Monday, July 06, 2015


t was as if everybody were suddenly tired of doing things that had meaning. They wanted to sit down, in the grass or around a heap of smoldering logs, and listen to stories.'' Roberto Calasso's gloss on the epic intricacies of the Mahabharata, the longest story in the world, might also stand as a caption to his own new book, sleepless in its storytelling. But we should not be disarmed, for the book, ingeniously translated from the Italian by Tim Parks, is equally quick with meanings.
The third in a planned five-volume work, ''Ka'' -- which the publisher describes as ''stories of the mind and gods of India'' -- follows the high torsion of ''The Ruin of Kasch'' (1996), which evoked the emergence of the modern from the collapse of the past, and the more languorous seductions of ''The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony'' (1994), which subsumed the whole of Greek mythology in a single meditation.

To read ''Ka'' is to experience a giddy invasion of stories -- brilliant, enigmatic, troubling, outrageous, erotic, beautiful. Yet ''Ka,'' like the two previous books, is not a novel. Calasso's form-defying works plot ideas, not character. A writer with philosophical tastes, he thinks in stories rather than arguments or syllogisms. The two epigraphs to ''Ka'' announce this style: Spinoza's remark that ideas are only narratives or mental figures of the real world and, from the Yogavasistha, a definition of the world as being ''like the impression left by the telling of a story.''

''Ka'' is the emotional and philosophical nub of Calasso's five-volume project. His acutely nominalist temperament finds its ideal home in the stories of India, especially those early stories of the Aryans, which affirm always the power and sovereignty of mind. As Atri, one of the seven rsis, or seers, of the Aryas (the people that migrated from central Asia to India and became the upper castes there), says, ''Every true philosopher thinks but one thought; the same can be said of a civilization.'' The one crystallizing insight of the Aryan intellect, as Calasso sees it, is that the existent world ''only exists if consciousness perceives it as existing. And if a consciousness perceives it, within that consciousness there must be another consciousness that perceives the consciousness that perceives.''

It is to this vertigo-inducing thought that the stories of ''Ka'' constantly return. The book opens and closes with a flight by Garuda, the great eagle best known as the steed of Vishnu but here cast in a central role. At the beginning and at the end, he reads the Rig-Veda, intrigued by the incantatory question of Hymn 121 of the 10th book: ''Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?'' Like Garuda's inky feathers, this question rustles through the book. The answer (if a reply so mysterious may be called that) is Prajapati: the ''nameless and shapeless'' one, whose secret name is itself Ka, or ''who.'' He precedes even Brahma, the creator and first god of the later Hindu triad of deities (the others being Siva and Vishnu). Alone, Prajapati is without identity: ''He didn't even know whether he existed or not.'' In fact, Prajapati is nothing less than mind, manas; and, desiring to know himself, to gain self-consciousness, he creates the world, bringing forth beings able to perceive one another.

In the span between Garuda's taking wing twice, the stories of ''Ka'' enact the emergence of consciousness, always split between the self and the I, atman and aham. As Garuda perches on the immense tree of life, puzzling over the identity of Ka, ''the very syllable from which everything had issued forth,'' the stories stream out.

Beginning with the Rig-Veda, the book navigates the narrative ocean of the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Puranas, as well as stories of the Buddha. The stories become more orotund as we move ''from the allusive cipher of the Rig-Veda and the abrupt, broken narratives of the Brahmanas . . . to the ruthless redundance of the Puranas.'' And, in the vast wake of stories that succeed the Rig-Veda, the names of the gods change, as do the literary genres and the demands on the listener: ''There was a time when he'd been obliged to solve abrupt enigmas, or find his head bursting. Now he could heap up rewards merely by listening to the stories as they proliferated. The shift had to do with a growing weariness: the era of the bhakti had begun, the era of obscure and pervasive devotion.''

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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.

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