Every day, the headlines are heartbreaking: the children orphaned in Haiti, the victims of bomb blasts in Baghdad—to say nothing of all the people who don't make the news with their pink slips or foreclosure notices. Still, each of us can get bummed out by our own quotidian problems—your mother-in-law is visiting again?—no matter how ridiculously small. So here's another reality check for serial whiners: Hugues de Montalembert's Invisible, a mini-memoir of loss in which the dirtiest word is "pity," especially when used with the prefix "self." This slender volume puts questions of life and suffering into sharp focus, without sanctimony or sentimentality—qualities which would deeply embarrass its worldly author.
Thirty years ago, de Montalembert was enjoying life in New York City as a painter and a filmmaker when he burst in on two thieves trashing his apartment. One of them threw paint remover in his face. By the next morning, the 35-year-old artist was totally blind. He plunged as deeply into despair as he did into the darkness that greeted him each morning when he awoke in the hospital after dreaming that he could see. Some friends vanished; his girlfriend refused to see him. When his mother wanted to rush from France to his bedside, he said no—he knew he would end up consoling her. "People hate tragedy," he writes simply. Yet those he didn't know—doctors, nurses, other patients—would talk to him, often confiding intimate details of their lives. He realized it was because they knew he couldn't see them. They would be as anonymous as if he were a priest in a darkened confessional.
What's inspiring—he would hate that word, too—is how ferociously de Montalembert leapt back into the world, a world made more enormous by his blindness. Always a relentless traveler—and now a terrified, blind traveler—he forced himself to journey solo to Bali, a place he had loved when he could see. Later he went alone to India, including a trek to the Himalayas, in pursuit of a ballerina with whom he'd fallen in love. Love wasn't just a consolation but the act that reignited the idea of being alive. Still, he had to face what was lost. "If you love somebody and you cannot look into the eyes of the person, something is missing," he writes. "All the rest, her beauty, the shape of her body, you see everything but—the expression in her eyes, that is something you will never be able to touch."
De Montalembert's mind teems with vivid images, memories of what he once saw as well as of the new pictures and little films his imagination creates. (A documentary he wrote, Black Sun, used impressionistic photography in an attempt to re-create his experience of the world.) In his book, the artist writes that he knew perfectly well the face of an old friend—until the friend reminded him they didn't meet until after he was blind. But de Montalembert does recall a beautiful little girl in a Saigon orphanage, when he was a photographer during the Vietnam War, who sat alone as the other children played, because she had lost both arms to a land mine.
De Montalembert is clear about the good fortune in his life. He lives in Paris, Denmark, and Majorca with his wife of 15 years, the artist Lin Utzon (daughter of the architect Jørn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House). He writes and has a host of international friendships. "The fact that I lost my sight is very spectacular," he says, "but there are things which are much more terrible." De Montalembert wears a cool-looking, custom-made steel mask in the shape of aviator glasses to cover his damaged eyes. In Paris one day, a Cambodian taxi driver extended his sympathy for de Montalembert's obvious plight. The author thanked him but remarked that there were "people much more wounded than me." The cabbie was silent and then said that his wife and children had been killed before his eyes in Cambodia. "So there he was," the author writes, "driving his cab in Paris with this huge wound that nobody could see." Except, of course, for the man who was blind.