by Vikram Paralkar
Publication date: October 31, 2014
Category: fiction essay; medical fiction; literary fiction
Summary (from the publisher):
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?
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.
The publisher’s summary misses the mark in conveying the spirit of this fascinating little volume. In The Afflictions, Vikram Paralkar, a physician (hematologist) at the University of Pennsylvania, blends the style and form of old-time medical writing with magical realism. The result is a series of very short, psychologically dense entries, each describing a fantastical “disease”. The publisher’s summary emphasizes the macabre aspect–and make no mistake, some of Paralkar’s imaginings are extremely grotesque–but the spirit is reflective. Each disease explores some aspect of the human condition or the soul. Each is like a flavorful stock that’s been reduced and concentrated. This short book (174 pages with plenty of white space) begs to be read in small bites, with the reader savoring and reflecting on each idea.
I found The Afflictions to be an engaging work of literary medical fiction, and my family ended up discussing some of the bizarre syndromes over dinner. Really imaginative stuff, though I’d say the strongest ones are in the first half to two-thirds of the book. The construct of an elderly librarian (who is the sole voice in the book) and a Central Library creates a mood and a structure to the book but is merely a scaffolding upon which the author can hang his entries. There is no “plot” or climax.
An excellent book for a book group, or for a classroom to discuss one piece at a time. For the solitary reader, The Afflictions will provide plenty of food for thought, even meditation.
Recommended for fans of Jorge Luis Borges.
FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.