A new novel from Harper-Perennial.
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"A book to treasure. It is a riveting tale of our time, at once haunting and inspiring, provocative and insightful. It will stay with me for a long time."
— Tom Brokaw
"Resonant. . . . vivid and compassionate. . . . A timely, disquieting reflection on mortality, war and the startling dichotomy between the affluent West and the impoverished Third World."
— Kirkus Reviews
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When a Doctor is More, and Less, Than A Healer
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The Durango Telegraph
Frank Huyler on Right of Thirst
When I was a medical student in the early 1990’s I spent several months trekking in northern Pakistan through the remote mountain wilderness around K2, the second-highest peak in the world. Most of the time the only sign of human presence was the occasional military helicopter passing overhead to supply the army outposts strung along the disputed border with India, and those few people we did meet along the way were Pakistani conscript soldiers, Western mountaineers, or, in one memorable case, an ambitious young officer who spoke entirely fluent English and was inordinately proud of the pistol he kept in his pocket.
After our trek was over, we drove by jeep back to the lowlands, passing through many wretchedly poor alpine villages along the way.
In one of those villages, we were asked to help a young girl whose foot had been crushed in a rockslide a week or two earlier. We stopped, got out of the jeep, and her brother went into one of the nearby houses and carried her out to us. She had a filthy rag on her foot, and when I pulled off the rag in front of a crowd of villagers I immediately realized that she had a life-threatening infection. Though I was inexperienced at the time, I knew that she needed surgery, and probably an amputation. We offered to take the girl down to the city with us, but after a brief discussion among the village men our offer was refused. So I gave them some penicillin, and we all got back into the jeep and continued down the road.
The genesis of this novel was really a single image—that of the girl being carried by her brother back into her dark mud house. It’s an image that has stayed with me over the years, not only because it revealed so much about life in the tribal villages of northern Pakistan, and by extension the developing world as a whole, but also because it revealed a great deal about me and my friends as well. We might have insisted, offered to pay the family to take the girl to the hospital—the list goes on. And yet we didn’t, and felt little, if any, guilt, because we were in a different world, and the usual rules did not apply—either to them, or, as Western visitors, to us.
Though Right of Thirst is entirely fictional, it is loosely based on two recent events. The first is the Kashmir earthquake of 2005, which killed an estimated 85,000 people across a wide area along the India/Pakistan border. The second is the Kargil conflict, a brief high-altitude war started by Pakistan in 1999, in which several thousand soldiers were killed. Much of the fighting was between small teams of men, as is described in my book. Both sides had nuclear weapons at the time, and international diplomacy played a major role in preventing the conflict from further escalation. This event received only modest news coverage in the West and remains largely obscure even today.
Ultimately, however, despite the fact that the novel is set in a place much like Pakistan, it is intended to be about the larger world as a whole, including the West. That’s why the country in the novel remains unnamed—the setting is partly an allegory, a place that might, on some level, be anywhere, at any time.
As a child I lived in Iran, Brazil, Japan, the UK, and the US, and travelled extensively throughout the developing world as well as Europe before settling, somewhat arbitrarily, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s all been a bit strange and disorienting, and in the end this novel was largely an attempt to make sense of life as I’ve experienced it up until now. A number of the important moments in the book were based on events I witnessed in one way or the other, and many of them had nothing to do with the Middle East at all.
For example, one of Right of Thirst’s central scenes takes place on the shore of the alpine lake that Charles and Elise visit with General Said. Though I wasn’t aware of it when I was writing the novel, I later realized that this scene had been inspired by an event from my childhood. On a trip to southern Argentina, my brother and I met a fisherman on the shore of mountain lake near a vacant resort hotel. It was a beautiful place, very similar to the one described in the novel--clear blue water and pines, with snowcapped peaks in the distance. We were the only people around. The fisherman had a brand new American pickup truck, and all the gear—waders, an elegant fly rod and vest, a box full of trout flies. He was friendly, and kind to us, and gave us a few trout flies as gifts. But his face was badly scarred—he’d probably been in an automobile accident—and there was something about him that frightened us both. He had an aura of malevolence that is hard to describe.
He turned out to be an army general, the military Governor of Tierra De Fuego. This was in 1981, the height of the dirty war, a terrifying period in Argentina, which, of course, we didn’t realize at the time. We later saw him at the airport, in a suit, with body guards, and he walked right by us. I expected him to stop, or at least nod and smile, but he passed us without the slightest acknowledgment, his face expressionless.
Another scene in the book was based on an experience I had in rural Africa in the late 1980’s, and was also related to fishing. A sixteen year old boy, the son of one of the servants at the house I was staying in, had an epileptic seizure while fishing in a river, fell off the bank, and drowned in only a few feet of water. I was one of the first people there, and helped pull his body out of the river. That night we took him to the tiny morgue at the nearest hospital, which was more than an hour away. We drove through the dark, on dirt roads, and had to hold the body down in the back of the van because it kept bouncing and sliding around like a piece of luggage. I was staying with a medical missionary, a Scottish orthopedic surgeon, and when we finally carried the body into the morgue and lowered it into a refrigerated drawer, he said, “At least the child was saved. At least there’s that.” His words have stayed with me—the comforts that people of faith can claim, which to others may seem thin and insufficient.
Charles Anderson is not an autobiographical character, but I’ve known a lot of people in medicine very much like him. Anderson is intended to be a real person on the one hand, and an American archetype on the other. In this way, he’s similar to the setting—both allegorical and, I hope, true to life. Like many of us, he’s made significant mistakes, and relied too much on his ambition and his professional identity to sustain him. Along the way he’s become distant from his own life, and has not examined the choices he has made, or his reasons for making them, carefully enough. But, to his credit, he recognizes these failings and weaknesses, and tries to do his best in spite of them, even as he understands that the solutions he finds will at most be incomplete.
Over the years, as an emergency physician at a major trauma center, I’ve seen many injuries and illnesses far worse than what happened to that girl in the Pakistani village. One of the things one learns as a doctor is that dark forces are real, that they are not abstractions, and that they are around us all the time—not only in far away places like Pakistan or Argentina or South Africa, but also, in individual lives, here at home. And it seems to me that if there is meaning to be found in events like these it lies not only in the mechanistic struggle against them, but also in the struggle against one’s own dispassion, or distance, in their presence.
Right of Thirst is a portrait of a man trying to do this.
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