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Archive for the ‘Mythology’ Category

I read in the news yesterday that Roberto Calasso passed away a few days back. I felt very sad.

I discovered Roberto Calasso during my bookshop browsing days. One Saturday evening, I went to my favourite bookshop, and while I was browsing, I discovered Roberto Calasso’s ‘Ka‘. It seemed to be a retelling or reinterpretation of Indian mythology. It was very appealing to me, because Calasso had put the entirety of Indian mythology into one book and described it in his own way. Indian mythology is sprawling and infinite and refuses all human attempts to put it into one bookish container, but it appeared that somehow Calasso had pushed hard with all his energy and somehow managed to get the genie inside a bottle and put the lid on it. Later, I discovered that Calasso had done the same thing to Greek mythology, and put that sprawling Greek genie into a bottle called ‘The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony‘. During my next visit to the bookshop, I got that too. As I moved cities and countries, I carried these two books with me, as they had a special place in my heart.

These two books made me think that Roberto Calasso mostly wrote reinterpretations of mythology. Though many of the books he wrote were about mythology and its relation to human consciousness and modernity, Calasso also wrote on other topics. His first book ‘The Ruin of Kasch‘ was about the French diplomat Talleyrand. One of his books ‘K‘ is about Franz Kafka. Another book of his is about Italian painter Tiepolo. One more book of his is about the French poet Baudelaire.

Roberto Calasso was fascinating in two ways. The first thing was that he was very odd when compared to today’s writers. He wrote about any topic which intellectually engaged him. He didn’t care whether someone would be interested in his work. Though ‘The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony’ and ‘Ka’ look like retellings of mythology, they are classified as long essays. I am not sure about that. But most of the rest of his books can be classified as long book length essays. He just picked a topic which engaged him intellectually and went and wrote a book length essay about it. This is something which is more or less impossible today for a writer. ‘The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony’ was a big success when it came out, and got rave reviews, and ‘Ka’, I think, got its share of fame too. But I don’t think the rest of his books were famous among a popular audience, though they were deeply admired by his fans.

The second fascinating thing about Roberto Calasso was that he was a publisher all his life. There are many writers who start small publishing outfits to promote their own work or to promote work of lesser known writers, but a publisher writing books is rare. Publishers do write occasionally, of course, but most of the time, it is a memoir about their publishing experience. I don’t know of any publisher who wrote books throughout their career in diverse topics. I am sure a few might be around who did that, but they are rare. Roberto Calasso was an Italian who had a doctorate in English literature, worked as a publisher all his life, and wrote intelligent books on topics that he liked. He was unique and odd and a pure one-off, and he was celebrated by his fans because of that.

Like all Roberto Calasso fans, I have my own favourite Roberto Calasso story. Some years back, ‘Ka’ was translated into Tamil, and Calasso came to my city for the launch of the Tamil edition. The launch was at my favourite bookshop which I visited often. It was rare that an Italian book got translated into Tamil, and it was even more rare that the author turned up for the launch of the new translation. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a case of so-near-yet-so-far for me, as I got to know about it only through the papers the next day. I wish I had known about the event earlier, and I wish I had attended it and got to meet him.

Roberto Calasso lived a long life, a beautiful life. As a publisher, I am sure he encouraged many new writers and put their books in readers’ hands. As a writer he definitely delighted many fans like me. Roberto Calasso was one of the first Italian authors that I discovered (the others were Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino) and with his passing, all my three favourites are gone, and it is the end of an era. It is a sad day for Italian literature, and Italian literature readers and fans. It is sad that all beautiful things have to come to an end.

Farewell my friend, Roberto! Thanks for all the beautiful books and for delighting us readers! We’ll never forget you and we’ll always miss you.

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