Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov is world renowned for the brilliant The Master and Margarita but if you go back to the start of his writing career you get a slightly different but still hugely enjoyable experience.

The main difference with A Country Doctor's Notebook is that it starts in 1916 when the war is the background but the revolution and the Stalinistic oppression that hung over the rest of his writing has not yet arrived. As a result you get an insight into a country of extremes - light and dark is Bulkgakov's metaphor - with vast differences between cities and the countryside.

Sent as a newly qualified doctor to head up a rural hospital with a staff of two midwifes and an assistant the main character and alter-ego for Bulgakov heads away from electricity, telephones and civilisation to a remote world where the weather and the roads can make a six mile journey take all day. This is an environment where ignorance about medical matters among the peasants is supporting the spread of syphilis and people fail to follow their courses of medication because they simply cannot grasp what the doctor is telling them.

But the stories about individual cases, used to illustrate the experience of being a country doctor, are told with a degree of warmth and humour that makes you stick with the story and grow to like the main character. Of course he can be boorish and arrogant but underneath he shares his constant insecurity about his lack of ability and inexperience with most medical crises.

The small hospital is not just a learning ground for him in terms of medicine but also as a man as he copes with facing the demons of isolation and loneliness for months on end. By the end he is not only a much more competent doctor but also a better observer of human nature.

For all but a couple of chapters the story focuses on the remote country hospital but once the main character leaves and heads back into civilisation to a larger city-based hospital there is a shift in direction. Now he uses the stories of others, both doctors, to illustrate the dark side of being in such a remote and isolated situation at such a young age as well as introducing the theme of the revolution and the battle for control of Russian in the civil war.

The last couple of chapters give off the sort of feeling that most of his work would have following the arrival of Lenin and his friends with a tension and fear that is not apparent before starting to creep in. It makes the earlier stories about the country hospital ones that can be seen with a degree of sentimentality.

The Russia described in the first two thirds of the book disappears not long afterwards under five-year plans and the persecution of rich farmers. There is a certain irony that just as Bulgakov starts to find his writing wings and soars with this descriptions of rural Russia the full stop at the end of the book is not just his return to the bright electric lights of the city but a stop to an era stretching back hundreds of years. You sense that not long after the ink dried on writing this book it became in large parts a work of almost instant history.

Published by The Harvill Press, 1995
Translated by Michael Glenny

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