The unnamed narrator, a physician, notices a surgeon in a "seedy cafe on the edge of town." (73) He learns from the waiter that the shabby man with the "aristocratic demeanor" is "a doctor: Surgeon once" (73). The surgeon hears the narrator call for medical papers and makes his acquaintance. One night soon thereafter the narrator notices that the surgeon, sitting and drinking alone, drains the green syrup of his absinthe "so slowly and pleasurably" (74) that he must be, in fact is, an alcoholic.

The latter approaches the narrator and begins elaborating a complicated theory of time and how it is an internalized, organically controlled, locus in the brain, no different "from an ordinary brain cell" (77). As such, he, the surgeon, proposes to cut it out, imagining, grandiloquently, vast seas of gratitude washing up on his shore as he frees humanity of the "silent madness of mortality" (78). The surgeon ends with a toast to absinthe, "a drug to be taken orally, and which is useful against time, temporarily. . . . We won’t be needing it much longer, since the surgical method’s both radical and excellent. Cheers, my dear colleague!" (78-79)


Géza Csáth was a tragic physician-writer born in Szabadka, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1887. A talented musician, Csáth enrolled in the Budapest Medical School after the Academy of Music rejected him, perhaps in part because of Csáth’s love of atonal music (and therefore early appreciation of, and later a recognized music critic of, Bartók and Kodály.) As editor Birnbaum notes in her biographical sketch, Csáth began smoking opium in 1909, an addiction that effectively began the abrupt and violent downhill spiral of his life.

Practicing as a neurologist, Csáth did research while studying mental illness. (Indeed, one wonders if the addicted researcher in neurologic and mental processes saw in himself the protagonist of this short story). In 1913 Csáth left the halls of research and became a country doctor. His life is a chaotic turmoil henceforth with increasing opium addiction and a stint in World War I followed by physical and mental illness, which culminated when he shot his wife and attempted suicide in an insane asylum. In 1919, en route to Budapest following a successful escape, Csáth was detained by Serbian border guards, swallowed poison, and died.

One cannot help feel a twinge of pity as one reads first the biographical details of Csáth’s life and the excerpts from his diary in this book, noting the self-abhorrence with which Csáth contemplated himself, and then reads "The Surgeon." It is the mark of an artist who must and will use anything and everything for his work, and at the same time a hopeless and forlorn artist whose material includes a brutally honest--for what else is great art but such integrity--self-appraisal that is more useful for material than it is as a fillip to change one’s life.

William Carlos Williams’s Old Doc Rivers and Mikhail Bulgakov’s Morphine--also stories of impaired physicians--would make interesting comparisons (see annotations).


Tanslated by Jascha Kessler and Charlotte Rogers. Introduction by Angela Carter; biographical note by Marianna D. Birnbaum. Part of the series, Writers from the Other Europe, ed. Philip Roth. First Published in the USA under the title The Magician’s Garden and Other Stories (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).

Primary Source

Opium and Other Stories



Place Published

New York




Marianna D. Birnbaum

Page Count