Who is the best dancer among the heroes?

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This content was published on August 20, 2020 - 11:21 am (Keystone-SDA)

In 2003 Christoph Keller published the souvenir novel "The Best Dancer": a book about his family and his muscle disease. In his new work "Every Cripple a Superhero" he continues to weave this narrative thread.

In the epilogue to "Every Cripple a Superhero", Christoph Keller remembers the strenuous work on "The Best Dancer". For the readers, the book is a great, touching reading experience. His author, however, associates him with a growing mistrust since then. "How true can a memory be" when it comes across as a novel, he wonders. In the new book he is looking for a "hybrid, cheeky" answer.

Christoph Keller suffers from a muscle disease called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) which causes him to lose control of his muscular strength. He himself diagnoses it as a "language disorder" based on a communication breakdown between the brain and the body.

How embarrassing for a writer, he notes. But the "disturbance" is at the same time a source for him as an author and as a person, as he writes: "My muscles are my superpower. The weaker they get, the stronger I get."

What is easy to read is the result of a super effort. This is what these "splinters from a life in exclusion" are about - a form of a collage of stories, notes, poems and quotations.

The sensitive K-word

Outwardly, the book presents itself sensationally with the title in a red "exploding" speech bubble. Christoph Keller, as he says in an interview with Keystone-SDA, has quite provocative intentions. Political incorrectness is his "counter-strategy" in order to regain the sensitive K-word "as a compliment" for himself.

People with disabilities are not victims, they stand in the tradition of the mythical heroes from Oedipus to Superman. In order to cope with their everyday lives, they must have "superpowers", which in addition to strength also include acumen and patience, humor and honesty. The latter is perhaps the most important superpower. Recognizing your own disability makes you strong.

For Christoph Keller, it's not about complaining, but about making the issue of disability visible in social discourse. "We talk far too little about it," he emphasizes. Only those who know how difficult it is to "roll over" a city will know the "massive structural discrimination" that handicapped people experience every day.

Often it is not bad intention at all, but a lack of sensitivity. "They just don't think about it," which means accessibility. "Real integration means to be considered." But that is exactly what is lacking. This is the only way to explain that even the latest buildings do without a "universal design" suitable for the disabled.

It could affect us all, he remarks, and asks: "Why don't we take care of each other?" Because we're getting too close? Or because it is too expensive?

With his book, Christoph Keller wants to appeal to our sense of community. His "authority" as a writer helps. He doesn't want to act as a mouthpiece, but "nobody else speaks for us".

With literary skills, he relentlessly brings up the sensitive topic directly, at the same time with wit. He vividly describes how he found peace even with his illness. How he experienced the first signs of disability as a child, later had to reach for a stick, and finally was dependent on a wheelchair.

A literary experiment

"My writing has nothing to do with SMA," says Keller. But as an author, he can add literary intensity to discrimination. One of the strongest passages in his book are the intimate scenes in which he describes in great detail what it means to get up in the morning, go to the toilet or get on a plane.

"Every cripple a superhero" is in this form a sociopolitical appeal and at the same time a literary experiment. Christoph Keller attaches particular importance to this. There are also poems or a longer "bug story", which is just as sophisticated as it is wonderfully changing Kafka's "Metamorphosis". There is also a series of photos showing New York "street barriers".

Most of these texts were written in New York, where Keller lived with his wife until recently. The book thus describes American conditions. But be careful. When it comes to handicapped access, Switzerland lags behind, emphasizes Keller.

In contrast to the USA, there is no legal leverage here. For us, disabled people are not legal entities, but "supplicants" who would like to be portrayed as bitter. Christoph Keller is all the more pleased that his book has already met with a great response. Maybe something will change, and a literary book would have helped. *

* This text by Beat Mazenauer, Keystone-SDA, was realized with the help of the Gottlieb and Hans Vogt Foundation.