Sunday, 26 February 2012

Ka. By Roberto Calasso


Roberto Calasso

Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks

Published 1999 by Vantage

As given on the back cover, quoting the Independent, this is 'an ... compendium of classical Indian myths and legends'. The narration is however not straightforward - not just translation, but commentary, interpretation and possibly reinterpretation, i.e. somebody else's interpretation, reinterpreted by the author. There are 15 chapters and each apparently addresses one quasi-coherent story (or myth or purana - it's difficult to know what name to give). But the stuff in each chapter obviously does not contain material from just one ancient text. The bibliography refers to more than a hundred different sources, mostly ancient Sanskrit texts, including the Vedas, many of the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the Mahabharata, as well as some modern texts such as Proust. The exclusive focus is on brahminical Hinduism, with an attempt in the penultimate chapter to include Buddhism in the same lineage. There is some sort of time line, with the first chapter dealing with the origin myths - before the earth, before the sun, before the Gods, before consciousness, before time. The next few chapters are clearly the Vedas, with  all the sex and violence. One chapter devoted to an elaborate description of the asvamedha yagna. Then there are the battles between the gods, the rishis, and some of asuras. There is a chapter describing Krishna leela, and another long one on the Mahabharata. (Strangely the Ramayana is not even mentioned anywhere in the book!). The 14th chapter is about the Buddha, called the 9th avatar of Visnu - Krishna is the 8th. And in a nice formulation, the author says that history began between the 8th and the 9th avatars. Which of course is the literal truth. Archaeological evidence exists for the Buddha, but not for the other avatars. 

Some of the stories are new to me, but most are familiar. The writing is part narrative, part interpretation, part philosophical discourse, often boring, but mostly nice to read. I skipped fairly large portions of it, especially in the beginning chapters. The creation and origin myths are convoluted and Calasso has probably added large doses of his own ideas here. In any case, what is stated here is only one version of these myths in Hinduism, even in the brahminical variety (or the BJP variety, though I guess the BJP may like to make this book another example of the anti-Hindu nature of liberal society). 

Anyway, here are some quotes.

In one chapter all the great rishis are described as having a kind of conference. Gotama says:'For many people things began with a series of Kings [e.g. for the Chinese - see a previous blog - NG]. For the Greeks it was a series of women. For the Aryas, a series of seers, of rishis. The kings conquered, the women united themselves with a god. And the seers? Motionless they vibrate with the brahman.' The anachronism here is obvious. But the idea is good.

'There is no story as complicated as the Mahabharata. And not just because of its length... Why did Vyasa choose this of all ways to tell the tale of a war fought between cousins in a plain of north-west India?...Even a tenth of the stories would be enough to generate the same impression. And the rest? Whatever happens in the island of Jambu, there's always a residue, an excess, something that overflows, goes beyond. Never the sharp profile, carved in the air, but long friezes, strips of stone bursting with action...Going back in time to what came before it, or forward a little, after it ended, we encounter a net that brushes against us on every side - and immediately we are struck by the conviction that we will never see the edges of that net, because there are no edges... the end and the beginning, terms that the mind is ever toying with, don't, in themselves, exist at all.'

'In the immensity of its structure, the Mahabharata can be seen as an overwhelming demonstration of the futility of conflict. Of every conflict. Was Dharma really renewed when the Pandavas, at last, and at a cost of countless dead, succeeded in defeating the Kauravas? Hardly. Peace was a half-life, still oppressed by memory. Dharma did reign again, but as it were for a fleeting interval.'

'Kasyapa said: Whether the existing world be made of mind or fire or some aggregate called matter is, in the end, hardly important. It only exists is if consciousness perceives it as existing. And if consciousness perceives it, within that consciousness there must be another consciousness that perceives the consciousness that perceives.'

...and so on ad infinitum, I guess! The author, here and at several other places in the book, tells the parable that recurs in the texts, of the two birds on opposite branches of a tree - one eating a fruit and the other observing the first bird.

'It is time that cooks each creature in its pot', said Yudishthira.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Shape Shifter. By Tony Hillerman

The Shape Shifter

Tony Hillerman

Published 2006 by Harper Collins

Another nice crime/detective/police novel by Hillerman. (I read a few before, but this is the first one I am writing about here). The setting is the same as in most of his books - the Navajo lands in New Mexico/Colorado in USA. The detectives are chiefly from the Navajo Tribal Police, and though the crime and its detection is not directly connected with the Navajo culture, it plays out with that in the background. So we get a lot of information about native Indian customs, all of it sympathetic, with occasional direct attacks on the white 'European' culture that destroyed a lot of it. This is usual for Hillerman. In this book he also introduces Tommy Vang, a Hmong, who has been 'imported' from Laos/Vietnam to serve one of the characters in the book. There is long section in which the protagonist, retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn, formerly of the Navajo Tribal Police, has a conversation with Vang. They compare their respective cultures and find similarities in the way they kept getting pushed out of their native homelands to satisfy the greed of their 'conquerors' for land or natural resources. This particular awful treatment of the native Indians by the whites has been earlier described (harshly and sarcastically) by Joseph Heller in Catch 22. The Hmong were badly treated by not only the Chinese and the Vietnamese, but also the Americans during the Vietnam war.

The crime story moves a bit slowly, and not till the last few chapters does it get really interesting. The climactic pages are excellent, though rather too brief. All in all, a good read.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Rates of Exchange. By Malcolm Bradbury

Rates of Exchange

Malcolm Bradbury

Penguin Books. First published 1983.

This book was shortlisted for the 1983 Booker Prize. Experience tells that that does not necessarily make for a good read, but this book is one. It relates the academic trip of a British linguistics professor to the (imaginary) east European  country of 'Slaka', under a totalitarian communist regime. The protagonist Prof. Petworth is a colourless man, but meets a variety of men and women in his brief tour of Slaka, the capital city, and a couple of its provincial towns. The descriptions of the geography are like what one reads about an East European or Balkan country with medieval castles and baroque operas. The people of the country are an unsurprising mix of friendly, dull, sexy, uptight, etc., etc. One  encounter is with a low level British diplomat and his near-nymphomaniac wife. The diplomat has a speech defect and this leads to many jokes as he constantly repeats the rude-sounding first syllable of many ordinary words. The politics of the country is the standard cold war fare, reminiscent of Le Carre, Greene, Deighton, et al. Some of scenes remind me of Myanmar, and some, indeed, of socialist India! There are also descriptions of airports and lectures  that sync with some of my own experiences. One the best things about of the book is the language and how Bradbury captures the speech patterns of East Europeans speaking English. Wikipedia calls Bradbury 'a productive academic writer as well as a successful teacher; an expert on the modern novel' and that probably underlies the focus on language and linguistics. There is a lot of humour in the writing as well as in the situations, and not all of them are aimed at socialism. There is no real tale, and the novel does not go anywhere except as a kind of intimate travelogue. There is no final denouement, though for a short space of time it appears as if there would be one. 

A couple of quotations:

'The business of a lecturer is, of course, to lecture... That is why planes have flown to bring him here, hotel rooms have been booked, food set before him  on plates; that is why he has left his house home and country, brought his briefcase, made his way to this point. His head may ache...his wrist may hurt, his split lip blur his talk a little; his heart may be be troubled, his spirit energyless, poor, lacking the will to be, let alone the will to become...but he has a story to tell, and now he is telling it. And telling it, he becomes himself an order, a sentence that grows into a paragraph and then a page, a page and then a plot, a direction incorporating a due beginning, a middle and end. His text before him, he becomes that text;... Petworth for this moment exists.' 

' "So many books", says Petworth..."Yes, every day I read them and become some more a person," says Princip.'

Monday, 6 February 2012

Drop Dead, My Lovely. By Ellis Weiner

Drop Dead, My Lovely

Ellis Weiner

Published by New American Library, 2004

A reverent spoof of the hard-boiled American detective novels (Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, Ross MacDonald, Mickey Spillane...). Set in 2004, its hero, Pete Ingalls is a employee in a bookshop when a box full of detective novels falls on his head, and rearranges his brain. He comes out of a coma having forgotten everything that happened before, and thinking himself a detective. He gets the costume (fedora, greatcoat), the habits (drinking, smoking, wise-cracking), a seedy office, the language, and a receptionist, who's temping while she auditions for the stage. He gets a couple of cases which he simultaneously follows (sometimes making it difficult for the reader to keep track of what's happening, but it doesn't matter). He 'solves' one of the cases, thanks mainly to the actual detective work done by his assistant. The novel is written in the first person, like all the originals are, and Weiner works hard to project a crazy guy making like a cynical, world-weary flatfoot, and succeeds rather. There are several  references to the originals throughout the novel, coming mainly from the other characters who are chiefly amused by Ingalls' actions and dialogue. The novel however is on the whole not a great read, but mildly readable if you have read and are fan of the originals (as I am).