“A Country Doctor’s Notebook” by Mikhail Bulgakov
(Written in 1920s / First published in English translation: 1975 / This edition: Vintage Books 2010)
Taken with a beautiful sunflower I got from a florist near my house in Tokyo and the mail package the book came in.
Do I express my thoughts lucidly?
I think I do.
What is my life? An absurdity. (p.141)
I received this book a little over a year ago from a bookish friend in The Netherlands. We decided to do a book exchange, and he decided to send me this one after I read “Morphine”. I didn’t know “Morphine” was actually just a part of a collection of stories. It was my first dose of Bulgakov’s writings and I immediately liked him.
“The Country Doctor’s Notebook” is a collection of stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, who was a writer as well as a doctor in Russia in the early 20th century. He was a young doctor and was sent to practice in the remote countryside, with limited resources, equipments, trained help, and most importantly, with “limited experience”. He struggled in his practices while dealing with matters of life and death, literally, among ignorant, lesser-educated peasants with their stubborn, superstitious beliefs. From his descriptions, I imagine it to be like he was living and learning in high-society, civilized towns and then suddenly tossed into some time-warp which sent him back hundreds of years earlier where medicinal practices and discoveries are more medieval and based on superstitions.
Not one to like medicine/hospital/sickness-related topics (I can’t even get past the opening of Grey’s Anatomy without cringing), but Bulgakov’s writings are witty, insightful, and absorbing. He has his own style of humor, which I’ve grown to love also in his other books I’ve read. With every incident he has to deal with at the hospital, he gets enlightened and can see the humorous or positive sides of it, no matter how gruesome or exhausting the situation was. He recalls a having a patient who swallowed all his pills in one go, claiming that it would be a waste of time to take them one by one. He vents about a patient who wouldn’t believe him when he told him that he (the patient) has syphilis and stubbornly argues that he just has a sore throat—and ends up affecting his whole family. He also talks about battling through a blizzard and being chased by wolves, while trying to get to the hospital. Each story he tells is entertaining and I get so curious to see how he would “manage” each frustrating situation.
I really enjoyed reading this and would highly recommend it. Mikhail Bulgakov is one of my favorite Russian writers. I’ve read “The Master and Margarita”, “The Heart of a Dog”, and “The Fatal Eggs”—enjoyed all of them (so I’m recommending all those too!)! He has this dark and gnarly sense of humor which I love so much. “The Country Doctor’s Notebook” doesn’t have the same fictional, dark fantasy vibe as the others—as it’s more like a diary—but it’s still a memorable Bulgakov read.
Side note. Another bookish friend of mine told me that there’s a series based on this book and it’s called “A Young Doctor’s Notebook”. I haven’t seen it—just the trailer. It stars Don Draper and Harry Potter, and has them helping sick Russian villagers. (Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe) I haven’t heard much more about it. Has anyone seen it? (Here’s the trailer if you want to see.)
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
Now that this year is past, the next year will be just as full of surprises as the first. One never stops learning. (p.109)
Clever people have long been aware that happiness is like good health: when you have it, you don’t notice it. But as the years go by, oh, the memories, the memories of happiness past! (p.113)
On my way to the bedroom, I mumbled through a yawn:
‘I’m going to fight this thing.’ (p.74)