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The Afflictions Paperback – 31 Oct 2014
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Paralkar’s prose is balanced, genial and articulate. It has an olde worlde quality that is difficult to pin down to a particular setting. Syntax and diction feel predominantly early Twentieth Century, while the story seems to be set in an unspecified feudal Catholic country (possibly Spain), in which writers use quills and the schism between science and superstition has yet to occur. Learning and enquiry are at the heart of the book, and the notion of empire is subtly present throughout; perhaps Paralkar has located his fictional world in the Sixteenth Century. But the intention is clearly not to provide the reader with an obvious milieu. I felt as if I had entered the archetypal world of a Calvino or a Borges, removed from mundane reality yet connected with history.
The escapism provided by The Afflictions is one of the chief attractions of the book. Another is the ingenuity of the author in defining and exemplifying his invented ailments. Paralkar is a writer of Twitterature, and in this book he shows his formidable talent for the creation of concise, witty, crystalline prose. Each affliction is neatly contained in a couple of pages, offering the reader a delightful promenade from one to the next, like a saunter through an art gallery. The tone is light and easy. Distinctions between the physical and the metaphysical don’t apply to the symptomatology of the diseases listed here: “the sufferer of Cursed Healer Syndrome… finds himself taking on the disfigurements of those around him”; victims of Oraculum terribile see the future damnation of everyone they look at; the Curse of Sisyphus keeps those afflicted in a cycle of development and regression, perhaps to keep them free from sin. Paralkar’s inventiveness in devising maladies is stunning.
The writing is complemented by some striking illustrations by Amanda Thomas, which provide an extra treat. The pictures are decorative and quietly fanciful, but they have the orderly stasis of textbook illustrations.
Despite all these excellent qualities, The Afflictions has one significant flaw, namely the framing device, in which an elderly librarian introduces a dwarf called Máximo to the Central Library, housing the Encyclopaedia medicinae. The device attempts to impose a narrative but proves insubstantial and disappointing; there are hints that Máximo is deformed and suffers from some sort of affliction (which might explain his interest in the encyclopaedia), but this plot strand is cursory and undeveloped. The book half promises (but doesn’t deliver) a labyrinthine narrative, in which Máximo’s life and story become intertwined with the grotesque vignettes of the encyclopaedia entries. This is just speculation on my part, but it looks to me as if Paralkar wrote his encyclopaedia entries first and then wondered how he could bring them together into a cohesive whole. Perhaps he should have resisted the urge to make his book resemble a novel; unlinked fragments from the encyclopaedia would have been enough, and might have made for a more satisfying read. He should have let the book be what it wanted to be, and not shoe-horn it into an established form.
But don’t let my little grumble about form put you off. The Afflictions is engaging, entertaining and enchanting, and Paralkar is a writer to watch.
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One cannot simply read through this book cover to cover and figure it out. No, in order to get the maximum enjoyment out of it, I suggest that, first of all, the reader be wide awake and alert.
Second, don’t expect too much from the monologue of the old librarian; his taking Maximo on the tour of the Central Library is primarily for the purpose of giving the reader some background knowledge of the mythical time and place the author has set us down in—though now and then, he does have something interesting to say that could be relevant to our understanding of the afflictions:
“It makes me wonder what we’d find if we could distill a human being. How many elements, mixed in what proportions? Would one of those be the element of the soul? And could you distill that one even further?”
Third, and most importantly, read a description of an affliction straight through, then pause and think it over. You will most likely be thinking, “Well, WHAT was THAT about?” or “Was THAT it?” But instead of moving on to the next ailment, reread that one (it’s short enough). Think about it again. Look for the less obvious meaning, the metaphor. Trust me, it’s there. Here is how I experienced the first affliction.
At first, the description of Amnesia Inversa, seems fairly straightforward in meaning. Although beautifully written, melancholy in the feelings it induces in the reader, it just seems so obvious that it would indeed be a sad and terrible thing to have a disease that caused you to never be remembered by anyone, even your friends and family.
But wait! Is that all the writer is trying to do—pluck our heartstrings with a sad, fantasy disease? Reread it carefully, give it some thought, and other possibilities suggests themselves—a deeper meaning that reveals the deep existential ponderings of the author: Among so many billions in the world, are we not all anonymous to all but a few? After a doctor has examined thousands of patients, even carefully describing their conditions on paper, will he or she, 20 years later, recall much of anything about one person in particular? And, ultimately, after we pass away, and our lover has passed away, and our children’s’ children’s’ children’s’ children have passed away, are we not all inevitably victims of Amnesia Inversa? Even those whose names are remembered in histories and memoirs of the American Revolution are only remembered in caricature, with historians endlessly arguing about who these people actually were.
Well, hey, I didn’t promise you it would be a “happy” metaphor, just damned interesting!
Metaphors are what this book is all about. Some, like Amnesia Inversa, are commentaries on mortality; some are about basic human foibles; some, like one of my favorites, Bernard’s Malady, are (in my opinion) about political behavior, providing, among other ideas, a very clever hypothesis for why poor people would vote to reduce taxes on the rich.
There are 50 of these intellectually engaging “afflictions.” Some will take a few minutes to figure out, others an hour or hours, and others perhaps days. But if you’re an intellectual who enjoys a clever social satire wrapped in a beautiful metaphorical puzzle inside an enigmatic fictional world, then this book is just total brain candy.
This novel a parts ponders the psychological and spiritual maladies of humanity in the guise of an Encyclopedia of Medicine at the Central Library. An admirable work, presented in short chapters that can be passed over quickly or pondered for some time, it is less, however, a novel of ideas than an idea novel, or cool idea novel.
It’s structure reminds the reader of Italo Calvino’s great Invisible Cities, presenting a cubist-like collection of parts and angles that create, in its own quiet pace, a fractured yet recognizable picture of the human condition in a light, wry, and sympathetic palette with a daub of ennui. But there are only questions here, no resolutions, reminding me of an old philosophy professor who responded to a young student’s naïve question with “I don’t solve the problems of the universe, I just explain them.” Still, we appreciate those courageous authors who try.
The volume, however, would have been stronger if it had been polished a bit; the overall writing style could have been a little more mature and still kept the lightness. Nothing the author could not have done had he not stopped at the epiphany stage of his idea and continued through to the nuts and bolts work of his craft. For this is obviously a talented author, and perhaps I am being a little hard on him because of it. I wouldn’t ask more of a less talented one.
A good book, a very good book. Vikram Paralkar is an author to read, and to keep an eye out for his future work. Hats off to Lantern Press presenting him to us.
I couldn't help read and re-read the stories one at a time, and seldom made it past five or six at a time. At that point, as curious as I was to see what lay ahead, I had to pause and mull over what I had just read. I kept trying to keep a mental list of my favorites stories - as you can imagine from prior descriptions of this work, this got impossibly challenging over time. The razor-sharp intellect and the unique brand of wit that @VikramParalkar brings to his twitter-fiction are captured in their full glory in his debut novel.
What a masterpiece! Magical in more ways than one.
The sections are broken up in such a way that it may be one of the most "Readable" things I've encountered in quite some time.
Mr. Paralkar is off to a great start. There's not a conventional narrative arc, but the amazing inventiveness of the diseases makes the experience of reading it absolutely thrilling.
I recommend it to anyone with a dark sensibility and a fan of unconventional literature.