It is my firm conviction that Patrick Süskind’s Perfume gave rise to a new sub-genre of the historical novel. I am not sure it is within my remit to give it an accurate definition or characterise it with the appropriate scholarly expertise. I will humbly abstain from any academic pretense. What appeared in the wake of Perfume‘s triumphal march is the historical novel that ironically revisits the 16th-18th century period with an unflinching portrayal of the gritty and explicitly gruesome aspects of life at the time, of that which heretofore had been either hushed up or considerably toned down. Right on the first page of his bestseller, Süskind makes it abundantly clear that what we are going to read is not some romantic Dumah-esque fantasy about the noble past:
In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots.
As you might know, this litany to various manifestations of the omnipresent stench goes on for a dozen more lines.
Some of the better-known excursions into the “gritty past” are Federico Andahazi’s The Anatomist and Andrew Miller’s IMPAC Award-winning Ingenious Pain. I would especially recommend the latter, which tells the story of an 18th-century English misfit completely impervious to physical suffering. The novel traces the trials and tribulations of James Dyer who makes a vertiginous ascent from a side-show freak to a prodigiously skillful (if cold-hearted) surgeon.
The Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki’s short novel Tooth Worm is a worthy addition to the said sub-genre. Welcome to the ghastly world of the 17th-century dentistry! If truth be told, I had never asked myself what would have befallen a person with teeth problems several centuries before. After reading Iwasaki’s book, I realised how lucky we are to inhabit the era of cutting-edge dental care.
Originally, the Spanish word neguijón was used to denote an elusive worm that was believed to nestle in the human gums and cause caries by eating away at the molars. Iwasaki graphically describes the way barbers, the dentists of the period, devastated their patients’ jaws with a hair-raising assortment of chisels, pincers, hammers, lancets and hooks in search of the mythical creature. Moreover, the reader has an exciting opportunity to see what these tools exactly looked like thanks to the illustrative woodcuts borrowed from historical medical treatises. In case your curiosity has been piqued, this illuminating post at Chirurgeon’s Apprentice will supply you with additional details concerning the long-standing tradition around the existence of the notorious parasite.
The alternating chapters of the novel are set in two different time frames and places. In one of these chronotopes we follow the adventures of several characters trying to escape from a prison in Seville during a bloody mutiny of the convicts; in the other we trace their fate in the Vice-royalty of Peru after the lapse of some years. Generally speaking, there are no healthy characters in Iwasaki’s novel. Each of them has some kind of ailment that could be treated at the time by such gut-wrenchingly barbaric methods, as, for example, the removal of a renal calculus through the patient’s anus. (In case you wondered, yes, Iwasaki gives a detailed description of this procedure as well). They suffer a lot and incessantly meditate on suffering as they go about their daily life. There is no lack of lurid musings like this:
Perhaps it was fever or melancholy, but while his bones were being sawed and the wound cauterised by boiling oil, it occurred to “Stumps” that a pair of pincers tugging at the molars caused even greater pain.
Of a particular interest is bookseller Linares who has organised the distribution of Don Quijote from Spain to the New World. There is something Quixotic about the man himself, as most of his knowledge about the world stems from the numerous tractates, disquisitions and compendia he has voraciously read. In an episode reminiscent of the book-burning scene in Cervantes’ masterpiece, Linares observes with a bleeding heart chaplain Tartajada, one of his companions in misfortune, choose which books to sacrifice for the makeshift barricade erected to delay the onslaught of the rampaging galeotes.
Bookseller Linares burst into tears as the chaplain added to the defensive wall Peter Martyr’s Decades of the New World edited by Nebrija, for he had recalled that it was about the giants of Patagonia and the sirens of the island of Cuba, more beautiful and affectionate than those of Madagascar. Or when he had to plug a nearby hole with the Sevillian edition of Summa de geografía by Bachelor Fernández de Enciso, a marvelous bestiary of the West Indies, whose forests were roamed by cat monkeys, lizards the size of bull-calves and pigs with armour of scales.
Linares even puts on a barber’s basin on his head for protection before an imminent attack of the criminals besieging the prison infirmary where he and his companions have found a temporary shelter. His main motivation to stay alive is the overwhelming longing to dip into the codices and manuscripts he has set out to read, for death itself is not as frightening to him as the grim prospects of “eternity without books”. It comes as no surprise that his ruminations on possible death are irredeemably bookish, as he wonders whether the forthcoming quietus will fit the description found in The Agony of Crossing Over by Alejo de Venegas or rather that of Alfonso de Valdés’ Dialogue of Mercury and Charon. Such meditative mood runs through the whole novel. Not really much happens in Tooth Worm story-wise. Except for a scuffle or two and flashbacks of a naval battle, the major events are tooth-pulling, gum-piercing and amputation. From beginning till end, we are immersed in the flawed world of brutal medical practices, following one excruciating manipulation after another, with little respite in between.
The lush language of the the novel deserves a special mention. To say that reading Tooth Worm has been a challenge would be an understatement on my part. A historian by education, Iwasaki has done his homework with an insufferable diligence. The diction of El Siglo de Oro returns with a vengeance on the pages of the book, forcing a meticulous reader to rummage through the academic El Diccionario de la lengua española on the regular basis throughout the whole reading. Iwasaki employs very rich vocabulary, and is always ready to pile a heap of synonyms or related words wherever he deems necessary. For instance, in the very first sentence of the novel we come across four different words for the sound of ringing bells: tañido, repique, doblar, rebato.
At the end of the book there is an eleven-page bibliography listing all the treatises mentioned by the characters of Tooth Worm. According to the author himself, he has invented only one apocryph, The Book of Treasure and Padlock of the Poor Knights of Christ and Solomon’s Temple, because The Knights Templar literature simply did not exist at the time. It’s always a pleasure to hold in your hands a carefully researched historical novel that not only offers the titillation of observing the gritty past from the safe distance of the technologically advanced twenty-first century, but also makes you aware of the vast body of medical knowledge produced by the time Don Quijote was published, and without which we might not be sitting so poised in the dental chair today.