It’s a crazy world, but we’re all in it to­gether

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

At the cen­tre of this book is a small ques­tion: why do some peo­ple sud­denly start be­liev­ing their gen­i­tals have been stolen?

Wrapped in this strange query is a much larger one, which Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Frank Bures has spent many years puz­zling over: why do some cul­tures hold such strange be­liefs, while oth­ers do not?

These ques­tions take Bures from his home town in Min­nesota to Nige­ria, Hong Kong, China, Sin­ga­pore, Thai­land and Bor­neo. At its heart, The Ge­og­ra­phy of Mad­ness is an in­ci­sive in­ves­tiga­tive yarn that in­ter­ro­gates what makes us hu­man, and how the sto­ries we tell each other can some­times make us sick.

Bures ex­plores the sub­ject of koro — the over­pow­er­ing be­lief that one’s gen­i­tals are re­tract­ing and will dis­ap­pear — with gen­uine cu­rios­ity and earnest­ness.

In this ap­proach there’s a touch of Fox Mul­der from TV’s The X-Files: Bures wants to be- lieve, or at least un­der­stand, the cul­tural loops in which his fel­low hu­mans travel.

There is no scoff­ing to be found here, and this tone suits the book well: a lesser writer, and a less ma­ture man, might have sim­ply writ­ten koro off as an af­flic­tion con­fined to prim­i­tive na­tions that have yet to adopt the West­ern medicine model wherein, as Bures writes: We see our cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem as plumb­ing. We see the brain as a computer. We see our heart as a pump. We think of the body as a car — a metaphor that dates back to the 1920s, when cars first en­tered our lives. Like­wise, we see the doc­tor as a me­chanic, and ill­ness as the re­sult of a part break­ing, which it’s the doc­tor’s job to re­pair. If some­thing can’t be ex­plained in me­chan­i­cal terms, we tend not to be­lieve it’s real. And yet, things are of­ten more com­pli­cated than that.

As you read the above para­graph, you may find your­self nod­ding along to the sen­ti­ment. Why, yes, of course that is how the hu­man body works: when some­thing fails, we visit the me­chanic for a tune-up in the form of con­ver­sa­tion, di­ag­no­sis, pre­scrip­tion, ex­pert in­struc­tion and treat­ment, per­haps in the form of sharp im­ple­ments pen­e­trat­ing our bod­ily tis­sues to re­move A Haitian woman in a trance dur­ing a voodoo cer­e­mony for the Day of the Dead in a ceme­tery in Port-au-Prince some disease. Con­sider, then, how strange this doc­tor-pa­tient trans­ac­tion would ap­pear to a per­son raised in a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, where treat­ment of­ten takes the form of care­fully blended herbal medicine, rather than syn­the­sised drugs or in­va­sive surgery. They might think we’re crazy, just as we might think the same of them.

This dif­fer­ence of opin­ion cuts to the ques­tions Bures has been turn­ing over in his mind for his en­tire adult life, since he vis­ited Italy as a be­wil­dered ex­change stu­dent in his late teens; now, at 44, he has pub­lished The Ge­og­ra­phy of Mad­ness.

In a sense, he knows he is grap­pling with smoke by at­tempt­ing to pin to the mat the pre­cise na­ture of cul­tural dif­fer­ences. As he notes, ‘‘cul­ture’’ is one of the most dif­fi­cult words to de­fine — in any lan­guage — and so his task here is enor­mous.

The jour­ney, though, is a won­drous and eye­open­ing one, and the au­thor cap­tures his ex­pe­ri­ences with a spare style that im­me­di­ately en­dears him to the reader.

“Much of what you’ll en­counter in the pages that fol­low will seem im­pos­si­ble, or at least hard to be­lieve,” he writes in the in­tro­duc­tion. “As you read on, and as we travel to­gether, I hope they will be­come more real to you as well, and that the lines be­tween the real and the imag­ined, be­tween the fa­mil­iar and the for­eign, be­gin to blur.”

Run­ning par­al­lel to this nar­ra­tive of the au­thor’s en­dur­ing cu­rios­ity about “how our ideas can kill us, how our be­liefs can save us, and how these things qui­etly de­ter­mine the course of our lives” is that of a young free­lance writer slowly find­ing his way as a pro­fes­sional in an in­dus­try that re­quires un­nat­u­ral re­serves of op­ti­mism, per­sis­tence and self-be­lief.

Bures is not shy about doc­u­ment­ing his early

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