The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar is described in its blurb as “a magical compendium of pseudo-diseases, an encyclopaedia of archaic medicine,” a claim that is slightly at odds with the brevity and fragmentariness of the book. The reader is treated not to an encyclopaedic experience, but to a series of excerpts from the 327 volumes of a fictional Encyclopaedia medicinae, linked by a framing narrative. Anyone familiar with my writing will know that I have nothing against brevity and fragmentariness per se (quite the opposite), but in The Afflictions there is a tension between those qualities and the way the book has been put together and presented to the public that I find unsatisfying. More of that later.
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.
You can buy the book here.