The Prodigious Physician

Written by Jorge de Sena Margaret Jull Costa (trans.)
Review by Lynn Guest

A Portuguese poet and novelist, de Sena chose exile in Brazil, then California, rather than live under the Salazar dictatorship. To make a classic of Portuguese literature, published in 1978, the novella combines two short stories in a vaguely medieval setting. The first, an erotic fairy tale, concerns a young, handsome virgin, a physician, lured by maidens to a castle where their mistress, Dona Urraca, pines away. Not a virgin for long, the youth and Dona Urraca fall in love but their sensuous dalliance, which includes the maidens, attracts the Inquisition. In the second story, the youth and Dona Urraca are tortured and tried for witchcraft and high treason by the corrupt Inquisitor.

No short review can possibly do justice to this complex, fascinating parable of the brutal, puritan Salazar regime, not just because this reviewer is not sure how much she really understands. A greater acquaintance with Portuguese history and literature would be useful. But every event, every character, all the wonderful language has multiple interpretations. Is the Devil an endearingly love-sick, very funny shadow or is it Dona Urraca? Is the youth, prodigious not just in healing, a physician or a magician? Does he represent sexual freedom or is he an evil revolutionary? Only the Inquisitor is reasonably straightforward: Salazar. De Sena’s technique is brilliantly original. Often he uses two dialogues printed side by side, complementary or contradictory. The novel is as ironic and funny as it is erotic and cynical. The marvellous linguistic word-play is superbly translated, no easy task, I suspect. There is an excellent introduction which is very helpful. This is a novel to be re-read. Highly recommended.