Tracy Kidder tries to transcribe human lives

Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World,” inspired legions of young people to go out and do something for the poor and disenfranchised. It also lighted a fire under donors -- the checks came pouring in to Farmer’s Boston-based organization, Partners in Health, which builds medical clinics in poor communities around the world.

This was not Kidder’s intention. He is not a proselytizer, but, because he believes in Farmer and his work, it has been a pleasant side effect. He was just doing the kind of literary journalism that involves seeing the world through the eyes of those he writes about; not judging them, simply presenting them as they move through life.

This is much more difficult than it sounds. Kidder is one of the best, if not the best, at it, garnering a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and generations of grateful readers. His portraits -- of a computer design team,a contractor and client, a town, and now, a refugee from the genocide in Burundi -- are full and thorny; readers must grapple with the issues a life can turn up as they find their own worlds enlarged.

Which is exactly what Farmer did for Kidder. The two met when Kidder was reporting in Haiti. Kidder would go on to profile Farmer for the New Yorker, a piece that led to “Mountains.” And it was Farmer who introduced Kidder to Deogratias, the subject of Kidder’s new book, “Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness.”

Deo is a refugee from horror. He grew up in a village in Burundi and fled a 1993 coup that led to harrowing massacres and the shutdown of the medical school where he was a student. Helped by a series of human angels, he escaped over the border into Rwanda and, in 1994, in the thick of the Rwandan genocide, he came to New York City. Deo was 20 and homeless. He lived in Central Park, worked for supermarkets and taught himself English.

Delivering groceries, he met a remarkable woman who set out to find him a home and did, with a couple in SoHo. Deo worked his way through Columbia, studying philosophy. Then he went on to the Harvard School of Public Health, where he attended a lecture given by Farmer. Deo contacted Farmer and was soon hired at Partners in Health, as a translator and then as a research assistant.

This awakened his desire to go back to medical school. He got into Dartmouth and, in 2006, fulfilling a childhood dream, founded an organization called Village Health Works, raising money to build a medical clinic in his village of Kigutu. In its first year, the clinic treated 28,000 patients, mostly free of charge.

Burundi’s ethnic civil war lasted 13 years after Deo, hiding under a bed, had narrowly escaped death. Three hundred thousand Burundians died, including several members of his family. Violence is still a regular occurrence. Last month, a man named Claude Niyokindi, driving a car full of clinic staffers, was shot to death on the road leading to the clinic. “What is clear,” Kidder wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “is that Village Health Works will endure and grow. When they heard the news of Claude’s murder, residents of Kigutu formed a human shield around their clinic. In the days that followed, hundreds, including the governor of the province, attended rallies at the site.”

Speaking of the past

When I arrived at Kidder’s gray-shingled house, he was still reeling from the slaying. One of the unsettling aspects for him about this book was the importance of protecting Deo and his family. Another was the Burundian idea of gusimbura: While we in the West have come to believe in the importance of memory, of telling your story, Burundians do not talk about the dead. This made Kidder’s job even more difficult. Deo had told his story to his co-workers, but it took extraordinary tact and persistence for Kidder to re-create it.

Kidder is sympathetic to the limitations of the Western tendency to spill one’s guts. He grew up in New York,went to prep school and Harvard and served in Vietnam from 1967 to ’69. His 2005 memoir of his time in the military, “My Detachment,” a remarkable, honest book, reveals more about the author’s self-delusion than the facts of his life. (“My father,” he says, “spent too much time on Wall Street. He was very laconic. My mother, who was French, was not. I’m a little bit of both.”)

Kidder is given to springy movements and is tall enough to have to fold himself around most pieces of furniture. When he talks, he passes his hand over his eyes and forehead, as if to refocus. I have been told that the writer talks more with the help of a little wine. I have, shamelessly, brought a bottle, ostensibly as a house gift, which I proceed to drink alone -- Kidder and his wife, Frannie, a painter, went to a party the night before and are taking a break.

Outside are a quiet cove and pines. The Kidders live part of the year here and spend the cooler months in Northampton, Mass., although Kidder drops that he would be perfectly happy living full-time in these woods. The small cottage where he writes is just down the hill from the house. There’s a little screened porch in front. From here you can see the cove. The water is deep green; tide marks line the rocks. Two hammocks are strung up on a rise.

Kidder remembers his youth on Long Island, the farms around Oyster Bay and the fantastic light. He remembers his grandmother’s garret apartment in the Dakota and great freedom in the city to ride the subways. His father loved the sea, sailing. He’d come home and strip off his business attire until he was almost naked in a boat. “Their romance,” he says of his parents, “was embarrassing.” His mother taught high school English. People still tell Kidder about how she gave advice to girls who confided they were pregnant.

After receiving his MFA in 1974 from the storied program at the University of Iowa, Kidder knew he wanted to write about work, the nature and dignity of it. He had written his first article (a Truman Capote-style piece about a murder) for the Atlantic in 1973, which became “The Road to Yuba City.” (Kidder says he regrets the book and has bought back the rights.)

After that, he says, “I found myself wanting to write about someone who was intensely good. I don’t know why. John Updike once said that it was impossible to write about virtue -- the characters so often turn out saccharine.” Yet Kidder wanted to try, on paper, to imagine a world in which evil did not triumph.

This book opens on a trip Kidder and Deo made to Burundi in 2006. “You set someone in motion, try to hear them thinking,” Kidder says. Deo never refused to answer his questions. The process was exhausting and exhilarating for both. “It must be terribly lonely,” he says, “to have a story you keep to yourself.”

So how does he approach his chosen subjects? “When I was young I’d report on a story and I’d have all these assumptions; it was upsetting to learn I was wrong,” he says. Now, he often expects to be wrong, to be overwhelmed by something he didn’t want to acknowledge. Something like evil, which he understands as a religious concept. While religion often drives him “crazy . . . what I do like is that religion reminds us that we don’t know everything.”

Changed by his subjects

The writer insists that he’s really just in it for the story; that no matter how embarrassed or uncomfortable he might feel, he appreciates good material. “I didn’t set out to write these books to do a good deed,” he says. “I’m a writer, first of all.”

“Mountains” gave Kidder a chance to confront the question of goodness head on, since Farmer’s outsized virtue at times made him uncomfortable. He struggled against sounding sycophantic. Still, every so often Kidder would be numbed by something he saw, a child dying of tuberculosis, or, in the new book, a building, now a memorial, in which thousands were slaughtered.

When the distance failed him, Kidder wrote about that too. What he did feel, particularly at the memorial, was the distance between what Deo felt and what he felt: “There’s an invitation to falsify, to think, ‘This is what I’m supposed to feel.’ ” Kidder works hard to tell the truth, about himself and the people through whom he sees the world. When Deo and Kidder visited the hospital where Deo was almost killed, Kidder reacted differently.

“While the memorial was an intentional place, a place designed to help you feel something, the hospital was terrifying. I have never been so spooked. I felt like I was inside a dream that Deo was dreaming. I was scared. I was really scared. I just wanted to come back here.”

He looks past the screen. A swimmer makes a splash in the water. “What I’m not saying is that I don’t care. I do feel that having seen the misery and there being such vivid evidence of it in Haiti and Burundi, I have an obligation to do what I can. . . . I want to be inside. I don’t think I can fully imagine what these people live through but I believe in the possibility of imagining. Writing helps people to imagine the experience of others.”

Kidder isn’t sure what he’ll write next, perhaps a book on learning Italian, something a little closer to home. He took classes at Smith and says the other students were appalled at how he threw himself into it, gesticulating and imitating the music of the language. (“Isn’t that,” he asks, “what Italian is all about?”)

Down by the water the morning fog is lifting and you can see the tiny blueberries close to the ground, the vivid green moss and the changing color of the ocean. Writing “Mountains,” Kidder felt he was at the top of his game, he says, as much in command of the craft as he would ever be, but telling Deo’s story proved harder than he thought. “How can you hope to catch something as complex as a human being on paper?” he asks.

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.