"Thrown into Nature" by Milen Ruskov [Read This Next]
This week’s Read This Next title is Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, which is translated from the Bulgarian by Angel Rodel, and won the first annual Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest.
This contest is sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the America for Bulgaria Foundation, and Open Letter Books. It grew out of conversations that took place during the Sozopol Seminar that I attended a few years ago (which also featured skinny dipping in the Black Sea—a statement that sounds way more titillating when tossed-off like that than it was in reality), and resulted in the publication of this amazing book. (We’re only days away from announcing this year’s winner, so stay tuned.)
Before talking about the book, here’s a couple quick things about Milen: He’s the author of two novels, the Pocket Encyclopedia of Mysteries, which won the Bulgarian Prize for Debut Fiction, and Thrown into Nature, which received the VIK Novel of the Year prize. He’s also a translator from English into Bulgarian, and gave an amazing presentation in Sozopol about the horrors of translating Martin Amis. (After listening to him talk about living with these awful, horrible characters in his mind for months and months, I felt like translators—at least of certain books—deserved some sort of compensatory mental health care.) But of all that, I mostly remember Milen dropping the phrase “Kentucky Fried Chicken happy hour,” which is evocative in its oddness, and hits on a certain something . . .
Thrown into Nature is probably not the book you expect when you think of “Bulgarian literature.” There are no Bulgarians in here, it takes place in Spain, and is set in the 1500s. It’s a sort of adventure novel about Dr. Monardes and his Portuguese assistant, da Silva (who narrates), as they traverse Spain “curing” many a person through the use of tobacco. It’s a very funny book that features a smoke enema, the use of smoke to eradicate a poltergeist, and a start up industry of using tobacco to improve health care for animals, but behind all these set-pieces is the realization (from our modern perspective) that it was medical delusions like this that gave rise to the worldwide smoking epidemic.