What's Eating You? People and Parasites
By Eugene H Kaplan (Princeton University Press 302pp £18.95)
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
The first book I ever reviewed for Auberon Waugh (late of this parish) was entitled A Dictionary of Disgusting Facts, and he was thrilled because it coincided with his policy of getting the words 'Sex' and 'Filth' onto the cover whenever possible. At that time I was working on a (still unfinished) cacademic treatise called 'Anus Mirabilis', an anthro-scatological survey of the importance of excretion and hygiene in human culture: I was therefore steeped in notions of what different people find revolting. How come the Zuni Indians perform a Urine Dance and consume faeces, but are forbidden to mention the word takka, meaning frog (having instead to say: 'several-are-sitting-in-a-shallow-basin-where-they-are-in-liquid')? The Bakairi abominate eating in public, yet the Dayaks happily drain off corpse fluids and mix them with their rice at funerals. Each to his own. But in two decades I have not had the pleasure of appraising such a repulsive volume as What's Eating You? I heartily commend it to all LR readers.
The thirty chapters of Professor Eugene H Kaplan's study all read like punchy little fables about different aspects of parasitology. He describes it as 'a compendium of lurid stories' designed to catch his students' attention over the years - 'a thread runs through them', he adds, in an early example of his helminthic humour. His classes spend a lot of time examining faeces in the lab, battling 'the almost overwhelming stench', and when he runs short of infected human caca our Prof relies on his hound, Wormly. These stories certainly kept me awake - in fact, I developed a psychogenic itch just reading them.
Although he has written a seriously scientific publication (there is plenty of stuff about syzygy and ookinetes along the way), the author has developed a pacy, demotic style that deliberately waxes anthropomorphic, even mock-heroic in places. His section headings are worthy of any tabloid - 'A Peek into the Anus - of My Child', 'Bathroom Safari', 'The Defecating Scandinavian' - and, though his subject is grisly, he maintains an ability to marvel at the biological ingenuity of the horrors he sometimes quite literally unravels (there is a fish tapeworm that can grow up to forty feet long, and specifically targets elderly Jewish women). 'I am an animal lover,' he avers, despite everything. Some of the creatures he discusses would make Alien look like a glove puppet.
Never deliberately infecting himself in the line of duty - unlike Theodor Bilharz, for instance - Kaplan contracts a number of nasty afflictions on his travels, kicking off with amoebic dysentery in Bangkok. Later, he 'gives birth' to an eight-inch long worm, which he preserves for his fortunate students. In unflinching detail he catalogues the symbiotic details and human symptoms of such latter-day plagues as Aleppo boil, dum-dum fever, and elephantiasis. The statistics are daunting: up to 19 million people suffer from Chagas disease (caused by the nocturnal 'kissing bug'), and the estimated weight of Ascaris worm eggs in Chinese humans is 18,000 tons. There are some graphic line drawings in each chapter, but luckily we are spared the photographic originals. You will probably not want to eat a watercress sandwich or gefilte fish ball ever again.
It was hard to forget the account of parasitologist Arthur Looss pouring hookworm culture over a boy's still warm amputated leg, or of the African infested with nematodes who has to 'wheel his scrotum around in a wheelbarrow'. An Egyptian girl has a yard of 'spaghetti-thick' Guinea worm emerging from her arm, wound gingerly around a twig. In the Australian outback, Missus Murphy's phantom pregnancy proves to be a cyst of tapeworm tips weighing all of eighteen pounds. Well, you get the idea.
In his saga of trysts and cysts, exploding buboes, chiggers, leeches, defecation and ingestion, Kaplan keeps his already pullulating narrative constantly on the move with personal anecdotes attesting to his unquenchable enthusiasm. We see him chasing escaped cockroaches, embarking on a seagull cull, and hunting the Brooklyn mudflats as a boy, where couples making out in their automobiles were said to be 'watching the submarine races'. But it is the biological drama of his subject that enthrals him. Of the canine tapeworm, he notes: 'The proglottids are tapered at each end into a lovely chain that I have seen imitated in jewellery' (I bet Mrs K can't wait for her birthdays); and of land snails, that they 'eat the egg-laden faeces with the leaf like caviar on crackers'. Dissecting a frog, he admires 'huge, ciliated protozoans regally gliding along in the rectal fluid like motile, translucent leaves'. In places, Kaplan achieves peristaltic poetry.
Let's close with the paradigmatic chapter, 'How to Get Rid of Crabs', where he offers a 'time-honored recipe' for those lice known as Bloomer Bunnies.
1. Shave a one-inch strip through the middle of the pubic hair. 2. Rub kerosene onto one side. 3. Light it. 4. When the lice run across the strip, stab them with an ice pick.
Now that's what I call beating about the bush.
David Profumo's family memoir 'Bringing the House Down' is published in paperback by John Murray.