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.
Over at GoodReads, we’re giving away 10 copies of Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, which will be coming out this November.
If you want a chance to win one, just click on the link below before the end of the month.
Milen Ruskov’s speech about the horrors of translating Martin Amis was one of the highlights of Sozopol Fiction Workshops 2010. Milen has a certain style . . . a way of stating things in a simple, direct, seemingly serious fashion. But he undercuts the understatedness of his delivery time and again with ironic comments, hilarious anecdotes, witty observations and phrases like “those readers who just want a Kentucky Fried Chicken Happy Hour.” (Apparently KFC has “happy hour” in Bulgaria. Which is either totally rad, or vomit-inducing. Take your pick.)
Before getting to Milen’s novel, it’s worth dwelling on his translation work for a minute. Over his career, Milen has translated more than 20 books from English into Bulgarian, including Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey, several works by Jerome K. Jerome, Money by Martin Amis, and Transformation by Mary Shelley, among others. He even received the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation’s Krustan Dyankov Translation Award for his translations of Money and De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage.
This past fall, I was asked along with Francis Bickmore of Canongate to judge the first Contemporary Bulgarian Novel contest, which was sponsored by both the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the American for Bulgaria Foundation. Over the course of a month or so, we read 30-50 page sample translations from some 20 different works—all very interesting. We came up with a shortlist of books to promote through Contemporary Bulgarian Writers and then chose Milen’s Thrown into Nature as the winner for its interesting plot (introduction of smoking to Europe), its generous sense of humor (smoking enema!), and the witty complex style in which it’s written. As I mentioned before, we’re really excited to be publishing Angela Rodel’s translation of this in Fall 2011.
In writing the press release about these awards, I had a weird moment where I realizing I was singing the praises of a book that’s all about the doctor who gave his life advocating to get Europe hooked on smoking . . . which feels a little evil, you know? Then again, Open Letter already has it’s “questionable treatment of animals” series, what with The Pets and now The Guinea Pigs, and Jerzy Pilch’s book battles with alcoholism . . . But Thrown into Nature is a lot more than a book about a guy who thinks smoking is the ultimate panacea—I’ll let Milen explain:
The book – at least on the level of the plot – is about the introduction of tobacco into Europe. It’s one of the most absurd stories I know, and it’s real. This is what happened:
Tobacco was first brought to Europe by seamen in the beginning of the XVI century and used by them in port areas as part of their subculture, but it was introduced into the general population by a Spanish doctor called Dr. Nicolas Monardes. He wrote a treatise about tobacco entitled “Of the Tabaco and of His Great Vertues” (sic) in 1571 in which he told his readers that tobacco was the “herba panacea“ of the ancients, that mythical universal cure promised by them, and now found “by our brave seamen” in the West Indies, that is, in America. In this treatise, he enumerated 36 diseases that could be cured by tobacco (including chest diseases; it makes you spit, so it must clean your chest – logical, isn’t it?). The book was translated into English (“Englished,” as they said then) by John Frampton in 1577, and even earlier into Latin, then “lingua franca” of the medical profession, by Charles de l’Ecluse. Dr. Monardes was a well respected medical man of his day and his book became exceptionally popular within the profession. Then doctors began prescribing tobacco as a cure. The supreme irony is that it was doctors themselves who really introduced tobacco into the Western World. Before that, it was a marginal product popular among sailors only and used mostly in ports and aboard ships. But the doctors took it from there and in fact disseminated it all over Europe and among all the social classes because they prescribed it as a cure, and some of them believed it was a supreme and universal cure, the herba panacea indeed, so they prescribed it for everything, even as a prophylactic. Then opportunities for profit came into play, both private and governmental (duties, excises), and it became a huge business on its own. But it would never have been possible without what the doctors did. They did it inadvertently, of course.
So the book is about Dr. Monardes himself, narrated by an imaginary disciple, his assistant Da Silva. It consists of 19 chapters; in each of them, Dr. Monardes and Da Silva treat some disease with the help of tobacco, and are always successful. They treat death, plague, chase away evil spirits, chase away the devil himself, treat aching joints, a toothache of Cervantes, intestinal worms, pangs of love, indecision and hesitations, headache, and a few more things, and always with great success. Meanwhile, they go to England to participate in the debate on tobacco (there was such a debate in 1605) held in Oxford. Together with the brilliant rhetorician and wit Dr. Cheynell and other of their English followers, they win the debate; then they go back to Spain and continue their work. They are smart, energetic, terribly persevering, and wrong. But why should they think they’re wrong if everything goes well? The story ends with the death of Dr. Monardes who treated himself too much. Da Silva, however, continues his practice. But, close to the end, they begin to suspect that they’ve made a terrible mistake. It’s too late, however, their lives and careers are at stake, and they can’t go back. There is a suspicion growing little by little that actually the doctor knew the truth all the time. Did he? Well, who knows? Maybe. What’s certain is that it was the great chance of his career, the biggest opportunity of his life, and he knew it. It was his “child of love”, so to speak, and he was its instrument. He was able, like an ancient Demiurgos, to introduce something into the world, something marginal and unknown till then, and make it a Big Thing. His herba panacea. He did it with love and full dedication, and that’s where his incredible power and luck lay.
It is Cervantes-esque (Cervantean?) in its delusional grandeur, and wonderfully ironic. To give you a taste, you can download a PDF of the opening chapter here, and here are a couple excerpts from the opening:
My name is Guimarães da Silva. The “Da Silva” part is made-up, by the way, since an aristocratic title causes people to pay more attention to what you say. And besides, Dr. Monardes wanted me to change my name so he could introduce me as his assistant without embarrassment. “This is my assistant Da Silva,” Dr. Monardes now says, and it really does sound better that way. Sometimes he even presents me as “Dr. Da Silva.” Of course, I am not yet a doctor – although I hope to be some day – but rather a mere helpmate and student of Dr. Monardes. Incidentally, he never mentions that I am Portuguese. The Portuguese are thought to smell bad, spread malaria (since they wade through the swamps around the city), constantly present themselves as noblemen who just happen to end up in Sevilla and who try to swindle everyone they can out of piddling sums. “I,” he says, “am João da So-and-So, and I have come to buy a parcel of land in Peñana at a good price” or “to build a ship in Cadiz.” Then he starts playing the fool, so that you’ll swallow the act and decide to join the venture, usually for cheap or at a huge profit, at which point he disappears with the ducats. The curious thing here is that the notorious seductive power of money addles the mind of the one forking it over – a relatively rare and interesting phenomenon that lies behind the prosperity of many a crook, for example, the owners of gambling houses – for if he had preserved even a bit of his presence of mind, he would have asked himself why anyone would come to buy land or to build a ship in Spain given that it is far cheaper to do so in Portugal. Yet clearly people cease thinking in such cases. For this reason, Sevilla is full of fake receipts from Portuguese shysters. Even Dr. Monardes has one. [. . .]
This unpredictability of the body – to get back to my original thought – is a consequence of the chaoticness, randomness and unpredictability of nature itself. Did I say unpredictability? In fact, this is not always the case. If there is any great marvel whatsoever in this world, it is that nature can sometimes be controlled. For that, of course, extensive skills and knowledge are necessary, but in principle it is possible. Figuratively speaking, you can drag nature out of the madhouse and force her to do something. Of course, she continues lurching and grimacing, keeps babbling nonsensically, but she does it. Then next time she won’t do it. It depends.
There are certain means through which she can be forced, in particular circumstances, to act as we wish. Such a means, practically omnipotent, was discovered by our seamen in the Indies over the past half-century or so. This well-nigh magical means was completely unknown to Antiquity, whose number includes even Herodotus, Heraclitus, or whatever they called that mighty ancient healer, whose name escapes me for the moment. Of course, we are talking about the almost almighty tobacco. This is precisely the medicine to which Dr. Monardes has dedicated his book about its healing powers. Dr. Monardes is an ideal innovator, a true discoverer. This was the first and, at the time, the only book of its kind in Europe. However, I will let the author speak for himself:
My assistant and colleague Señor Dr. Da Silva asked me to write a few words in his work – a request I responded to joyfully, being flattered by the faith shown in me, for which I wish to thank him sincerely. Henceforth I shall express myself more briefly (due to pressing engagements).
My tract about tobacco was published in Sevilla under the title “On Tobacco and Its Great Virtues, by Dr. Nicolas Monardes, M.D. LL.D. I.S.O. M.A. D.J. M.C.” The latter is a selection of my titles. It is also known by the same name in France (without the titles, however). The tract in question is part of my book “A Medical History of Remedies Brought from the West Indies,” or, in short, “Historia medicinal.” In England, due to the singular whim of its translator, it appeared under the title “Joyfull News out of the New Found World.” Following my indignant inquiry I was assured that in England if something does not begin with “Joyfull News” no one buys it and reads it. The English, as I came to understand, look upon all books, including medical writings, primarily as a means of entertainment to pleasantly while away one’s spare time, for which reason every other title there now begins with “Joyfull News.” For example, if the work in question addresses the massacre in Lancaster, the book will be published as “Joyfull News out of the Massacre in Lancaster.” I give this example because I have seen it with my own eyes. In short, I was forced to back down.
This was merely a clarification. Now I would like to offer the reader some useful advice:
1. Go to bed early. The best time is around eight o’ clock in the evening in the winter and nine o’ clock during the summer.
2. No fewer than eight hours of sleep. The advice above could be paraphrased more simply as follows: Go to bed one hour after sundown, get up one hour before sunrise. The more attentive reader will most likely note that this is precisely a simplified paraphrase. However, with the passage of time I have become convinced that not only in England, where it is absolutely necessary, but also everywhere else, it is best to state things in a simplified manner, as this is the only way they will be understood. With the exception of France, however, where it is preferable to state things as complexly as possible, ideally such that nothing whatsoever can be understood. Then in France they will declare you a philosopher.
3. Food – three times a day. Lavish breakfast, fair-to-middling lunch, light supper. The reader may imagine food as a slide: in the morning you find yourself at its highest point, at noon in the middle, and in the evening at its lowest part. Its lowest part is not necessarily a place where one falls on one’s arse and subsequently spends the next hour thus in the privy.
4. Meat dishes should be alternated with meatless ones, ideally on the same day, but if this proves impossible – then every other day. Overconsumption of meaty foods leads to diseases of the kidneys, while eating only meatless fare weakens the organism.
5. Moderate labor. If possible – none at all. Avoid working in the afternoon and especially the evening. Do not forget what the Bible teaches us – labor was something used to punish Adam.
6. Warm clothes during the winter. If when you look outside you reckon you will need one woolen jersey, put on two. It is of particular importance to keep your feet warm, thus the same applies to socks as well. Countless people die of colds that could easily be avoided, except in the cases of the most destitute, among whose ranks our reader can scarcely be counted. Furthermore, one’s neck should be wrapped in a scarf.
3a) It is sufficient for a person to go to any pub whatsoever to see gluttonous animals. Overeating gathers all the bodily fluids in the stomach, leads to a feeling of heaviness and upsets the activity of the entire organism (from whose extremities the fluids are withdrawn so as to aid digestion within the stomach). In cases of systematic abuse, this leads to corpulence, which thins the bones and encumbers the heart. Stop gorging yourself!
3b (7.) It has been said many times, but let us repeat: Do not abuse alcoholic beverages. Two glasses of wine a day maximum, one at noon and one in the evening. Spirits – only in the winter, 75 gr. maximum. Yes, I know it seems like very little. This is not news to me. The above-mentioned advice could be formulated in a more simplified manner (and summarized, which is, in fact, the same thing) as follows: He who eats and drinks a lot dies young. You have certainly heard the so-called blessing “Eat, drink and be merry!” To the same effect they may as well have told you: “Die sooner!”
8. Use tobacco habitually, in the form of smoke for inhalation. This protects the organism from infection and strengthens it as a whole. Señor Dr. Da Silva has informed me that in the present work he will discuss several illustrative examples of tobacco’s healing power, thus I will conclude, remaining
Your fervent well-wisher
and most humble servant,
Dr. Nicolas Monardes, M.D. LL.D. I.S.O. M.A. D.J. M.C.
P.S. For other examples of the healing power of tobacco see my above-cited tract. “On Tobacco and Its, etc.”
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