Thursday, August 21, 2008

The New Yorker July 28 and Aug 4, 2008

from James Wood's review of Aleksandar Hemon's fiction:

[On "the portable provincialism of exile":] Jozef watches the CNN pictures of his besiged city, but, Hemon write, "he only watched the images to recognize the people in them."


Sometimes his English has the regenerative eccentricity of the immigrant's, restoring buried meanings to words like "vacuous" and "petrified." A sentence like this one stands at a slight angle to customary English usage: "I piled different sorts of blebby pierogi and a cup of limpid tea on my tray." "Blebby" is wonderful, but, perhaps more wonderful, how many native English speakers would ever describe tea as limpid? Occasionally, he flourishes a lyrically pedantic Nabokovian bloom, as with the "fenestral glasses" a character wears.


. . . he is a postmodernist who has been mugged by history. When he "lays bare the device" (an old Russian Formalist phrase for the technique of playful fictive self-consciousness), he opens a wound.


The fragility of the immigrant's status takes on a metaphysical cast in Hemon's work. One of the immigrant narrators of "Nowhere Man" has the feeling that "most of the things in this world would go on existing whether I lived or died. There was hole in the world, and I fit right into it; if I perished, the hole would just close, like a scar healing."


[In the novel "The Lazarus Project"] . . . Brik reflects cynically on identity and its center:

Everybody imagines that they have a center, the seat of their soul, if you believe in that kind of thing. I've asked around, and most of the people told me that the soul is somewhere in the abdominal area--a foot or so above the asshole. but even if the center is elsewhere in the body--the head, the throat, the heart--it is fixed there, it does not move around. When you move, the center moves with you, following your trajectory. You protect that center, your body is a sheath; and if your body is damaged, the center is exposed and weak. Moving through the crowd at the bus station in Chernivtsi, I realized that mu center had shifted--it used to be in my stomach, but now it was in my breast pocket, where I kept my American passport and a wad of cash. I pushed this bounty of American life through space; I was presently assembled around it and needed to protect it from the people around me.


In his earlier work, Hemon circled around "King Lear" and Shakespeare's great phrase "unaccommodated man," the naked human animal Lear finds on the heath. Physically and metaphysically unaccommodated, Brike even imagines the Biblical Lazarus as a kind of unaccommodated man--the emblem of all immigrants. When Lazarus was raised by jesus from the dead, Brik muses, did he remember being dead? Or did he just begin again? "Did he have to disremember his previous life and start from scratch, like an immigrant?"


William Dalrymple's Letter from India "Serving the Goddess":

Yellamma was the wife of the powerful rishi Jamadagni. The couple and their four sons lived in a simple wooden hermitage by the lake. Here the sage punished his body and performed great feats of austerity. After the birth of his fourth child, these included a vow of chastity. Every day, Yellamma served her husband, and fetched water from the river for her husband's rituals. She used a pot made of sand, and carried it home in the coils of a live snake.

One day, as Yellamma was fetching water, she saw a heavenly being, a gandharva making love to his consort by the banks of the river. It was many years since Yellamma had enjoyed the pleasures of love, and the sight attracted her. Watching from behind a rock, and hearing the lovers' cries of pleasure, she found herself longing to take the place of the beloved.

This sudden rush of desire destroyed her composure. When she crept away to get water for her husband, she found, to her horror, that she could noy longer create a pot from sand, and that her yogic powers of concentration had vanished. When she returned home without the water, Jamadagni guessed what had happened, and in his rage he cursed his wife. According to Rani and Kaveri [devadasis, female devotees of the goddess], within seconds Yellamma had become sickly and ugly, covered with boils and festering sores. She was turned out of her home, cursed to wander the roads of the Deccan, begging for alms.


There is moreover, a body of explicitly sexual poetry from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in southern India in which the love of a devotee for the deity is sometimes envisaged as being akin to the love of a temple dancing girl for her client. Some of the most famous of these poems were discovered carved, in an early form of Telugu, on copper plates and kept in a locked room in the temple of Tirupati; it is only in the past decade that they have been translated into English, and included in the collection "When God Is a Customer." In most, the god is usually a form of Krishna; he is good-looking and desirable but a thoroughly unreliable lover who plays games that drive his devotees to despair. In other Telugu poems, however, the devadasi or courtesan sometimes dominates the relationship:

I'm not like the others
You may enter my house,
but only if you have the money.

If you don't have as much as I ask,
a little less would do.
But I'll not accept very little,
Lord Konkanesvara.

To step across the threshold
of my main door,
It'll cost you a hundred in gold.
For two hundred you can see my bedroom,
my bed of silk,
and climbed into it.

Only if you have the money

To sit by my side
and to put your hand
boldly into my sari:
that will cost ten thousand.

And seventy thousand
will get you a touch
of my full round breasts.

Only if you have the money

Three crores to bring
your mouth close to mine,
touch my lips and kiss.

To hug me tight,
to touch my place of love,
and get to total union,
listen well,
you must bathe me
in a shower of gold.

But only if you have the money


There is, however, an almost unimaginable gulf separating the devadasis of ancient poems and inscriptions and the lives lived by women like Rani Bai. In the Middle Ages, the devadasis were drawn from the grandest families in the realm--among them princesses of the Chola royal family--and possibily from slaves captured in war. Many were literate, and some were highly accomplished poets; indeed, at the time they seem to have been among the few literate women in the region. Today, the devadasis are drawn exclusively from the lowest castes--usually from the Dalit Madar caste--and are almost entirely illiterate.

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