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Love in the time of syphilis

Veenu Sandhu 

The Chinese, “they die like flies; the ocean bed must look like a Chinese graveyard!” “What do they die of?”… “Everything. Burning stomachs and feeble bones, rotten lungs and sick brains.” “And syphilis?”… “They die from what’s in and over the belly not under it!” On a ship full of opium and Chinamen, Lisbon’s finest surgeon, Antonio Henriques Maria, stumbles upon the chance he’s been desperately, frantically, hopelessly seeking — a chance to find a cure to syphilis, the cursed pox which is sure to claim his father. Holding onto this one thread, Maria heads off to China in search of the Yellow Emperor’s cure.

It’s fascinating, this recent fascination of writers with the Orient. Some time back, came out with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, an epic story set in the 19th century Japan about a young Dutch clerk determined to win the hand of his love. And then, Amitav Ghosh’s which took us to the Chinese trading outpost of Canton and through events leading up to China’s opium war of the 1840s. And now there’s Kunal Basu’s The Yellow Emperor’s Cure which is mostly set in the 19th century China.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure opens with Dr Maria, a Casanova, leaving hospital after a surgery for the boisterous feast of Saint Antony. Described as “the young lion! The pride of the Faculdade; for all of his coarse mouth and roving eye, the most precious pair of hands in Lisbon,” he’s hoping to meet the nurse whom he had been giving his “lady killer looks” during the surgery. But the celebration doesn’t last long. Basu, in one quick stroke, takes the doctor from the scene of revelry to one of a horrifying discovery, to his country home where he finds that his father, himself an accomplished doctor, is dying of syphilis.

From beginning to end, Basu paints graphic imagery of the scenes through which he takes the readers. When Maria walks into the room where his father lies covered with ugly scabs, the stench of rotting flesh practically leaps out of the pages: “A rosebud bloomed on his temple, tumescent, a drop of milk white dew oozing from its heart and trickling down.” He draws you into the miseries suffered by those cursed to die of syphilis: “Even lepers ran at the sight of them. Hospitals slammed doors in their faces. Kind priests hurled rocks through their windows to keep them away.” He leaves you wiser about the disease which earned many names – French Disease, Spanish Itch, German Rash or Polish Pox – and claimed hundreds of lives before, incidentally, a German scientist (and not the Chinese) found an effective treatment for it. And, through elegant understatement, he offers a glimpse into the warm and poignant relationship between Maria and his father, two “lonely men bonded by an absence” — that of Maria’s mother.

Maria’s quest takes him across continents, to Peking, where he soon finds out that the Chinese will not simply hand him out the cure for syphilis. The Chinese master, Dr Xu, wants Mario to spend four seasons (one year) in the Empress’ Summer Palace where he is the guest. An engrossing exchange between Xu and Maria reflects the dilemma of the doctor from the West whose rational, logical mind questions the ancient medicinal practices of the East where the healer simply has to feel the pulse of the patient to identify the organ that’s ailing: “to cure a patient you must agree with the principles. Learning the rules simply isn’t enough,” Xu tells Mario. “I can’t believe things that are untested and unproven,” Maria shoots back.

This is the time of syphilis and of love in the time of syphilis. In China, Maria falls in love with Xu’s mysterious assistant, Fumi. If that doesn’t complicate matters enough, the story plays out at a time when the Boxer rebellion, an uprising against foreign imperialism, is looming over Peking. Natives, expats and their families, all are caught in the chaos. So is Maria. As a doctor, he also has a duty to fulfill, which he does by attending to those caught in the siege. Basu skillfully recreates that time of intrigue, transporting the reader to the chaotic period.

At times, it’s like gliding in and out of many worlds and many lives. There are the eunuchs of the palace, there are the European tea parties, there are the many sights and sounds of China back then, there’s the insect festival, there are the rebels and then there are the Christian missionaries. In the middle of all this is that evasive cure of syphilis. And, there’s the woman he loves, Fumi, who continues to remain a mystery.

All in all, it’s a lot to handle. Historical novels can, in any case, be tricky. Packed as this one is, with history, medicine, love, culture, intrigue, it’s all the more tough to juggle. There are two most obvious traps that a writer can fall into. One, give too much attention to history and detail at the cost of the characters, storyline and the narrative. Two, compromise on history while focusing on the story. Basu, however, succeeds in striking that fine balance, making Yellow Emperor’s Curse a book that’s hard to put down.


Kunal Basu
Picador India
vi + 326 pages; Rs 499

First Published: Fri, February 10 2012. 00:59 IST