Sweaty feet in the ashram

JOURNEY TO ITHACA Anita Desai Heinemann, pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
Seven years is a mythically satisfying timescale for an epic journey and Anita Desai's new novel Journey to Ithaca has been seven years in the writing. In her last, Baumgartner's Bombay (1988), the themes of cultural isolation and assimilation were neatly anatomised, and the characters' tangled emotions carefully teased apart, spread out and labelled for the reader. In the new book, the handling of these themes is looser and more leisurely, the effect shimmering and impressionistic. India - both the country and the state of mind - remains the heartland of the novel, the ultimate destination of every questing character, but the individual journeys map a complicated course, from Europe to the Indian sub-continent via Africa and the United States.

Matteo, rebellious son of the Italian bourgeoisie, hits the Seventies hippie trail in search of enlightenment in the East. Right from the outset, Desai subverts the Heat and Dust vision of India as a marvellous country "spoilt" by indigent and undisicplined natives. "All over India, in those years," she writes, "ragged white mendicants in loose pyjamas and bandanas milled around ashrams and sadhus and yogis to the mirth and disbelief of Indians. . ."

Matteo's romantic spirtualism (attributed to a surfeit of Hermann Hesse in adolescence) is counterbalanced by his tidy-minded German wife Sophie, whose sense of karmic bliss is impaired by the smell of sweaty feet in the ashram. This tension between Eastern or pseudo-Eastern mysticism and European rationalism provides the basic matrix for the novel. (As the child of a Bengali father and German mother, Desai is singularly well placed to comment on this head-on culture clash). Europe is described as a place of endless and unsettling surface detail; like George Eliot, Desai has a compulsive gift for investing stuffs and fabrics with moral weight - the crowded, claustrophobic tapestries of Italy, the overstuffed and tightly swathed opulence of Paris. India, on the other hand, is painted in genre scenes of Hogarthian liveliness or in vivid abstracts, with big, burning notions of Truth and Oneness bright enough to blind the seeker.

The philosophical differences between Matteo and Sophie - lofty arguments about the nature of Sacred and Profane Love which are an effective baffle against real communication - come to a head over Matteo's devotion to his ancient and charismatic guru, known as the Mother. Sophie is determined to expose the Mother as a charlatan and determines to investigate the cult leader's mysterious past, but her crusade to debunk the guru quickly becomes as consuming and destructive as her husband's frenzied faith.

This is the kind of narrative geometry at which Anita Desai excels, its edges softened by luxuriant prose and an unrestrained delight in incidental detail. Sophie is ogled by "a young man whose Adam's apple bobbed up and down like a frog in a snake's throat"; pigeons in a Paris square make a vivid cameo appearance as "a mad mob of rainbow-tinted grey harpies". The advice contained in the CP Cavafy poem, "Ithaca", which Desai uses for her foreword and takes as inspiration - "To arrive there is your ultimate goal/ But do not hurry the voyage at all" - applies as much to the writer's unforced narrative as it does to the reader.

No one could describe this book as a page-turner; rather it presents a series of beautifully illustrated plates for contemplation at the reader's own pace. Desai has spoken of the European mania for resolution, for plots tied up as neatly as an operetta; Journey to Ithaca offers no bite-sized moral. In Desai's teeming emotional landscape, worldliness is not the polar opposite of wisdom. Despite Sophie's best efforts, the Mother is neither unmasked as a villain nor vindicated as a saint, but revealed instead as yet another questing and complicated human. Like the traveller in Cavafy's poem, you find no answers in this Ithaca, but, at the end of the journey, you are "rich with all you have gained on the way."