Is it all just a matter of mind over matter?

Susan talks with Stephen Kelman about his latest novel, “Man on Fire”, and its exploration of mental and physical toughness before looking at Pope Francis with Paul Vallely

Is it all just a matter of mind over matter?

"Sisyphus" by Titian, 1548/49

Pain and hardship are things most people try to avoid. There are some, however, who actively seek these out. In Stephen Kelman’s latest book, Man on Fire, we meet one such man who has built his life around challenging and conquering the limits of his body.

Born into poverty Bibhuti Bhusan Nayak, based on a real man of the same name, has used training and extreme challenges to take control of his life and make a name for himself. Now middle-aged he holds the records for numerous feats, including the most one-handed pushups and the most kicks to the groin in a set time.

Age has done little to slow his body down though and Bibhuti continues to harden and challenge his body. His insistence that the mixture of physical conditioning, healthy diet, and spiritual belief allows him to rapidly heal does little to reassure Bibhuti’s wife. Instead she is forced to watch from the sidelines as Bibhuti pushes himself ever further and tend to him when his body gives out.

While Bibhuti is the focus of Man on Fire the narrative is driven along by an Englishman, John Lock.

A letting-agent in late middle-age, John has spent most of his life, like most people, avoiding hardship. A recent diagnosis of bowel cancer and a struggling marriage forces John to confront his life choices up to this point. Chancing across Bibhuti on the tv John becomes convinced that this seemingly unbreakable stranger can help him find meaning and possibly even a cure.

Without any word John sets out for Mumbai.

Bibhuti takes an immediate shine to John and promises to help him and possibly even cure his cancer. The one caveat is that John must help Bibhuti with his next record, breaking as many baseball bats across his body as possible in a set time. As the two men work ever closer to this goal their relationship deepens and begins to spiral into dangerous territory.

After tracking her husband down John’s wife confronts him and his absence. At the same time Bibhuti’s wife has become increasingly worried about her husband’s well being. Though faced down by their respective wives they push on with their plan. Driven on by one another the two men stand on a precipice; John ready to smash bats against Bibhuti’s body and Bibhuti urging him on.

A great study of the forces that drive us on Man on Fire explores human relationships and the meanings we find in ourselves, others, and suffering.

Talking Books’ host Susan Cahill talks with Stephen Kelman about Man on Fire, his friendship with the real Bibhuti Bhusan Nayak, and how this man has found meaning in adversity and changed Stephen’s life.

Rounding off the show Susan talks with renowned religious author Paul Vallely about his updated biography of Pope Francis, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, which traces the Argentinian's rise to the Papal Office and the impact he has had as leader of the Catholic Church.

This week’s music to read to

Chequerboard’s Konichiwa opens this week’s show before we play out of part one with Indian Ink by the same artist. The show ends with A Symphony Pathetique by A Winged Victory for the Sullen.