The seventeenth century was a time of great confusion—even more so on the edge of the Swedish kingdom in Dorpat (now Tartu) Estonia. On the one hand, scientists like Newton and Boyle were making great strides in physics and chemistry, Descartes was taking on Aristotle and Plato, and Hobbes and Locke were reinventing government. On the other, 1692 saw the Salem Witch Trials and physicians were letting blood from Ireland to Turkey. This confusion between early modern science and old superstitions and beliefs is embodied in the protagonist of The Willow King, by Meelis Friedenthal (translated by Matthew Hyde). Laurentius, a Swedish university student at the new university in Tartu, is on a quest to understand the soul while repeatedly getting caught up in potentially deadly local superstition.
Laurentius is not a well man. He suffers from melancholia, an excess of black bile, and olfactory and gustatory hallucinations. He has fevers. He is regularly dissociated from reality. His quest to understand the nature of the soul is also a quest to try and cure himself of his afflictions. The only thing that seems to help him during these episodes is a tincture of willow bark and alcohol. Over the course of a week in Tartu, Laurentius tries to settle in and not let anyone know how abnormal he is.
Meanwhile, Estonia is in the middle of a famine. Those without connections to the Swedish government are starving. Things are getting ugly as peasants start to turn on each other, accusing each other of witchcraft or just attacking anyone who is a little bit strange. The title of this book refers to a spirit that people believe is visible when someone as about to die. Laurentius’ use of willow is problematic; it might even lead to his being accused of witchcraft even though we know now that that the salicylic acid in willow bark is good for treating pain and fever.
I was tempted to diagnose Laurentius for most of the book. Does he have schizophrenia? A seizure disorder? Is he making himself sick and is a hypochondriac? There are hints to the nature of Laurentius’ condition in some first person chapters. (Most of the book is in the third person.) When he was a child, Laurentius saw and did things that might be causing all of his symptoms. Perhaps a seventeenth century Freud might have sorted him out. But these revelations come much later in the book.
The Willow King is the sort of novel that leaves a lot of space for readers to draw their own conclusions about what’s going on and what it all means. Some readers, especially ones who don’t have the patience for the way Laurentius gets himself tangled up in mental knots of philosophy, will be annoyed by much of the book. Other readers who enjoy stepping into the brains of people who lived hundreds of years ago will probably like this book quite a lot. I don’t think I’ve read any other books set during this time that really captured how people lived during a time when modern science was taking off but old modes of thought were still hanging on.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.