Books: Myths, eagles and legends: get into the `Ka'

Ka by Roberto Calasso Vintage pounds 6.99

Roberto Calasso is the presiding genius of contemporary Italian literature. Ka is the third volume, and the emotional and philosophical cornerstone, of his five-volume fictional project. Readers may remember The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1994) as being a gloriously seductive meditation on the entire body of Greek mythology and The Ruin of Kasch (1996), which imaginatively recreated the emergence of modernity from the destruction of the past. Both of these novels of ideas may be remembered as being riveting and, at the same time, demanding.

Ka is even more challenging. In it, Calasso makes tangible the less familiar world of Hinduism, placing its hymns and narratives of sacrifice - the Rig-Veda and the Brahmanas - at its imaginative heart. He makes his intentions clear with two epigraphs: one from Spinoza, who remarks that ideas function as narratives of the real world; and the second from the Yogavasistha: "The world is like the impression left by the telling of a story." And before we know it, we are plunged straight into the story with the enticing first line: "Suddenly an eagle darkened the sky." This eagle taking flight spans the novel with one question: "Who is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?" Calasso, who is brilliantly and meticulously translated by novelist Tim Parks, then turns his story, which, once again, combines philosophical commentary with illuminating linguistic analysis, into a startling evocation of the historical atmosphere and emotional outlook that shaped these upper- caste Indians' thought. The emergence of consciousness is their concern, and Calasso gives it narrative shape by rehearsing their myth of the creation of the world by Prajapati, the progenitor, whose secret name is Ka (which translates as "who", or "the space between"). Calasso is keen on the idea of an "Indo-European" tradition of thought, and he brings in Proust ("a Vedantic master though unaware of being such"), Wittgenstein, Locke and Hegel as close relations of the Indian seers.

Ka is a dizzying, erudite incursion into sacred texts, which throbs with erotic, violent and enigmatic tales. Despite its scholarly austerity, to read it is, ultimately, a rewarding experience, although - as Parks himself once admitted - it needs to be read at least four times before the reader can come to terms with it.

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