Expected to die, and having lost the ability to read, the Italian film producer devoted himself to a near-impossible task. Rachel Cooke meets him
I meet Martino Sclavi in Islington, north London, where he shares a small flat. Its a perfectly ordinary summer morning: pigeons are cooing and somewhere far off, a siren sounds. But in Sclavis kitchen, everything is slightly skewed, our encounter just a notch off normal. For one thing, there is the peculiar food he is trying to make me eat at only 10 oclock: a pie filled with grey-looking onions, mushrooms and nuts, which tastes powerfully of chilli. For another, there is the fact that while he talks in an unstoppable flow (and in English, too, which is his second language), certain words will keep evading him. When, for instance, I reject the pie, and he offers me a sweet concoction instead, all he can tell me is that it is made of yogurt and a fruit What kind of fruit? A big one, and when you peel it, there is just this long bit. A mango? No. An avocado? No. The pair of us stumped, he falls silent for a moment. Bananas are my treat, he says, after a while. So its banana? No. He shakes his head forlornly.
Six years ago Sclavi, a film producer, was in Los Angeles, working on a movie project with his best friend Russell Brand, when he began suffering from severe headaches. Soon afterwards he was admitted to hospital as an emergency, whereupon surgeons opened up his skull they flipped a bit out, he says, as if it was on a hinge and operated on his brain in a desperate bid to remove what turned out to be a grade four glioblastoma (the most malignant kind of brain tumour). Six months later he travelled to Rome, where he underwent a much longer operation, during which doctors had to wake him twice, the better to check he could still count to 10 backwards.
If medics on two continents disagreed about his treatment and they continue to do so they were united in their reluctance to make firm predictions about his future. Nevertheless, the general prognosis was not good. The upshot was that there was a 98% chance he would die within 18 months.
Sclavi laughs manically, as he is wont to do (thanks to his long hair and beard, home-made patchwork waistcoat and extremely loquacious manner, he bears a somewhat unnerving resemblance to Brand). Nobody knows who is responsible for the fact I am alive, he says. Im still taking my pills, because the oncologist insists that without them the cancer will spread, yet the surgeon argues that I dont need them: he says he completely removed the tumour. But one thing we do know is that when I go to the hospital in Italy, which I have to do every six months, all the people [patients] I used to talk to there are not around any more. Theyre all dead. So Im a living experiment. Which is why Ive really gone for it so far as my treatment goes. What else am I going to do? Youre told youre going to die, so you will try anything. Anything!
This, it seems, is the reason he is eating onion tart for breakfast rather than a croissant, and drinking sludgy green juice instead of coffee. I have a whole new lexicon now. There is meditation, and there are all the vegetables, too. Ive taken myself off sugar completely; no meat, no alcohol either. Does he believe this diet is helping to keep him healthy? These things cant be studied, he replies, gnomically.
Post-surgery, Sclavis life has changed beyond all recognition. He is, for instance, single again, his 14-year marriage to Margarita, a Macedonian doctor-come-designer with whom he has a nine-year-old son having ended at his instigation when he realised he needed to look after myself now, not other people. Nominally, he is still working as a producer, but he tires easily these days, and must take regular naps throughout the day. He relies on understanding friends, among them his landlady, the filmmaker Penny Woolcock. The biggest change, however, has to do with words, for while he can still converse in two languages, on the page they make no sense to him. At all. He simply cannot read. In a bookshop, he is akin to a blind man. Should he open a newspaper, the column inches might as well be trails of marching ants.
Its this loss that he tries to explain, not always wholly successfully, in his book The Finch in My Brain, a memoir whose title refers to the shape of his tumour and which comes with a foreword by Brand (way beyond cancer porn, its weird and insightful and kind of like a guidebook for people who find themselves alive after theyve died). But if he cant read, how on earth did he write it? Two things made it possible. The first was that, eyes closed, he found he could still type. The second was technology. Listen to this, he says, pressing a button on his mobile phone. I hear a robotic voice. Thats an article by you, he says. Alex I wont call him an app reads everything to me. By helping him to listen to himself, Alex became, he says, his unpaid shrink. Still, he is looking forward to attending the recording of the audio book of The Finch in My Brain, when hell hear the book read by a human at last: It will be as if I am reading it for the first time.
Whats it like, suddenly finding yourself unable to read? Does he grieve for this loss? Sclavi looks at me as though I am mad. It is a terrible loss, he says. I was a film producer. Screenplays, the rights to books: my life depended on these things. But I dont think grief is allowed: I was supposed to be dead, and I am alive. Depression is a common condition in those whove been through trauma similar to his people go down, down, down but this is not his experience. The shadow of death has clarified things. Look at me! he shouts.
He might have to move through the world at a slower pace now, but it is also brighter than before, more precious and more exciting. Something stubborn in Sclavi, moreover, encouraged him to do the one thing that was supposed to be impossible, which was to write the book. I started it just before the second operation because I was afraid I was going to die, he says. I had been sending emails to old friends, and Matt Morgan [comedian and Brand sidekick] said to me: This feels like gonzo journalism for oncology. I liked that, so I carried on. What does he feel about the book now? That it saved me, psychologically.
It is, however, quite an odd read, and not only because it was written in English by an Italian who cant see both the beginning and the end of a sentence at the same time (his reading loss has, he says, to do with his vision as well as his memory). His devotion to Brand, who pulled out of attending the 2011 British Comedy Awards when Sclavi was admitted to hospital in LA, reveals itself in, among other of the books more unlikely passages, a long and syrupy account of the stars 2010 wedding to Katy Perry in Rajasthan.
They met through their mutual friend, the director Emily James, and (as he also describes in his book), Sclavi supported Brand through his drug addiction and his period in rehab. Ive always been excited by people who are very strange and different, and who want to do things that seem impossible, he tells me. Russell has patience for some people, and not for others, and he has patience for me.
Luckily, the feeling was mutual. I decided I was going to stick by him I just wanted to make sure this kid didnt die, said Brand. When Sclavi fell ill, it was, by his telling, a simple case of role reversal. I saved his life, he saved my life. [Russell made sure he had somewhere to stay when he left hospital.] Weve always taken care of each other. What does he make of Brands introduction to The Finch in My Brain, in which he hails Sclavi as a genius? He lives in a pop world. Everything is always: aaaargh! He laughs. But hopefully readers will have the same reaction.
He, on the other hand, must be more zen about life now. Not that this is difficult. He intends to continue writing, but he is also enjoying the feeling how peaceful it is that everything has fallen into place. Is success really important? he asks no one in particular. Is money? These are questions I dont have any more. I have found a real calmness here in London. For the first time since he was so suddenly struck down, he dares not only to see the future, but to welcome whatever it brings.
The Finch in My Brain, an extract: Its grade four, a very aggressive form of cancer
It is visiting hour and the first person I see walking into my huge single room is my mother, Marianella. As she gets closer to me, I notice that her short white hair has grown. The smile on her face is tense, as if she is grinding her teeth.
She grabs my hand and says, You look great with this new haircut.
Im told they cut out a piece of my brain and I feel fine, I say. I guess I didnt really need it.
I feel as if I am in a science fiction film, where the other characters are speaking in a different language. I get lost looking at the ceiling of the room. Am I in a film? The set does look perfect, and so is the lighting. I hear voices but I seem to have lost the sound somewhere.
A young man in a white coat appears at the door. My surgeon. He looks straight at me with a warm smile, as though nobody else were here. Hello, I am Dr Vogel, how are you feeling?
I smile back, move my shoulders up from the pillow to show him the back of my head, as if to say, what do you think? He touches the fabric covering my head, folds in a little part that is covering the top of my left eye, and seems very satisfied. As his eyes meet mine, I realise that there is more communication in that one look than any dialogue I have ever had. There is nothing simpler than the story of a doctor who saves a life. With no Vogel, there would be no story and no hope for a happy ending.
After a few days, I am moved from intensive care to a regular room. Our good-humoured family meeting is interrupted by the entrance of a young doctor with a cold, professional attitude, well-mannered smiles and evasive eyes. My mother is an expert in conflict resolution. Now in her professorial tone, she asks, Do you know what he has?
The doctor has the biopsy results in her hand. He has a grade-four glioblastoma.
My mother asks her to translate this into everyday language. What is that?
Its a very aggressive form of cancer. Grade four is the most violent of them all.
My mothers face tenses up with anger, she raises her arms, glares at the young doctor. My sister puts her hands on my mothers shoulder, less for moral support and more to hold her back. I look at the doctor calmly, an unengaged spectator, and tell her, I guess you have just stepped on the wrong Italian mother.
Here I am in a hospital bed in Los Angeles, land of stories and cinema, listening to my shocking life expectancy. I have to get around it. I have a 98% chance of dying in the next year and a half. Still, that means I have a 2% chance of survival of cracking the code of this scientific religion and confounding their expectations.
The Finch in My Brain by Martino Sclavi is published on 15 June by Hodder & Stoughton at 20. To buy a copy for 17, visit bookshop.theguardian.com