BOOK REVIEW

Book review: The Geography of Madness – explaining world’s strangest syndromes

Author roams the world, from China to Nigeria, via voodoo, juju and other beliefs, to answer the question: are we in the power of a mysticism stronger than science but which we can’t explain?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 1:11pm

The Geography of Madness

by Frank Bures

Melville House

3.5/5 stars

If ever my penis were stolen, I’d want Frank Bures to hunt for it.

Bures, a travel writer, turns in a reportorial tour de force in this examination of culture, belief and madness.

He roams the remote reaches of China, faces teenage gangsters in Nigeria and prowls the crowded markets of Singapore, tracking down old people who have witnessed mass outbreaks of madness, posing questions to eminent physicians as well as street herb vendors.

The more he learns, the more he wonders: are we all in the power of an essential human mysticism that’s stronger than science – and that we may never fully understand?

As the subtitle suggests, Bures was intrigued by repeated reports of “magical penis theft” around the globe. Men suddenly believed their organ was being stolen away through sorcery. Often, they ran through the streets in a howling panic, yanking desperately on the affected member to keep it from disappearing. The syndrome occasionally appeared in women, who believed their breasts or vaginas were vanishing.

This strange phenomenon launched Bures on a quest that lasted more than a decade and covered thousands of kilometres. Along the way, he learned about voodoo, juju and Gilhari syndrome, whose sufferers believe a lizard is crawling under their skin.

Such maladies aren’t limited to what Westerners might think of as primitive cultures. Bures points out that our supposedly scientific, rational civilisation has a litany of illnesses rarely seen in other parts of the world: anorexia, premenstrual syndrome and depression, among others.

He plumbs the meaning of his own brother’s ecstatic religious conversion, which included speaking in tongues. He cites the case of the elementary students in one American city who succumbed to what appeared to be carbon monoxide poisoning, but which turned out to be a mass case of nerves before a school choir concert.

If you’re seeking a “news of the weird” approach, you won’t find it here, despite the promise of the book’s saucy subtitle. Bures has a serious interest in the meaning of culture: how it’s created and how it affects us, as individuals and as a group.

His adventures are related soberly, almost flatly. The hair-trigger machine guns of the “area boys” in Lagos, the rugged bus rides to remote Chinese mental hospitals, the challenge of finding an interpreter to translate a dozen obscure rural dialects into Putonghua and then into English: to Bures, these are merely minor annoyances to be brushed aside in his obsessive pursuit. His matter-of-fact approach drains some vitality from one of the juiciest storytelling opportunities a writer could hope for.

Bures traces ancient beliefs in ghostly nighttime visitors: the “old hag” of Newfoundland, the incubo of Italy, the Chinese “fox lady”. He cites century-old articles from medical journals, then examines why computers can’t process storytelling the way humans do.

In the end, his conclusions are less than staggering. Humans are complex beings who act on impulses of the body and the mind. We’re creatures of an endless biofeedback loop we can’t fully control, because we’ve absorbed all the deeply rooted beliefs of the culture we’re born into.

“The forces we see in the eyes of those around us are some of the most powerful we know,” Bures writes. “The stories we find there hold our world together and hold our selves together, going even into our blood and bones.”

And penises.

Tribune News Service