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  • Matei’s Enigma
  • Breon Mitchell (bio)

In reading and re-reading Matthew’s Enigma I have come to believe that it is a key work in Matei’s spiritual and intellectual life, one which reveals that special combination of intuitive and reflective thought which characterizes his work as a whole. What follows is intended to introduce the extraordinary qualities of this work to new readers. It is meant as a tribute to my friend and colleague, and to his memory.

Matei’s portrait of his son is a deeply moving search for consolation in the face of a loss beyond words. But it is also, as Norman Manea has said, “an extraordinary and profound meditation on the fragility and the enigma of human existence itself.” Matthew’s Enigma is a work of art that transcends the normal boundaries of our profession, revealing a brilliant mind grappling with the fundamental questions of life.

Matei opens his Preface with these words:

This is a biographical portrait of my son Matthew, who was born on 24 August, 1977, in Bloomington, Indiana, and who died on 1 March 2003 in his hometown, not yet twenty-six. It was written during the forty days after his death, the forty symbolic days that follow all deaths. Throughout those days I was incapable of thinking of anything but him as I wrote, transcribing fragments from my intermittent diaries, trying to capture the fragile truth of memories which haunted me, and which, I knew, would inevitably be lost in the dusk of time. I did not count the days, but it so happened that on the fortieth I felt reconciled to my pain, almost serene in my sadness. The outcome is [End Page 211] this reflection on his life, and also on that part of my life when I did my best to understand the enigma he embodied.

A spiritual exercise, then, but one Matei hoped would help others. His twofold purpose remains constant throughout the book—to move toward self-knowledge, and at the same time to reach out to others who are asking the same questions, trying as parents of autistic children to understand and come to grips with the light and shadow of daily existence.

I’d like to begin by looking at the structure of the work, for much of its power resides in an unusual combination of diary entries, reflections, and critical analysis, offering a profound oscillation between past and present, between writing and reading. Matei himself expresses it thus:

I regard this portrait as a kind of galaxy of fragments, old and more recent diary entries, comments on those comments, memories, reflections, anecdotes, and notes taken while reading (always in relation to him)—all in a more or less random order. Temporally, these fragments will unfold both clockwise and counterclockwise—as I transcribe and write.

The echoes of postmodernist aesthetics in this description are clear, but as so often in Matthew’s Enigma, the scholarly and intellectual modes are suddenly given new resonance. This is no willful self-reflexivity, called into being to undermine our normal sense of time and place, but rather the complex structure of life itself, unfolding before our eyes. Matei allows these fragments to stand on their own, to comment upon themselves, to coalesce in and over time, to mold themselves into a radiant whole.

The Diary

J.M. Coetzee has spoken of the diary as particularly effective narrative form, precisely because neither the reader nor the diary’s author knows what lies ahead. Facing life one day at a time, reader and diarist share a special sense of tension and anticipation. For both, the future is a blank page.

All diaries are meant to be reread: we return to them to recall forgotten moments in our lives—moments that once seemed important, but have since fallen into oblivion, or others, barely noted, around which we now sense an aura of premonition. In Matthew’s Enigma, the diary entries take on a third level of complexity. The author of this diary did not know what the future held, but the author of Matthew’s Enigma does, and the diary is read and reread in a quest...


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pp. 211-218
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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