Thank You for Smoking

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Thrown into Nature
by Milen Ruskov
translated by Angela Rodel
Softcover, $15.95
Open Letters Books, 2011

Dr. Nicolas Monardes of Sevilla is a 16th century doctor convinced of the wide-ranging practicality of treating illnesses with tobacco, who is also, eventually, snuffed out by his own fervent self-application of this treatment. The chapters of Thrown into Nature are titled as you might find in a textbook of the ailments which can successfully be treated by tobacco, from the first chapter, “Against Death,” through “Intestinal Worms, Enemas”, “Female Swelling”, the plausible “Curing Lovesickness” and the ludicrous “Against Bad Breath” — until the final chapter, “The Death of Dr. Monardes”. In that first chapter, tobacco is credited with resurrecting a man from his (admittedly recent) death — “Murdered by Nature!” proclaims our narrator, da Silva, who nurses this grudge against Mother Nature throughout the book — which, while ostensibly proof of tobacco’s miraculous power, is only the beginning of the story.

Guimaraes da Silva serves as an aide to Dr. Monardes. He describes himself as the doctor’s assistant, while Monardes refers to him as a student. Guimaraes is a man always one step ahead of irrelevance: he hopes to better himself through focused attention to the ministrations of his mentor, but cannot wait to escape his lower social class. Da Silva is a made up name, agreed upon with the Doctor, to denote a level of aristocracy, and he hides his Portuguese descent, referring to his people as foul-smelling swindlers. Dr. Monardes infrequently thinks of da Silva, but the latter is convinced of his utility to the doctor and has subscribed fully to these ideas about the healing power of the tobacco leaf.

Thrown into Nature is a picaresque and, as such, has a minimum of dramatic turns of events or suspense. The primary enemies of these stalwart practitioners are a society unconvinced of tobacco’s supreme medicinal value and, of course, the enemy of illness itself. One chapter has Monardes debating the King of England to a draw over tobacco’s value; another has hapless da Silva blowing tobacco smoke through a glass tube into the anus of a monarch’s ailing son. (One assumes the pun to be intentional.) Da Silva would fancy himself a John Watson to Sherlock Holmes, were he made aware of these characters — he serves as witness and scribe for the astonishing genius of Monardes, recounting his fine-honed diagnostic skills and his ability to delicately prepare the tobacco leaves to certain fine specifications, depending on the illness.

Da Silva’s storytelling abilities far outweigh his medical ones, at least according to Monardes — left to provide treatment for a young woman, soon to be married and stricken with halitosis, the tobacco only results in a volcanic bout of diahrrea until Monardes intervenes. He proclaims the treatment effective, as far as it was implemented, but da Silva did not place tobacco on the woman’s neck as well as her stomach, which resulted in a concentration of the “hot humors” in her abdomen. Monardes’s swift correction puts the treatment back on track (somehow), and a chastised da Silva glosses over his error as a learning experience before launching into a soliloquy unrelated to the near fatal error — though, to be fair, he does note that “a man does the most thinking precisely when he doesn’t know how to act rightly.”

Without an overarching plot, to the novel is structured by a recollection of stories from da Silva’s apprenticeship, which lampoon medical knowledge (and the lack thereof), wealth, philosophy, and politics with winning combinations of absurd proclamations and interpersonal slapstick. These are men of conviction, and the joy of the story comes in seeing these serious-minded practitioners working diligently to disprove the detractors of their tobacco theory. Ruskov, having worked in fiction writing and in translation (an award-winning translator, he has translated more than twenty books), has a remarkable talent for writing these characters into satirical and parodical predicaments that feel natural, believable; Monardes is a man of bluster, and da Silva is often simultaneously more and less stupid than he would believe, or have us believe.

In one situation, Monardes and da Silva are confronted with a crowd in front of a church, panic-stricken over a spirit within. Monardes scoffs at the idea that spirits exist, but they enter and assist in evicting the ghost — with the rapid application of tobacco smoke, reinforced by the vigorous swinging of their staffs. Afterward, as frequently happens in the novel, da Silva asks questions and Monardes clarifies his previous proclamations by contradicting himself and declaring nothing to be as simple as it looks:

“That thing was unbelievably quick, señor,” I said. “It went from one of the church to the other like the wind.”
“That’s true,” the doctor replied. “Spirits are like that.”
“But didn’t you say that there are no spirits?”
“In principle, that’s true. But misunderstandings always occur. There are no spirits,” Dr. Monardes nodded in assent. “But there are misunderstandings. Just as in science, Guimaraes: There’s a rule, but there are also exceptions.”
“So it turns out that there are spirits after all,” I said, after a certain amount of reflection.
“How’s that?” the doctor replied. “There are no spirits!”

Monardes settles on an explanation that compares the sizes of watermelons to apples, and while it holds no actual clarification or genuine logic, the explanation is presented in an academic-enough manner to leave da Silva none the wiser, understanding only that he continues to have much to learn. Monardes offers none of that burdensome scientific proof of the efficacy of tobacco in healing, stating that the means by which it functions is oblique, and thus it follows that — along with having seen it work — such obliqueness is testament to the power of the treatment. Conviction is the thread that connects all the characters together — they either have it in large quantities (Monardes), are sporadically wielding it with varying degrees of success (da Silva), or are having it thrust upon them in one aspect or another (everyone else).

Conviction in Nature being a convoluted mix of self-deception and faith, it provides ample opportunities for the duo to rise and fall in a slew of entertaining ways. This headstrong conviction is what makes the book worth reading, and provides perspective on the hubris of medical practitioners both past and present. By the last quarter of the story, Monardes has become prone to long and violent coughing fits, and da Silva is predicting the end of books by the hand of tobacco — as books are mainly used for the education of physicians, and what need for that will there be once the widespread adoption of tobacco treatments begins? Neither man progresses much beyond this sort of rhetorical assertion of his conviction, though doubtless both would insist otherwise. Ruskov leavens his pessimistic reflections on what a sad, sorry lot we humans are as a whole through the narrative humor of da Silva, whose moments of existential confusion are always eventually ameliorated with the application of a good smoke. Who could argue with that?

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