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The Afflictions: A Kafka-esque tale of mysterious maladies

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on May 04, 2019 Published on May 04, 2019

Interpreter of maladies: Vikram Paralkar's book focuses on a strange manual of inexplicable illnesses   -  istock.com

Vikram Paralkar’s latest novel challenges the form of contemporary fiction to bring about a book of unparalleled ingenuity

Introducing Franz Kafka’s collected stories, literary theorist and novelist Gabriel Josipovici, asks: “What led Kafka to think of his fiction in this way, and what does it tell us about the fiction itself?”

The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar, a US-based physician, is as strange and complex as Kafka’s stories — and just as worthy of Josipovici’s question. Though this is his first book, it was released only last year in India. Paralkar challenged literary sensibilities with his eerily charming second novel The Wounds of the Dead, released in India in 2017. In The Afflictions, he keeps his plot and premise simple and straight.

The Afflictions, Vikram Paralkar, HarperCollins India, Fiction, Rs 399

 

The protagonist, an apothecary named Maximo joins the Central Library as a librarian. There, he comes across an unusual manual of afflictions and a library attendant with an impish diction and the demeanour of Tiresias — a blind prophet in Greek mythology who led many lives. The attendant introduces Maximo to the freakish interiors of the library, where he comes upon the Encyclopaedia Medicinae — an unusal manual of afflictions.

The book sketches the strange and inexplicable afflictions in the manual — each one more absurd and intriguing than the last. They are so mind-numbing that one will be forced to take suitably disturbed pauses before resuming reading.

Sample the affliction Pestis divisionis: “The victims find their loyalties dissolved and replaced by new allegiances. They form sects whose differences are so deep and acrimonious that every person abandons his home to join his new brothers. The differences are never traceable to race or religion or ancestry: They are mere fictions imposed by the plague.”

Each affliction bears chilling characteristics and their uniqueness is so beguiling that one is forced to revisit them repeatedly only to be shaken beyond measure with each visit.

It is very difficult to imagine a book like this in an age of declining literary sensibilities and reader engagement. The Afflictions is, to be frank, not a novel. Rather, it is an anti-novel, a counter-thesis. It is like a Gothic landscape that can be approached from any side in any direction. You can open the book and start reading from anywhere, starting with any of the many afflictions and then go back and forth to complete the ‘novel’ without disturbing your sense of vicarious gratification.

Such an approach is rare in contemporary English fiction. And that prompts us to think, like Josipovici, what would have led Paralkar to think of his fiction in this way, and what does it tell us about the fiction itself?

The answer might lie in Paralkar’s literary inspirations: Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. While the novel evidently reflects the pithiness and aphoristic brilliance of Calvino, it dangerously renegotiates the philosophical moorings that marked most Borgesian fiction, and then there is Nabokov’s eye for details.

In real life, Paralkar treats patients with acute and chronic leukemia and researches how blood cells develop and become cancerous. One may say, rather innocuously, his ability to look into microscopic details of cells comes handy in fiction where he dissects characters, emotions and events. He probes into the emerging microcosm to make inferences that impact the external, wider world.

In Wounds of The Dead — where a surgeon receives a grotesque request from a group of ‘dead’ people to stitch their wounds so they could survive — this skill was more evident, whereas in The Afflictions, Paralkar takes some help from the reader in furthering his insights. He is convinced that after going through each of the afflictions the reader would make his own connections to the myriad worlds he has seen, people he has met and ‘afflictions’ — mental, physical, social, and beyond — he has been familiar with.

That way, this novel is an interactive exercise. It wants the reader to read and assimilate each of the spectacularly spooky diseases that defy logic and all known medical explanations, and connect the dots, only to marvel at the author’s ability to build a grand allegory that runs in holistic fragments, while offering a reading experience that goes beyond its times.

At a time when novelists try to play to the gallery by picking subjects that are familiar to the ‘market’ — from issues of migration, racism and sexuality to character deviations — and miserably fail to build narratives that are worth a revisit, writers like Paralkar boldly experiment with fiction that is challenging to conceive and execute as it requires a unique vocabulary that can disrupt today’s market-modulated, social-mediated reading capabilities.

Published on May 04, 2019

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