Thursday, January 12, 2012

The dominion of the flesh

I have just finished reading Abraham Verghese's best-selling novel Cutting for Stone, a young man's account of growing up in Ethiopia during the revolutionary 1960s, the son of an Indian Catholic nursing sister and an Indian-born-and-raised British doctor.

I won't recount the story here; it is a splendid read. Let me only mention one thing I liked about the book.

It is a story of doctors, their assistants, and surgery, swimming in blood, pus, and viscera. In the course of the novel's 658 pages we follow the surgeon's knife into every recess of the body -- gut, spleen, liver, heart, genitals, womb, breast, lungs. We are awash with bodily liquids -- amniotic fluid, siliva, urine, semen. The effect is grim, gruesome -- and beautiful.

Make no mistake: this is a story of souls, some magnificent, some imperfect, some diabolic. But never have I read a book where souls are so intimately embodied, so inextricably expressed in flesh, so steeped in the juices of the physical self. OK, Walt Whitman's I Sing the Body Electric, maybe, but Whitman's poem doesn't delve like Verghese's novel into the very bowels and hidden bowers of the body.

This book could only have been written by someone who has been there, a physician who has lived his life on the cutting edge where body and soul hang together by the slenderest of threads and only the surgeon's deft hand can hold them together. And if the thread breaks? The body to the morgue. The soul to oblivion.

No, not to oblivion. That too is part of the novel. Souls linger. Lives affect other lives, for good, for bad. Every life leaves the world a little bit transformed, jiggers the trajectory of history, rattles the universe. Cutting for Stone is a deeply moral book, which makes a powerful case for living with moral integrity and compassion, as best we can as souls whose roots and tendrils extend to every corner of the vulnerable flesh.