Friday, 24 June 2011

Jane Austen and Broken-Hearted Octopuses

In Martin Amis' novel Other People there's a girl whose only knowledge of life comes from reading the novels of Jane Austen.

She read The Jane Austen Gift-Pack. The six stories it contained spoke more directly to her than anything else had done. The same thing happened in every book: the girl liked a bad man who seemed good, then liked a good man who had seemed bad, whom she duly married. What was wrong with the bad men who seemed good? They were unmanly, and lacked candour, and, in at least two clear instances, fucked other people.

This limited experience of life is a problem when she has to lie to the police:

'How old are you . . . Mary Lamb? Do your parents know what you get up to?'
'I'm in my twenty-fifth year,' said Mary carefully. 'My parents died.'
'Of what?'
Mary hesitated. 'One of consumption,' she said, 'the other of a broken heart.'
'People don't die of those things any more. Well they do, but we call it something else these days.'

Actually, we don't. A cardiologist friend of mine told me that, just as it is possible to tug on somebody's heart-strings, so it is medically possible to be broken hearted. It is actually called broken-heart syndrome and involves the sudden weakening of one of the muscles of the heart. It is sometimes brought on by emotional strain, such as the death of your beloved, and is usually fatal. This means that it is quite possible to die of a broken heart.

However, doctors don't usually call it broken-heart syndrome. They call it takotsubo, which is Japanese for octopus trap. That may sound a trifle odd, but when you're broken hearted your left ventricle swells up until it's just the same shape as a traditional Japanese octopus trap. Like this:

The poor (but delicious) octopuses find the pot and think it would make a nice home, so they crawl inside and, once snug, the wily fisherman pulls it up to the surface, cooks his tenant and leaves the other octopuses broken-hearted.

They usually die.

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