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.
Milen Ruskov’s second published novel (and first to be translated into English), Thrown Into Nature poses as the traipsing and unfinished manuscript of an eager young Guimaraes da Silva (“The ‘da Silva’ part is made-up, by the way, since an aristocratic title causes people pay more attention to what you say.”). Set in sixteenth-century Sevilla the book follows the exploits of the famous Dr. Nicolas Monardes, founder of that great and all-curing medicine: tobacco.
Ruskov introduces Guimaraes da Silva as a (in his own opinion) regrettably Portuguese student on the cutting edge of medicine. Dr. Monardes sees him smoking a cigarella one day in a bar and takes him on as assistant; they are together ever after. Guimaraes is a mass of contradictions, innocent of opinion yet aware of deceit, indecisive yet committed, and above all, sure but misled. Though he is sometimes brought into the most un-scientific of adventures—chasing a ghost out a church with a cigarella and a staff—he nonetheless carefully records his experiences in the hopes of creating a great book like his mentor.
Ruskov presents Guimaraes’ manuscript as an unfinished text, heading chapters in the haphazard order of 3. For Having a Good Time; 3b. The Title Will Be Thought Up in December; 3c. The Following Summer—note, there is no 3a. As the book goes on it becomes apparent that the manuscript is not so much the pieces of an unfinished text, seemingly plot-less as it is, but the pieces of an unfinished mind. Guimaraes, young and impressionable, picks his way through the good doctor’s values and philosophies as he comes to better understand the people around him and executes a somewhat shady, if comical, coming of age.
In assisting with Dr. Monardes’ medical appointments Guimaraes literally gets thrown into Nature, and yes, that’s Nature with a capital N.
Is there anything more endlessly energetic, more lavishly fertile, yet crazier, than she? Of course not! If Nature put on a human face and strolled around the streets of Sevilla, she would have long since been locked up as a dangerous maniac, perhaps even burned at the stake by the Inquisition. She would be of the female sex, of course, giving birth to a child every five minutes, laughing and jumping about at the same time, and impregnated without a visible agent, as if by the wind itself. Yes, Nature is absolutely mad!
Yet she and she alone is the procreator of the world. Not the Devil or God, not some evil genius or some moronic mad scientist, much less the Good Lord, but simply a mad, all-powerful, all-purblind, accidental and chaotic Nature.
Again and again Guimaraes comes up against the force that seems to complicate everything in life. Serving everyone from King Don Felipe’s son to animals to peasants, Guimaraes gets taken on joyride that is not so much about the ins and outs of medicine as it is the ins and outs of human nature.
Dr. Monardes is a humanist because it is fashionable, a slave trader because it is profitable, and a chain smoking satire of privilege and money, yet serves as Guimaraes’ moral compass. A constant philosopher in his own way, Monardes tries to impart his wisdom on his apprentice and others, including peasants and priests. Though merciful in some instances, such as when Guimaraes and their resplendent carriage driver Jesus manage to burn down his barn, he can be capricious as well. Even in his will he displays this conflicting dual nature, going so far as to decide not to leave Guimaraes his house (“I’m not going to leave you anything, since I’ve never been particularly fond of you”), but gives him instructions on who to bribe on the municipal council to get it anyway.
As the story progresses the manuscript becomes less a tribute to the healing power of tobacco—for intestinal worms, bad breath, and waking the dead—and more a series of vignettes, flashing between Guimaraes’ past and present and brushing against the era’s most important figures: Don Felipe, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Lope de Vega and King James I. By pairing the serious with the ludicrous, Ruskov reminds us that even in its most sober moments life can be a farce.
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