Heart and soul

by David Eggleton / 12 August, 2006
Andrew Fiu and the chamber of secrets: Purple Heart is a New Zealand memoir of illness and struggle.
The heart cannot regenerate itself. Damaged heart tissue stays damaged. And though the normal beating heart is red, the bruised heart, the damaged heart, is purple. In Purple Heart, Ta'afuli Andrew Fiu offers what is at once an often comic memoir of body consciousness, an account of coping with an erratic, prematurely weakened circulatory system, and an affirmative essay on how his lifelong struggle against an ever-looming total eclipse of the heart has helped concentrate his mind. For all of us, the heart vaguely symbolises emotional destiny, life's echo chamber, the talisman of existence and so on, but for Andrew Fiu the constant monitoring of his patched-up heart gives those phrases a sharply ironical twist.

Fiu emigrated to New Zealand from Samoa with his family in 1970 at the age of five, and the early part of his auto-biography is redolent both with memories of childhood in Summer St in Auckland's Ponsonby and with descriptions of the culture-shock adjustments faced by new migrants. Fiu has the conversational style of a motivational speaker: one who uses anecdotes about dawn raids, and misunderstandings in a Four Square shop, and his arbitrary renaming at convent school, to authenticate his basically sunny outlook.

In 1977, his hard-working parents shift the family out to the tract of lumpen proletariat suburbia that is Mangere, and Fiu begins trekking from his home on one side of the suburb to De La Salle College on the other. In the winter of 1979, he catches a bad cold and, while playing rugby for the school's Second XV, collapses. He is mis-diagnosed with flu, his untreated rheumatic fever flares up into heart trouble and he is admitted to Middlemore Hospital.

Aged 14, Fiu embarks on a journey through illness that will involve a world-record five open-heart-surgery operations and more than three and a half years in hospital to date. Shunted in and out of intensive care, Fiu leads a life that is all incident: he is a father at 17, learning the news via a handwritten note while sitting a school exam; when not in hospital as a patient, he works there as an orderly, eventually moving on to a career in sales and promotions before setting up his own business. But throughout, Death dogs him - a song he identifies with is Nina Simone's African-American slave anthem "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free".

In the end, Fiu's autobiography is a flurry of selected memories and mixed emotions, but in tracing personal turmoil his touch is light, and though sometimes wry, he's never self-pitying: rather, he celebrates the human comedy. The book's something of a multicultural festival, with a vast cast that ranges from a sprawling conglomeration of relatives - cousins, aunties, uncles, sisters, children, a grandchild, partners past and present - to doctors, nurses, orderlies to motley patients to fellow workers and employers.

Stuck on Cardiac Row, Fiu receives benign treatment from the likes of surgeon Alan Kerr, and malign treatment from the likes of Mr Weston, a venomous elderly white male who sounds off with racist diatribes from his sickbed opposite, before eventually kicking the bucket (but not without a deathbed letter to Andrew recanting his bigotry, which is a bit bemusing in light of his former intractable belligerence).

And although his family keep bedside vigils, Andrew also battles with the religious wishes of his well-meaning parents. He tells us how scheduled surgery at Green Lane Hospital had to be postponed after he returned feverish from a weekend faith-healing session in West Auckland, where a congregation staged a laying-on of hands and a casting-out of demons. "I felt as if I was in the middle of a custody battle: the spirit world, my parents and my culture on one side and common sense and depression on the other."

During long hospital nights of the heart, Fiu debates God, Death and Heaven with Mormons, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses and atheists, but his own take is ambivalent. In 1995, during a near-fatal heart attack on Ponsonby Rd, he has an out-of-body experience and a brief trip to the after-life - which resembles his early childhood in Samoa - where he sees his grandmother again: she counsels him to turn around, go back and stay alive. Meanwhile, two off-duty police officers, celebrating their being awarded First Aid certificates at a nearby wine bar, rush up and revive him. He later discovers that for four minutes he was technically dead.
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