Irony can’t be measured by any kind of machine. If it could, I imagine it would be a device a little like a Geiger-counter, with a dial, and a screen, and a sensor held by a technician in a hazard suit.
That machine, if it existed, would be clicking like hell throughout Milen Ruskov’s recent novel Thrown into Nature.
In the opening scene, the Spanish Doctor Nicolas Monardes uses the miraculous healing power of tobacco to bring a man, Lazarus-like, back from the dead. The good doctor achieves this by repeatedly blowing the tobacco smoke directly into the subject’s lungs, while his assistant ‘pulpates’ his stomach. Eventually the man wrenches himself gaspingly from the floor, miraculously alive.
It’s confirmed: the new wonder substance sweeping Europe can even bring people back from the dead.
Ruskov’s novel follows the misadventures of the vain and preposterous Doctor Nicolas Monardes, whose 1577 medical treatise Of the Tobaco and His Great Vertues was partially credited with introducing Europe to nicotine. Claims about the health benefits of tobacco persisted even into the second half of the 20th century.
The novel’s narrator is Gimarães da Silva, Dr. Monardes’ fawning assistant. It’s written as a half-memoir, half-treatise on the multifarious health benefits of tobacco, and each chapter is headed with a particular use of the “miraculous substance”: “Against Death”; “Intestinal Worms, Enemas”; and “Driving Away So-Called ‘Spirits'”, for instance.
Doctor Monardes is puffed up with self-importance, and carries the mantle of the renaissance man to ludicrous effect: he reads the books of northern humanist philosophers to keep up with the fashion, but more than once throws them into the sea in rage at their stupidity.
Monardes believes primarily that man is a biological mechanism, and describes everyone from peasants to nobles as ‘eat-to-shits’. He can think of nothing more idiotic than dying for a cause.
“You wouldn’t do that, would you… die for the Renaissance and humanism[?]”, Gimarães asks him at one point, at which the doctor explodes:
“Me? Die for the Renaissance and humanism? Do you even hear what you’re saying?”
While Monardes remains a pompous and hypocritical windbag throughout, Gimarães is a candid and sharp narrator, with a well-developed voice that suffers the storms of translation well.
At one point he describes the Escorial Palace, the Spanish royal seat, in these terms: “some say it is the ugliest large building in the world, while others argue the opposite, ie. that it is the largest ugly building in the world. In my opinion, both sides are right.” His voice is knowing and naive at the same time, and always desperately charming.
Scenes that will stick with readers are Monardes and Gimarães’ visit to London, and a day out to the Globe Theatre – something Ruskov presumably couldn’t resist including.
The novel is lovingly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, replete with explanations of untranslatable puns, which are thankfully few.
Despite the novel being set in Spain and intelligently translated into English by Rodel, it still retains something essentially Bulgarian – not just in the fact that characters shake their heads to say yes and nod to say no.
That particular spirit comes out in a certain grip to the dark humour, the abandon and irresponsibility in the whole idea of the thing, as well as the inescapable nets of dramatic irony, and the book’s wonderful sense of humour.
Thrown Into Nature is not a comic novel, not really, though it is full of comic scenes. It’s a novel soaked in irony, wrought of the stuff. It’s also beautiful at times, in an awkward way.
With a wonderful carefree nature to its voice and a fantastic economy of prose, Thrown into Nature is a lucid mirror on money, evil and charlatanism from one of Bulgaria’s greatest living writers.