REVIEW by Paul Cooper

NWR Issue 97

Thrown into Nature

by Milen Ruskov

If irony could be measured with some kind of Geiger-counter, it would be clicking like hell throughout Milen Ruskov’s novel, Thrown into Nature. In the opening scene, the Spanish Doctor Nicolas Monardes uses the miraculous healing power of tobacco to bring a man, Lazarus-like, back from the dead. The good doctor achieves this by repeatedly blowing the tobacco smoke directly into the subject’s lungs, while his assistant ‘pulpates’ [sic] his stomach. Eventually the man wrenches himself gaspingly from the floor. It’s confirmed: the new miracle substance sweeping Europe can even conquer death.

Ruskov’s novel follows the misadventures of the vain and preposterous Doctor Monardes, whose 1577 medical treatise Of the Tobaco and His Great Vertues was partially credited with introducing Europe to nicotine. The book is narrated by Gimarães da Silva, Dr. Monardes’ adoring assistant. It takes the form of half-memoir, half-treatise on the multitudinous health benefits of tobacco, and each chapter is headed with a particular use of the ‘miraculous substance’: ‘Against Death’; ‘Intestinal Worms, Enemas’; and ‘Driving Away So-called “Spirits”’, for instance. The doctor sees himself as a renaissance man: he reads the books of northern humanist philosophers to keep up with the fashion, but more than once throws them into the sea in rage at their stupidity. He believes man is a biological mechanism, and describes everyone from peasants to nobles as ‘eat-to-shits’. He can think of nothing more idiotic than dying for an idea or cause.

‘You wouldn’t do that, would you... die for the Renaissance and humanism[?]’, Gimarães asks him at one point, at which the doctor explodes, ‘Me? Die for the Renaissance and humanism? Do you even hear what you’re saying?’ Still, while Monardes remains a pompous and hypocritical windbag throughout, Gimarães is a candid and sharp narrator, with a well-developed voice that suffers the storms of translation well. At one point he describes the royal Escorial Palace thus: ‘some say it is the ugliest large building in the world, while others argue the opposite, i.e. that it is the largest ugly building in the world. In my opinion, both sides are right.’ His voice is knowing and naive at the same time, and always desperately charming.

The novel is lovingly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, and is replete with explanations of untranslatable puns, which are thankfully few. However, even though the novel is set in Spain and translated into English, it retains something essentially Bulgarian – not just in how characters shake their heads to say yes and nod to say no, but also in a certain grip to the dark humour, a certain abandon and irresponsibility in the whole idea of the thing, as well as the inescapable nets of dramatic irony. It is not a comic novel as such, though it is full of comic scenes – but it is a novel soaked in irony, wrought of the stuff. It is also beautiful in its way. With a wonderful carefree nature to its voice and a fantastic economy of prose, Thrown into Nature is a lucid mirror to money, evil and charlatanism from one of Bulgaria’s greatest living writers.


previous review: Homuncular Misfit
next review: Aria/Anika


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