A first novel unfolds in visceral splendour in an Addis Ababa hospital
Not everyone can look into an operating theatre and write visceral poetry. Sylvia Plath did. Her surgeon,at 2 am,up to elbows in blood,sees a garden: This is the lung-tree./ These orchids are splendid./ They spot and coil like snakes./ The heart is a red bell-bloom,in distress./ I am so small/ In comparison to these organs!/ I worm and hack in a purple wilderness. Without warranting a comparison with Plath,Abraham Verghese does it in prose write about blood and not make you flinch,cut through tissues and tendons and reveal the drama which takes place in this other theatre,which stretches beyond its sterilised air.
Verghese,born to Malayali parents in Ethiopia,is a professor of internal medicine at Stanford University,and Cutting for Stone is his first novel. He has written two non-fiction books,The Tennis Partner and My Own Country.
In Cutting for Stone,Vergheses garden,so to speak,is Operating Theatre 3 of Missing Hospital,Addis Ababa. It is a landscape of disease and poverty even though it gleams deceptively in the orange Meskel flowers that bloom after the rains. This is the Ethiopia of Haile Selassie,the diminutive emperor who travels in his green Rolls-Royce with the Chihuahua Lulu on the lap. And here a nun,Sister Mary Joseph Praise,has given birth to twins conjoined at the head. A miracle,almost in the manner of immaculate conception at the hospital they half-think it is stigmata rather than secular bleeding for no one expects a nun to expect,even one who keeps an image of the Ecstasy of St Theresa in the autoclave room.
The twins,ShivaMarion,have been separated,their mother dead in childbirth,their father unknown,possibly yet inconceivably the surgeon Thomas Stone who slinks away. It is their story,pieced together and remembered by Marion. It is also more than ShivaMarions story.
In Missing mission mispronounced something is amiss for everyone. They are all displaced: the nun who has left Madras on the cargo ship Calangute to save the dark continent; the British surgeon who is on a redemptive medical mission of his own; the Matron who has left England for Ethiopia and has seen Mussolinis men overrun the country; Ghosh and Hemlatha,classmates of Madras Medical School and mates in Missings quarters; and the Eritrean Genet,who is loved by Marion and who sleeps with Shiva,in search of her own moment of glory.
They all hold on to something: memory. As Marion,who flees Ethiopia to the US in another act of exile,says,It was all I had,all I have ever had,the only currency,the only proof that I was alive. Memory. But memory is not marvellously abstract here. Cutting for Stone is about body as the source and repository of memories. It is about the dominion of flesh and how it fashions love,happiness and pain. But Verghese does not overload the novel with ideas; the narrative is kept light,confined largely to homes and hospitals,and moments are visceral,not vague. It is a purple wilderness that is splendid.