In the Year of Grace

Market in Addis Ababa

Market in Addis Ababa

Many people may not know that the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who lived from 1860 to 1904, was a physician. One of his more well-known quotes even refers to this fact: “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” Nowadays he is less well-known as a doctor—all of his patients are dead now—but when people talk about playwrights, Chekhov is considered one of the major names in the world of the theater. I find it worth noting that even someone who attained such renown at one point considered abandoning the theater when one of his plays was a failure.

Given the dubious nature of the writing profession, a smart writer might get a real job as well, and a number of notable writers have been doctors:

  • Mikhail Bulgakov—a fabulous Russian writer who is not so well known in the U.S.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle—yep, the Sherlock Holmes guy
  • William Carlos Williams—American poet who wrote the famous little poem about the plums in the icebox
  • Sir Thomas Browne—author of a cool book in 1643 called Religio Medici, quickly banned by the Catholic church, certainly something to be proud of there

Another name on the list is Abraham Verghese. He was born of parents from India, grew up in Ethiopia, became an expert on AIDS practicing in Tennessee, and now works as a Professor of medicine at Stanford University. Verghese is known for his work as a physician, but his writings have also gained him a fairly prominent literary reputation.

Something that appeals greatly to me about the book Cutting for Stone is the exuberant exoticism. Verghese clearly has drawn on his own biography and then fictionalized it, sometimes a bit, mostly a lot. Perhaps for a person like Verghese, who has personal memories of walking the streets of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, the book is partly like a memoir of childhood. But I haven’t been there and a text that can bring a foreign place vividly into the mind can be strangely compelling. Most of the book unwraps its onion-like layers in Addis Ababa, but with sections also set in India and in America, mostly in New York City.

The book is told in first person, but it is a very expansive sort of first person, with the narrator presumed to have learned things later in order to now tell them to us. Thus the book opens with rather a long narrative of events preceding the narrator’s birth, told in such a way that the reader is immersed in the events being narrated. This interesting literary device of “here’s what people were doing and saying before I was born” can be found in other books, even in the first parody of a novel, Tristram Shandy (1759). A writer may do this well or unwell. Verghese tells the story with a strong sense of dramatic flow, sometimes dense with detail. Listen to the first sentence of the book: “After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954.”

How many things just in that opening sentence are worth noting as examples of the writer’s skill? Note the addition of the word “obscurity” to refer to the womb. It is not, strictly speaking, a necessary word, and it adds a kind of mysticism to the routine fact of being there. Note also the choice of name for the twin brother, Shiva, a Hindu god of destruction and renewal. At the end of the sentence, the phrase “year of grace” is itself a kind of graceful flourish of language.

The basic narrative flow of the book is one that has been used a million times, but always interesting when well done—the development of a person, as we watch the changes in their life, the emotional and intellectual growth. If you are partial to fancy-pants literary terminology drawn from foreign languages, it is a Bildungsroman. So the narrator is born, grows up, becomes a man, and as Joseph Campbell describes in Hero With a Thousand Faces, we have in Cutting for Stone a perfect example of the circular journey of the hero on a quest.

In addition to being dense with locales and details that aid those locales, this book is rich in characters, a greater sign of a strong writer. At least for me, many of these characters, even the lesser ones, were developed as distinctive people who came alive. At the same time, a quirky eccentricity runs through the book, so that while the characters do seem real, they also evoke the uncontainable diversity of human experience that Latin magical realism tries to capture. Another element of the book that I found appealing was the fact that a few times Verghese touches strings of history, setting further layers of depth humming below the story.

One element of the book that some readers might object to (though I certainly did not) is that in drawing on his own background as a physician, Verghese has endowed this book with plenty ‘o medical talk. The book is filled with doctors, and clearly only someone who really knows medicine well could have written all these descriptions. More than once he turns medical events into dramatic plot elements.

But here’s what you really should know about this book. It’s interesting. It’s fun to read.



Filed under Book Talks

3 responses to “In the Year of Grace

  1. The Russian dramatist and short story author Anton Chekhov was also a doctor as was the poet John Keats by training.

    • Apologies for forgetting your mention of Chekhov at post top but Browne;s Religio Medici (trans. The Religion of a doctor) is probably the single-most work using medical imagery to illustrate religious truths. Many, many books books banned by the Vatican are not so cool.

      • I appreciate your comment. I will not try to say I have any serious knowledge of what was on the Church’s list of banned books. No doubt some of them were not worth reading, and others were even pernicious. Really I was making an oblique criticism here of the idea of banning books because of their ideas.

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