Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar

Shadowing an elderly librarian on his first day at the great Central Library, Máximo is thrilled to get a peek at the exclusive Encyclopedia of Medicine. It's a dizzying collection of maladies: an amnesia that causes everyone you've ever met to forget you exist, while you remain perfectly, painfully aware of your history. A wound that grows with each dark thought or evil deed you commit but shrinks with every act of kindness. A disease that causes your body to imitate death, stopping your heart, cooling your blood. Will the fit pass before they bury you - or after?

As Máximo soon discovers, medicine at the Central Library may be more than he bargained for.

The Afflictions is a magical compendium of pseudo-diseases, an encyclopedia of archaic medicine written by a contemporary physician and scientist. Little by little, these bizarre and mystical afflictions frame an eternal struggle: between human desire and the limits of bodily existence
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Goodreads review 

You can detect two distinct influences on this collection. Firstly there is Vikram Paralkar's profession and calling as a hematologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, which means that he is very familiar with medicinal encyclopedias and the history of medicine. Secondly there are the literary influences, which he lists on his Facebook author page as including those leaders of Western literary magic realism: Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, José Saramago, and Franz Kafka. I would have said that the influence of the first three writers is the most obvious.

This is a clever, entertaining and thought-provoking book.  It may be short - only 147 pages - but the descriptions of illnesses merit concentrated reading. The reader should read each description, and then sit back and ponder it, because each disease raises philosophical and ethical questions. For example Immortalitas diabolica grants its victims the ability to will away every pain, but it transfers their afflictions to other people and Vulnus morale or the Moral Wound expands or decreases according to the sufferer's bad or good deeds. Some stories focus on illnesses that impact on the individual, others on illnesses that impact on society.

 The setting is archetypal and unspecified - an old monastery in some Catholic country at some unspecified time. I would have liked more made of that. The book is narrated by the old librarian who is speaking to Maximo. Through this narrative we gain some information about Maximo, but only enough to make the reader want to know more. If you are looking for a storyline, you will be disappointed. 

In researching this review I found myself giggling at Paralkar's Twitter feed.  Paralkar's writing style is reflected in both this book and the Twitter feed: dry and witty, and not wasting a letter, let alone a word.

This book is recommended to anyone who enjoys Borges, Calvino or Saramago.

I received this book from the publisher in return for a fair review.

1 comment:

Laura Roberts said...

Okay, this one is definitely going on my To Read list. Thanks for sharing your review!