An archaic world struggles with strange maladies in this darkly whimsical meditation on human discontents.
In a quasi-medieval land where science is still subordinate to church metaphysics, Senhor José, the monkish Head Librarian at the Central Library, introduces an apothecary named Máximo to the collection’s greatest treasure: the Encyclopaedia Medicinae. Perusing it, they discover short treatises on improbable ailments that combine physical disease with mental anguish, social antagonism and spiritual malaise. These include a reverse amnesia that causes everyone you know to forget who you are; a skin ulceration that expands with sinful behavior and shrinks with good deeds; a toxin that causes people to perceive the unbearable truth about the world; an infection that causes peasants and aristocrats to talk like each other; a hallucinatory fever that compels sufferers to create mediocre art; a collective ailment that causes groups of five people to share a single consciousness; and a syndrome that makes corpses return to life—a phenomenon that threatens “to topple the magnificent edifice of philosophy, art and literature” by undermining faith in the finality of death. Paralkar, a hematologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, sketches these mythical misfortunes in brief, elegant entries written as if by a physician-philosopher, setting out the preposterous specifics of symptoms, diagnoses and treatments beside mock scholarly debates over etiology and final ruminations on existential import. One school of thought characterizes membrum vestigiale, a wing growing out of the shoulder blade, as “a disease of truncated ambitions…of some yearning within man to escape limits nature places on him.” There’s no plot here and really nothing to this slight book except feuilletons, but Paralkar’s tragicomic imagination, sly sendup of pseudo-Latinate medical prose and fine sense of irony make for an arresting read.
A haunting take on the ills of flesh and soul.