Wednesday, August 14, 2013
August 12 & 19, 2013 Issue
Is it wrong to read a piece about a fatal kidney disease for pleasure? No, not when the piece is by Elif Batuman, whose art is in her marvelous gift for description. Remember the turkeys “nodding their heads and gurgling like members of a jury,” in her superb “The Memory Kitchen” (The New Yorker, April 10, 2010), and the corn bunting’s distinctive cry (“which resembles jangling keys”), in her wonderful “Natural Histories” (The New Yorker, October 24, 2011)? Her “Poisoned Land,” in this week’s issue, contains a number of pleasurable details, e.g., her depiction of researcher Calin Tatu (“Tatu, who is in his forties, and has a buzz cut and a close-trimmed beard holds a medical degree in immunology but prefers working in the lab to seeing patients. He was wearing tinted glasses and a cargo vest, and had spent the previous week climbing Mont Blanc. At lunch, over double espressos and two Coke Zeros, he told us about his research”), her description of aristolochia (“In the golden afternoon light, I saw the famous plant for the first time, recognizing its heart-shaped leaves, narrow yellow tubular flowers, and the round brown pods that have given rise to one of its local names: priest’s balls. Tatu broke open a pod. Inside, hundreds of seeds were lined up in two rows, like pupils in a schoolhouse”), and this glorious evocation of a Bosnian cornfield:
The cornstalks seemed to be standing around chaotically, like skinny, crazy people, their arms flung in all directions. As we drove past, there was one magical moment when they arranged themselves into rows and it was possible to see clearly all the way to the end, before they dissolved back into disorder.
What a delightful, irresistible passage!