If you have read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s books, you will be familiar with his lyrical prose and his ability to talk about complicated realities like disease and death in a way that sustains interest rather than chases you away. Disease is like that; it frightens and where understanding is necessary, you are most often faced with pure ignorance and fear.
In this delightful essay (actually a keynote address given to the recipients of the 2017 Whiting Awards for emerging writers), Love in the time of Numbness; or Dr. Chekov. writer, Mukherjee speaks about writing in numbing times as these. He can speak about numbing times with ease as most often a dedicated oncologist faces many tragedies that he can only try to avert. As it is with beautifully written essays, he begins his story at a personal level and then meanders to another writer who faced the same problem of desensitization. Chekhov.
He travelled deliberately to Sakhalin Island, a penal colony, to overcome the numbness that his profession as a doctor had left him in.
“Six principles that make for a good story,” Chekhov would later write, “are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality . . . and; 6. compassion.”
It was compassion that led the writer to uglier climes and his writing reflects the lessons he learnt.