November 01, 2011

Underwater Hero

Underwater Hero

In 1927 the writer Alexander Belyayev wrote a story about a young man who was able to live under water, thanks to a childhood transplant operation that had given him gills. From that day forward, Ichthyander (literally "fish man," the name he was given by his adoptive father, a scientist named Salvador) became a human amphibian, forced to divide his time between water and land.

When Belyayev wrote this book, which became one of his most popular novels, he had already been through a great deal. For many years he had been bedridden with tuberculosis, completely deprived of mobility. He eventually succeeded in overcoming this disease and returned to normal life. Little did he know what lay in store: his own starvation in Nazi-occupied territory and his family's subsequent deportation to Germany. For the time being, however, Belyayev was able to enjoy his restored ability to move – and to write. We will never know exactly how his years of infirmity influenced his decision to produce fantastic works in which amazing, impossible things happened to people, but there seems to be a strong connection between his own experience and his fiction.

One of his first works was Professor Dowell's Head, a disturbing story about disembodied heads that retain the ability to live, to think, and to feel – but not to move. Amphibian Man was written in Moscow, but of course Belyayev remembered all the years he struggled with disease in Yalta, on the shores of the Black Sea. It must have been there that he was first struck by the thought of how marvelous it would be to swim freely under the sea, especially if it would still be possible to return to dry land, to people.

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