin embraces this contradiction between our best impulses and our innermost anxieties: none of us, no matter how enlightened, are entirely immune to this sort of thing. Two decades of illness shaped Del Molino’s sense of himself as a monster. When his symptoms finally subsided, the shame lingered: “In some way that I can’t explain, I’m still a leper with a bell around my neck.”

Skin by Sergio del Molino, trans Thomas Bunstead, is published by Polity (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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