Birds in a cosmic tree

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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.