Michail Bulgakov, A Young Doctor’s Notebook

402_largeThe second book I mentioned in July was A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Michail Bulgakov, a collection of short stories also known as A Country Doctor’s Notebook. I must say that I didn’t find this second little jewel by myself. My friend Lena’s Ink Cage suggested me to read it and fortunately I didn’t know there is a famous TV series with Daniel Radcliffe, adapted from this stories. Thus I read it as a narrative work should be read, without nothing between me and the pages. And I really loved it. But don’t read it if you are easily impressed by medical descriptions, because there are plenty of.

It is a collection of nine short stories about Bulgakov experience as a young doctor in the Russian countryside over a year in 1917-18. He was 25 years old when he was sent into the depths of rural Russia. He had to cope with the practice of medicine in the middle of nowhere (we are in 1917 but the Russian countryside is too far from the Revolution), having neither techologies nor experience.

The first aspect I noticed is Bulgakov charming, subtle irony. Being myself the daughter of a couple of physicians, I must say that only great doctors can be ironic about their profession in this particular way, at the same time refined and modest. Young and unexperienced Bulgakov is lost in the frozen countryside with a bunch of assistants. He has to cope with an immense number of cases and most of all with extremely difficult situations (an amputation, for instance). Yet you cannot help smiling when, before an operation, he runs home to have a look at his university books… And the reason for smiling is that you immediatley understand his great natural capacities, intelligence, skillfulness, efforts, and above all his candour. You immediately are enchanted by his technical and human greatness, but you cannot help being touched. He is so far from those embalmed doctors everyone meets at least once in the life!

So his very frankness and purity is the second aspect I would like to underline. I was really stunned by his constant mantra: I have to study. We need to study. As a difficult patient, I sometimes would like to hear my doctors say “I don’t know anything. I have to study”, but that’s quite rare. The most common attitude I observe in physicians is arrogance, and arrogance obviously leads to malpractice. So let me open a short parenthesis. Sometimes I think that university courses are too specialized. Students of humanities aren’t able to be systematic when necessary, while students of scientific subjects lack that emotional intelligence which is essential in non exact sciences. Wouldn’t be a first step towards a better world to make students of medicine read this short, poetic book? 🙂

To conclude, the most evident aspect of this work of art is its great humanity. Each short story is about an anedocte, a medical case that Bulgakov had to cope with and resolve. He mentions the physical difficulties of fighting the winter and his own fragility as well, as in the short story titled Morphine. The stress is on human integrity and the efforts to face difficulties. However, the detailed and graphic descriptions of medical cases can be disturbing if you are too impressionable. Just read it if you would like to accept human life and capacities as they are: scaring sometimes, but also great.

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