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Finely formed stories of pre-revolutionary rural Russia,
This review is from: A Country Doctor's Notebook (Vintage Classics) (Paperback)
Sometimes serendipity plays a role in the book that you have chosen to read. A day or two after I picked up this book of short stories from the shelf, I spotted in the underground an advertisement for a TV show featuring none other than Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm. The show called A Young Doctor's Notebook is based on this very book I am just about to write about. Apparently both Hamm and Radcliffe are HUGE fans of Bulgakov; the former singlehandedly drove the TV project forward while the latter even went on a Bulgakov pilgrimage to Russia on his 21st birthday! [...]
Across town, Complicite's stage version of The Master and Margarita is returning to the Barbican - while I missed it the first time, I don't plan to this time. I've seen a couple of other stage versions of Bulgakov's works - the splendid National Theatre production of The White Guard a few years ago, and at the other end of the scale, Moliere at the Finborough, as bijou as the NT show was grand. I wish I'd known my Red Revolution and Civil War history a little better BEFORE I saw The White Guard but I had to wait for a few years and Mr Bruce Lincoln to put that to rights. But better late than never, as they say.
What's charming about this particular book is the self-deprecation, the ironic humour of the young narrator. Bulgakov is just a callow young doctor straight out of medical school when he is farmed out to Muryovo, a village based on a real-life posting in the western borderlands where Mother Russia melts away into Belarus and Ukraine. Here the doctor, with grim determination scooped out of despair, fights the forces of darkness, ignorance and superstition, usually represented by the elemental forces of nature: driving snow, fierce storms, relentless blizzards. On the doctor's side are the puny but indomitable causes of science, reason and enlightenment - a solitary lamp shining in Bulgakov's room, another stubborn one hanging outside his small village hospital.
There are early victories - a successful amputation, a windpipe replacement for a diphtheria-stricken child, a complicated delivery, even a plague of syphilis. Each of these ills the young doctor counters with cussedness, competence, humility and a little luck. The results surprise him as much as they win the admiration and custom of villagers for miles around. At the end of the first year, he has seen no fewer than 15,613 patients, and by that time the outside world - the above mentioned revolution and civil war - has started to impinge on this rural anti-idyll. The names of Kerensky and Petliura appear, the same Kerensky who is buried in a parish church in southwest London, just a few miles from where I am typing this.
This is, in sum, a lovely book by a fine writer, told in the most attractive of narrative voices, and one that will transport you to the vanished rural Russia that the Bolsheviks wrestled away from the Tsars and the Whites. Bring on the TV show and the booming book sales!