Roberto Calasso

translated from the Italian by Tim Parks
Vintage 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003 https://dannyreviews.com/
In Ka Roberto Calasso has taken the sprawling body of classical Sanskrit literature and synthesized it into a kind of novel. Each of its fourteen chapters foregrounds a particular figure, such as Prajapati, Shiva, Krishna, or the Buddha, or a story such as the Mahabharata. And each chapter is made up of vignettes ranging from short paragraphs to several pages in length, which link together to form a coherent stream but to an extent can stand alone. The chapters are ordered — proceeding from the creation of the world to the Buddha, framed by Garuda and Ka — but the weave is loose and Ka doesn't have to be read cover-to-cover to be appreciated.

Though the individual passages are often dazzling little gems in their own right, the way they are worked together into a larger mosaic is just as impressive. There are sections of quite fast-moving narrative:

Then Garuda looked around. Opposite Vinata, likewise sitting on a stone, he saw another woman, exactly like his mother. But a black bandage covered one eye. And she too seemed absorbed in contemplation. On the ground before her, Garuda saw, lay a great tangle, slowly heaving and squirming. His perfect eye focused, to understand. They were snakes. Black snakes, knotted, separate, coiled, uncoiled. A moment later Garuda could make out a thousand snakes' eyes, coldly watching him. From behind came a voice: "They are your cousins. And that woman is my sister, Kadru. We are their slaves." These were the first words his mother spoke to him.
Other passages are more philosophical, though they are integrated into conversations or stories:
Yajnavalkaya said: "I know that for many of you the real torment is that you must abandon your dear bodies. You imagine, not unreasonably, that the happiness of a disembodied spirit has something dreary about it. But that is not the case. After death, you will find yourself wandering through a haze, shouting without being heard, but all at once it will be you who hear. You will become aware that someone is following you, like an animal in the forest, only now in the darkness of the heavens. The person following you is your oblation, the being composed of the offering you made in your life. In a whisper, he will say to you: 'Come here, come here, it is I, your Self.' And in the end you will follow him."
And the occasional comment steps back to place the texts in a broader context, to acknowledge the Western audience:
There is no story so complicated as the Mahabharata. And not just because of its length: three times as long as the Bible, seven times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey put together.
"Indra's quarrel with Usas. A strange myth. No motive is ever suggested," remarks a puzzled Geldner in a note on the only Vedic hymn in which Indra's attack on Usas's chariot is briefly described. "A mythical element which only appears outside of the hymns to Usas, and always abruptly, like an erratic block, such is the image of Indra splitting Usas's chariot," remarks a puzzled Renou.
But the shifts in subject or voice never jar. Storytelling comes hand in hand with philosophical exposition and critical analysis, just as ritual merges with theology and the vividly concrete embodies the abstract.

Calasso includes a thirty page glossary and provides references for his direct quotations, but there is, unfortunately, no index. Ka is the best introduction to Hindu mythology I have found: it is sometimes difficult, but vastly more accessible than direct translations of the primary sources; and unlike popular versions, it captures more than just the stories — Calasso has a sophisticated understanding of Indian philosophy and history, which he integrates seamlessly into his storytelling. I can't judge the finer points of his rendition, but Wendy Doniger, one of the world's experts on Hinduism and mythology, describes Ka as "The very best book about Hindu mythology that anyone has ever written", a blurb understandably highlighted on the front cover. It is an amazing achievement.

April 2003

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- books about India + Indian history
- more Italian literature
- more fantasy
- more mythology
- other "best book" selections
%T Ka
%A Calasso, Roberto
%M Italian
%F Parks, Tim
%I Vintage
%D 1999 [1996]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0099750716
%P 444pp