historical fiction

A Country Doctor’s Notebook

Remember the Netflix show A Young Doctor’s Notebook I mentioned last time? Daniel Radcliffe plays a newly-minted doctor who is chucked into Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia, to run the hospital there. He faces syphilis, gangrene, and boredom and lives to tell the tale. It’s dark, dark humour, friends. Not for the faint of heart.

Well, when I realized that it was based on a real-life memoir (or stories-based-on-real-life, rather) , of course I had to read it. The show got over much too quickly for my liking and I wanted more stories about the horrible doctor Nika.

But- much to my dismay- the memoir was written in earnest by a sincere and competent doctor/author who lived and worked in Russia a hundred years ago. Imagine the guilt. A Country Doctor’s Notebook, by Mikhail Bulgakov is a short book but packs a punch.

A hundred years ago, Mikhail Bulgakov kept a journal about his experiences in a village hospital in Smolensk. In 1920, he published a compilation of short stories based on these years. Bulgakov comes across as an earnest young man, far from the show’s portrayal of him. The simplicity and humility of the narration (courtesy a Russian-English translator) reminded me of RK Narayan.

Unlike Malgudi Days, however, this book did not have me longing for a simpler time. It’s hard to feel nostalgic for the days of poor anaesthesia, disinfectants, and primitive amputations. Oh, and also the Russian Revolution. There is no romance, or comedy- only homesickness and desperation. It’s difficult to say any more about the stories for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that doctors back then had unimaginable struggles.

I’ll stick to my policy of not rating real-life stories, but be warned that this collection is not especially eventful or entertaining. Interestingly though, its original publication date of 1917 makes it one of the oldest books I’ve ever read (with the possible exception of ‘classics’).

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World War II, V2.0

I haven’t been reading much at all lately; blame Philip K Dick*. His book, The Man in the High Castle, has been on my nightstand for months. It is both fascinating and terribly difficult to read, which accounts for the procrastination…

I picked out this book because I really liked Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It brings an abstractness and emotion to sci-fi that one rarely sees in a genre filled with stereotypes and action. After that, I had less luck with A Scanner Darkly, which is a very evocative account of a man’s descent into drug addiction. The beauty of Dick’s work is that the strong plotlines are bolstered by an immersive writing style- A Scanner Darkly gets more and more choppy (and incoherent) as the protagonist, a cop, gets drawn in to the murky world that he was meant to be investigating. He does a good job with the garbled stream of consciousness of a drug addled mind (PKD had his own struggles with drug abuse)- so good that it is hard to follow.

Anyway, I went in with very high expectations, and while I wasn’t disappointed per se, I still didn’t enjoy this book. A failing on my part, not PKD’s.

The Man in the High Castle is a speculative fiction book, set in an alternate reality where the Axis Powers won World War II. The Japanese now rule the west coast of the USA, and Jews are unwelcome. This genre of fiction is very exciting; I would have appreciated it more had I been more familiar with the historical details of the end of World War II (mostly in relation to the USA- this is clearly a large hole in my knowledge).

There are three parallel storylines that are loosely connected. One involves some good old fashioned espionage and murder. Another is about forgery of ‘traditional’ American manufactured items (that, perversely, have collector’s value in this world). The third revolves around a one night stand between strangers in a small town in Colorado that rapidly turns dark.

There are several relatively minor plot points that really stand out: all the characters use the I Ching to make decisions and divine the future; there are strongly racist feelings expressed by a white man towards the ‘superior’ Japanese- something that is prevalent in today’s world as well**. Even better, there’s a novel in the book that speaks about an alternate-alternate history in which the Axis powers were defeated. Meta enough to satisfy even the most discerning sci-fi fan.

This book is truly an immersive experience- nuances are conveyed via language and narrative pace. The scenes set in Japan-ruled San Francisco are told in choppy, metaphor-heavy language vaguely reminiscent of Japanese. In other chapters, panic is conveyed with short sentences and incomplete trains of thought.

3.5/5 from me, but PKD is still da man.

*He apparently died in 1982, and I doubt he would be heartbroken by this anyway.

**Though ‘this reverse racism’ may be obvious only among the melanin-blessed population.