I realized last week that I never posted this piece, though I wrote it nearly a year ago…
Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, a contemporary novel translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, tells the story of Nicolás Bautista Monardes, a sixteenth-century Spanish physician who advocates the use of tobacco for medicinal purposes. The novel is a picaresque—generally an entertaining one—narrated by Monardes’s assistant, the hapless, unreliable, and Portuguese Guimarães da Silva.
The reader witnesses all sorts of cures and odd episodes in chapters with titles like “For Long Life,” “Intestinal Worms, Enemas,” and “For Protection Against the Plague and All Manner of Contagions,” and Monardes holds forth on matters of religion, nature (the human is “a pipe, through which nature passes”), and politics.
I especially enjoyed a scene based in England, in which King James I holds a debate called “Whether the frequent use of tobacco is good for healthy men?” Says da Silva, “The question mark here is pure hypocrisy and is intended solely to satisfy the formal requirements of debate.” da Silva’s comments about his seatmates at the debate are, like many other passages in the book, funny in a slapstick way. As da Silva takes notes and draws a Star of David, one of his neighbors “stared bug-eyed at the star on my sheet. I quickly crossed it out and grabbed my quill such that I—ostensibly accidentally—showed him my middle finger.”
Of course part of the fun of all this for me, a twenty first-century reader who used to write quite a bit about drug discovery and development, was reading about political debate around a substance used as a medical treatment. And of course our modern-day vilification of tobacco puts loads of irony into watching Monardes and da Silva advocate its use to cure just about everything, puffing away on cigarillas as a preventive measure. da Silva, however, records this:
“I’ve been sustaining myself with tobacco for twenty years longer than you have,” replied the doctor. “There seems to be something in tobacco which causes such a cough. After many, many years.
Today is a bad day for tobacco, I thought to myself.
Perhaps even more interesting: Monardes was a real person and, according to the Special Collections Department of the library at the University of Glasgow, “Monardes made tobacco a household remedy throughout Western Europe and his gospel was accepted by the majority of European physicians for more than two centuries.” I don’t know if Ruskov smokes but Bulgaria is apparently a big tobacco-using country: according to data on Wikipedia, Bulgaria ranks fourth in the world in number of cigarettes per adult per year, 2,437.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that I thought Rodel’s translation read nicely, conveying humor and a stylized voice.
Disclosures: I received a copy of Thrown into Nature from Open Letter Books, a publisher with which I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, including a specific piece I’m translating.
Up Next: The Canvas, by Benjamin Stein, an Open Letter Book that I’m enjoying very much… fitting since I’ll be going to Rochester, NY, home of Open Letter, for the American Literary Translators Association conference next week. I loved last year’s conference in Kansas City so can’t wait!
Image: Portrait of Monardes, from user Valérie75, via Wikipedia.