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KA by Roberto Calasso

KA

Stories of the Mind and Gods of India

By Roberto Calasso

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-45131-5
Publisher: Knopf

At once novel, cultural essay, mythology, and collection of linked stories, Italian writer Calasso’s newest is a buoyant, expansive narrative that captures, with earthy vigor, scrupulous scholarship, and epic breadth, the Indian cultural ethos. In crisply written prose, Calasso (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 1993) seeks depths, and encourages questions, that become a pleasure to ponder. The title sets the tone. “Ka”—a word that refers to any originating source—is really a question, both personal and vast: “Who?” In the 15 sections that comprise the work (along with a helpful glossary of names and terms), Calasso narrates different phases of creation—how did time happen to us? who made death?— each concluded with a fresh narrative mystery. What may have been originally just phrases or illuminating parables are here woven together to form one coherent “story,” rich in insight and drama, that is gently helped along by Calasso’s brief expository passages. The result is a multilayered, engaging composition that entertainingly draws the reader through a sophisticated system of thought. The result, though, isn—t a handbook: Calasso knows that not ideas but characters are what make stories work, and that we understand best when we sympathize most. He’s populated his story with Indian gods who, each with unique passions, anxieties, lusts and errors, are immediately available to any reader. With phrases often culled from original literature (frequently the Rg Veda), such figures as Prajapati (the first Ka), Daksa (the craftsman) with “furrows on each side of a hooked nose, hollow cheeks . . . and a thick, pendulous lower lip), and the Buddha are fully realized individuals, not “human-sized” figurines. While the characters enliven the pages, it’s the thematic persistence of mysteries both cosmic and existential—Ka?—that piques our interest and generates the deeper resonances here. In a book that may as easily be browsed as read at length, Calasso seems to have written with the Buddha’s last words in mind: “Act without inattention.—