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Flowers for Daniel Keyes

Last update - Tuesday, July 1, 2014, 11:06 By Panu Höglund

  Thinking of how to develop contemporary Irish literature, I often come to think that there is very little science fiction available in the language.

It would help a lot if we translated major classics of this genre into Irish – of course, it should be good Irish, a style as close to Gaeltacht Irish as possible, as far as syntax is concerned.

One of the classics I’d like to see translated is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. As Keyes died only recently, on 15 June, I find it appropriate to jot down a couple of words about his book.

Flowers for Algernon was first published in 1961, but back then it was just a short story. Subsequently Keyes expanded the tale, and five years afterwards it was published as a novel. The story is about artificially enhanced intelligence. The hero, Charlie (or Charly) Gordon, is an intellectually disabled, childish man whose life is greatly changed.

Charlie meets an expert on intelligence who thinks he could restore Charlie’s intelligence. Earlier he had performed a surgical operation on a little mouse named Algernon, enhancing its abilities so as to make it able to solve the most complex labyrinths, running through them faster than Charlie can find the way out with his pencil. Of course Charlie is ashamed to be outperformed by the mouse, and thus he is happy to try the same experimental surgery.

The operation turns Charlie into a genius more intelligent than most of humankind. But he soon finds out that the operation works only in a temporary way, and that his intelligence will fail again. At the end of the story, Charlie is as disabled as he ever was, and in the last line of the novel he asks the reader to bring some flowers to Algernon’s grave.

Keyes had spent some time teaching intellectually disabled students. One of those coming to his lessons improved greatly so that he was able to read, but when he had to stop attending the classes, the newly acquired skills soon evaporated, so that nothing was left of them when Keyes met him afterwards. This greatly upset Keyes, and was an inspiration for his novel.

The story of Charlie and Algernon became a cornerstone of science fiction, but this was not obvious when the writer was struggling to have it published. Genre magazines didn’t like the first version, nor were publishing houses particularly happy with the novel because it has such a tragic ending; they would have preferred Charlie to keep his newly acquired intelligence. 

Anyway, Keyes did see the two versions of the story in print as he had written them, and probably it was the conclusion of the story that made it a classic. Keyes spent a long time writing books and scripts for comics, as well as teaching creative writing, but today his posthumous fame is above all due to Flowers for Algernon.



Panu Petteri Höglund is a Finnish writer of Irish expression.

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