Birds in a cosmic tree

the ruin of kasch Roberto Calasso Tr. William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli Carcanet £19.95

In Italy, Roberto Calasso is an intellectual colossus. As editorial director of Adelphi Edizioni for 20 years, he published all the middle Europeans: Elias Canetti, Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth. His artful decoding of classical myths and legends, Le Nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, was a surprise bestseller. It reinvented the gods for our modern age, and served them up in a mishmash of fiction and anthropology. In English, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony sold superbly. It was a Waterstone's book of the month, and book of the year for many.

Now we have The Ruin of Kasch, another long essay in the form of fiction. It was first published in Italy in 1983, where Italo Calvino was quite favourable. He said the book has two subjects: "The first is Talleyrand, and the second is everything else." Everything else is basically the history of mankind. Imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey re-directed by Roland Barthes with Wittgenstein as dialogue coach: that's how smoothly Calasso goes down this time. Here is a typical sentence: "The notion of legitimacy blends the two fundamental operations of the mind: analogy and convention (that is, the process of establishing arbitrary equivalences)." And so on, I regret to say.

The Ruin of Kasch is largely a bore, but it nevertheless begins well. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigod is presented as a trickster of a statesman (Napoleon memorably referred to him as "a shit in a silk stocking"). Talleyrand was the first to understand the "Primordial mystery of power"; his alley rat amorality frightened Goethe, disgusted Chateaubriand and evidently fascinates Calasso. "Talleyrand soon perceived that power struggles would no longer take place on a chessboard where one move followed the other with ceremonial slowness, but within a stream far stronger than everything it swept along.'' This is nicely put; Calasso is alluding to the word "torrent" which Talleyrand used to describe the French Revolution. A suprem e diplomat, Talleyrand gave a new meaning to the political concept of "legitimacy".

Thus The Ruin of Kasch moves forward in time to the trenches of the First World War, then to Hitler's persecution of European Jewry and the killing-fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia. The example of Talleyrand hovers like a bad spirit over this human infamy. For it was he who "knew the secrets of the old and new regimes". So far so horrible. Slowly, Calasso builds a mosaic of aphorisms, dialogue, digressions, anecdotes, citations and historical analysis to connect Monsieur de Talleyrand to our modern age. Among those quoted are Celine, Nietzsche, Joyce, Levi-Strauss, Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin - the usual modernist gang. Then, halfway through, Calasso interpolates some mystical bunkum about the legend of Kasch, an African kingdom whose destruction is an emblem, the dust-jacket assures us, of "the ruin of ancient and modern worlds".

It is difficult to see how this African kingdom is an emblem of anything save Calasso's own overloaded erudition. Italo Calvino was right when he said that The Ruin of Kasch loves to "reveal itself as wandering and vagrant, guided only by fancy". I coul d find neither rhyme nor reason (let alone much of a legend) for Kasch. It has something to do with Lord Kitchener and the lost mines of Hophrat-en-Nahas. Or perhaps not. Calasso then veers off into Engels's Berlin and Porphyr's Rome, discoursing the while on the mummified corpse of Jeremy Bentham, the sacrifice of Iphigeneia at Aulis and why rice is still thrown at newlyweds in Italy. By the time we get to the sacrificial rituals of Vedic India, Calasso has abandoned any residual mother-wit. "We are no t a dense and uniform brick", he solemnly announces. "Each of us consists of the two birds in the Upanishads, on the same branch of the cosmic tree: one eats, and the other watches the one that is eating." One can almost smell the josssticks here.

What The Ruin of Kasch is really about is anyone's guess; it reflects an Italian taste for showy intellectual fizz-bang. No British publisher would have considered this barmy narrative had there not been the happy precedent of Cadmus and Harmony.

Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star