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Posts Tagged ‘Roberto Calasso’

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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As I love mythology, I thought I will participate in the Read-A-Myth Challenge  hosted by Jo from Bibliojunkie and Bina from If You Can Read This. (For more information on the challenge please check the challenge website). I am planning to go up to level 2 – Erlang Chen – in the challenge. I need to read four books on mythology for that.

I am reading ‘Ka’ by Roberto Calasso as my first book for this challenge. It is a book on Indian mythology and its subtitle reads “Stories of the Mind and Gods of India”.

The first chapter is about Garuda the eagle, who becomes Vishnu’s vehicle / mount. I am giving some excerpts from that chapter below (they don’t tell a continuous story – sorry for that).

Garuda flew and remembered. It was only a few days since he had hatched from his egg and already so much had happened. Flying was the best way of thinking, of thinking things over. Who was the first person he’d seen? His mother, Vinata. Beautiful in her tininess, she sat on a stone, watching his egg hatch, determinedly passive. Hers was the first eye Garuda held in his own.

Vinata went on : “My child, I have kept watch over your egg for five hundred years.”

“I’ll go and win this soma, Mother,” said Garuda wth his most solemn expression. “But first I must eat.”

Garuda, who was gazing ahead with his beak half open, just enough to swallow up swarms of Nisadas, suddenly felt something burning in his throat. “That’s a brahman,” he thought. So he said, “Brahman, I don’t know you, but I don’t mean you any harm. Come out of my throat.” And from Garuda’s throat came a shrill, steady voice : “I’ll never come out unless I can bring this Nisada woman with me, she’s my bride.” “I’ve no objections,” said Garuda. Soon he saw them climbing onto his beak, taking care, fearful of getting hurt. Garuda was intrigued and thought : “Finally I’ll know what a brahman looks like.” He saw them sliding down his feathers. The brahman was thin, bony, dusty, his hair woven in a plait, his eyes sunken and vibrant. His long, determined fingers never let go of the wrist of the Nisada woman, whose beauty immediately reminded Garuda of his mother and his treacherous aunt Kadru. This left him bewildered, while he reflected that quite probably he had already swallowed up thousands of women like her.

Garuda settled on a branch. Surrounded by the foliage that enfolded his feathers, he felt at home and couldn’t understand why. Of his birthplace he could remember only sand, stone, and snakes. Whereas this tree protected him on every side with swathes of emerald that softened the merciless light of the sky.

“So many things happening, so many stories one inside the other, with every link hiding yet more stories…And I’ve hardly hatched from my egg,” thought an exultant Garuda, heading north. “No one has taught me anything. Everything has been shown to me. It will take me all my life to begin to understand what I’ve been through.”

At that very moment one of the gods noticed something odd in the celestial stasis : the garlands had lost their fragrance, a think layer of dust had settled on the buds. “The heavens are wearing out like the earth…” was the silent fear of more than one god. It was a moment of pure terror. What came afer was no more than a superfluous demonstration. The rains of fire, the meteors, the whirlwinds, the thunder. Indra hurled his lightning bolt as Garuda invaded the sky. The lightning bounced off his feathers. “How can that be?” said Indra to Brhaspati, chief priest of the gods. “This is the lightning that split the heart of Vrtra. Garuda tosses it aside like a straw.” Sitting on a stool, Brhaspati had remained impassive throughout, from the moment the sky had began to shake. “Garuda is made not of feathers but of meters. You cannot hurt a meter. Garuda is gayatri and tristubh and jagati. Garda is the hymn. The hymn that cannot be scratched. And then : remember that puddle, those tiny beings you found so funny, with their blade of grass…Garuda is, in part, their child.”

Buried deep among the tree Rauhina’s branches, Garuda read the Vedas. It was years before he raised his beak. Those beings he had terrorized in the heavens, who had scattered like dust at his arrival, who had tried in vain to fight him, he knew who they were now: with reverence he scanned their names and those of their descendants.

Finally he reached the tenth book of the Rg Veda. And here he smelled a shift in the wind. Along wtih the names came a shadow now, a name never uttered. What had been affirmative tended to be interrogative. The voice that spoke was more remote. It no longer celebrated. It said what is.

Garuda stopped and shut his eyes. He had never felt so uncertain, and so close to understanding. Never felt so light, in that sudden absence of names. When he opened his eyes, he realized that the nine stanzas were followed by another, this one separated by a space that was slightly larger.

I have read about Garuda being the vehicle of Vishnu but I haven’t read about the feats of Garuda himself. He seems to be a cool Eagle 🙂 I loved the passages where he fights with the gods and brushes them aside and he doesn’t know his own strength – so much power and so much innocence. I also liked very much the quote “I’ll go and win this soma, Mother. But first I must eat.” I don’t know many cool eagles in literature or mythology – the one which comes readily to mind is the eagle which takes Gandalf on its back in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but that eagle didn’t have a name (if I remember right). Garuda seems to be the coolest Eagle of them all 🙂

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