|The Anatomy Lesson|
Each of the narrators, who get the unusual opportunity of addressing us all from the first person, are distinguished by an anatomical heading. The body speaks for himself. Adriaen tells us of his unhappy childhood and how he came to be a thief. The heart is Flora, the only one who showed kindness to Adriaen during his life. They loved each other and Flora became pregnant with the thief's child. She is six months gone when she gets news that Adriaen is to be executed for committing one theft too many. The mind is René Descartes. Descartes happened to be in Amsterdam at the time. Siegal invites him to the anatomy lesson held by Dr. Tulp, the hands. The eyes belong to Rembrandt van Rijn. Van Rijn is commissioned to paint the anatomy lesson for the surgeons' guild. The mouth is Jan Fetchet, who deals in curiosities and acquires bodies for the surgeons to dissect.
|The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt, 1632|
As I read The Anatomy Lesson, I frequently looked at Rembrandt's painting. I wondered about the foreshortened limbs, but Rembrandt and the conservator narrator pointed out the structure of the painting that puts Adriaen at the focal point. The conservator, Pia, points out the anatomical errors the artist made and discovers that the thief's right hand was a creation of the artist. Rembrandt originally painted Adriaen's stump; he lost his hand to one of the many judges he went before during his life. In The Anatomy Lesson (the book), Rembrandt was trying to give Adriaen back his dignity.
Nina Siegal is a conscientious and erudite writer. Her scholarship is on full display in The Anatomy Lesson, but it doesn't overpower the narrative. Her characters live and breath (except for Adriaen, obviously). I very much enjoyed her portrayal of Dr. Tulp. Tulp was caught at an awkward time in the history of medicine. New discoveries were coming fast and thick, but Tulp trusted the ancients. He would bend over backwards to incorporate (please excuse the pun) Galen, and even Plato and Aristotle, into his anatomy lesson. His Calvinism showed in his attempts to find signs of "internal corruption" that would explain why Adriaen was a thief and, essentially, a failure at life. Tulp thoroughly rejected William Harvey's theory on the circulation of blood. He believed in a bizarre blend of Galen and Aristotle about how the body worked. He believed, among other things, that the lungs would blow air into the heart. Any high school student of today would be able to point out the error of Tulp's ways.
The Anatomy Lesson covers one short day in January 1632, but it doesn't feel rushed. By parceling the story out to so many narrators, the book has room to breathe. We get to ruminate, as several narrators do, about the nature of the soul and the body. We get to experience the business of a booming Amsterdam. We get to see the tension of lingering medieval ideas and the light of the Renaissance and coming Enlightenment. This really is a remarkable book.