In The Beginning

Distill religion, strip away ritual and tradition, and you find myth. Reduce mythology to its elementary narratives, the ur-stories, and you're left with Eros and Thanatos. It follows that the world's great religious epics can also be distilled to stories of fucking and death. At least that's the presumption of Italian author Roberto Calasso's encyclopedic new work, Ka (Knopf), which tackles the most slippery, rambling, and enigmatic of fables, The Mahabharata.

Of course, it's inherently presumptuous to rewrite the sacred text of a major religion as a glorified romance novel. It would be downright insolent if Calasso were not so reverent of the intricate, layered nature of myth. In his previous work, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, he turned the stories of the ancient Greeks into a graceful meditation on the roots of Western philosophy. Like that book, Ka seeks to reduce mythology to its essential narrative, an original myth.

Yet Calasso's new work is even more ambitious in scope. Its historical source, an Indian epic written around 200 B.C.E., makes the Old Testament look like light reading. Hinduism is itself a notoriously complex theology, and its founding myth is really a mélange of the best bits of philosophy and story collected from 4,000 years of Indian civilization. It would be preposterous to even attempt to forge a coherent narrative from the dizzying deluge of myths and gods in the Hindu pantheon. Wisely, Calasso doesn't try to make sense of it all, to fit everything into a neat story with a limited cast of characters and a clear resolution. Instead he follows the evolution of Hindu thought from its archaic origins.

Like any good religion, Ka begins at the beginning. The relatively minor deity Garuda is winging over the primordial depths, recalling his birth and the creation of the world. He thinks of his mother, Vinata, and her quest for the soma, a mysterious liquid godhead belched from the churning ocean. Garuda also considers his father, Prajapati, an enigmatic pre-deity who grew lonely with the nonexistence around him and puked up the universe. "Unlike the gods," writes Calasso, "who have a shape and a story, or even many shapes and many stories, who overlap perhaps, perhaps merge together, or swap over, but always with names and shapes unlike the gods, Prajapati never lost his link with the nameless and shapeless, with that which has no identity."

For Calasso, the figure of Prajapati becomes a metaphor for the central paradox of ancient Aryan philosophy: that the universe exists only within the mind but can be recognized only through the negation of the self. To explain the concept of the Ka, the precursor of the mind, he invokes Kafka, the Jeremiah of the modern. Like the first tales of The Mahabharata, Calasso writes in an authorial aside, "Kafka's stories were always the stories of a stranger, unknown to gods and men, [who was] the origin of gods and men."

Thankfully, Ka segues quickly into more familiar territory. After glossing over the creation of the world, the introduction of sex, and the birth of Death, Calasso delves into the juicy stuff: the erotic adventures and political intrigues of the gods. In turn, Siva, Vishnu, and Brahma scour the earth causing mischief and searching for the secret of Ka--i.e., the meaning of life. As the historical epoch shifts from Aryan to Vedic, the cast of characters multiplies and the tone of the stories changes. So, too, does Calasso's storytelling style. The disorienting jump cuts of the early chapters give way to a more controlled third-person narrative composed of tales that overlap and merge. Calasso takes delight in the telling, letting his prose flow in a loose flood of detail.

The strangest of Ka's various tales involves the sacrifice of a horse to Prajapati. Crowning the endless cycle of offerings to the gods, a king would choose an unlucky steed from his stable and have it killed. Apparently oblivious to the adage that you can't beat a dead horse, the king would then command his wife to mount the animal and fornicate. Next the horse would be butchered and the sacrificers, in turn, sacrificed. Somewhere in this nauseating pastoral scene, says Calasso, the concept of storytelling was born. "Knowledge," he writes, "is not an answer but a defiant question: Ka? Who? Knowledge is the last ruse, which allows us to escape being killed, to obtain a provisional stay of execution. Which was another reason why one celebrated the sacrifice of the horse."

If Calasso delights in the lurid details of the rituals and sexual dalliances of the gods, he offers insight into the spiraling patterns of Indian thought. Nevertheless, the evolving theology is as hard to follow as the litany of seductions and sacrifices. Hindu philosophy tends toward paradox rather than syllogism, and Ka often sputters for want of more exegesis. In the end, it takes the arrival of the Buddha to simplify things. Tossing out the old gods and the notion of ritual sacrifice, the enlightened one reduces the ancient pairing of sex and death to death alone.

 

If a 4,000-year-old religion can be distilled to the stuff of the novel, it shouldn't be hard to rewrite a piece of religious history. Especially if that history is as blood-soaked, bawdy, and enticingly exotic as the story of the Muslim crusader Saladin. Tariq Ali's new, loosely historical novel, The Book of Saladin, (Verso) recounts this celebrated subject's battlefield and bedroom adventures with lusty abandon, effectively turning Saladin into the sultan of swingers.

Though Ali is best known in his native Britain as a filmmaker, satirical playwright, and strident critic of the Labor Party, he is quickly gaining international renown as a novelist (literary critic Edward Said is among his admirers). Ali's previous book, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, was a bestseller in Bosnia, where it topped the "highly suggested reading" list at many mosques. While The Book of Saladin might not enjoy the same popularity among more conservative members of the Islamic faith, it covers similar territory. Once again, Ali looks back into history to explore the seemingly endless conflict between Christians and Muslims.

Although his subject is history, Ali isn't preoccupied with veracity. Like Calasso, he freely dismantles and reconstitutes history to serve his own ends. Indeed, Ali's entrance into the world of Saladin is an entirely fictitious plot device: a Jewish scholar named Isaac ibn Yahub who has been retained to record the Sultan's memoir. Introduced to palace intrigues, ibn Yahub quickly becomes privy to more than he wanted to know. He discovers, for example, that Saladin's favorite concubine is sleeping with his legitimate favorite wife.

While digging up such royal dirt, ibn Yahub also records Saladin's account of his rise from Kurdish peasant to the most powerful man in the Muslim world. "My enemies often refer to our family as adventurers and upstarts," says the sultan in one interview. "Even the Prophet, may he rest in eternal peace, was called an upstart, so that does not upset me. As for being adventurers, I think that is true. The only way to move forward in this world is through adventure. If you sit still in one place, you get burnt by the sun."

Although Saladin's military adventures, culminating in the siege of Jerusalem and the liberation of the holy land, monopolize much of his story, his exploits off the field prove more interesting. In one typical episode, creatively titled "The young Sala al-Din is abandoned by his mistress for an older man and gets drunk in a tavern," the impetuous, copulating caliph gets dumped and finds himself singing fight songs with a bunch of eunuchs in a bar. It's definitely a liberal rewrite of history.

If Ali's imaginative retelling is The Book of Saladin's greatest strength, it's also the novel's most conspicuous flaw. Despite a carefully rendered historical atmosphere, many of the episodes ultimately test credibility. In one particularly anachronistic episode, two harem girls discuss the role of women in modern Muslim society. To begin the lengthy and obtrusive digression, Ali has one of the concubines flatly tell the other how a great scholar "had criticized the failure of our states to discover and utilize the ability of women."

That's not to say that some creative anachronism can't add depth to a historical novel. Perhaps anxious to join Salman Rushdie on the late ayatollah's Most Wanted list, Ali pushes his gleefully picaresque novel toward political commentary by drawing rough parallels between the rivalries of the 12th century and the contemporary chaos in the Middle East. Yet, in his haste to strip the European influences from his subject and turn the The Book of Saladin into a statement about Muslim society, he loses sight of the most interesting story: the myth of the sultan himself.


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