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Roberto Calasso: Italian polymath who dreamt of Indian gods

Roberto Calasso, the Italian writer and publisher who died on Thursday, was best known for his books on myths and rituals, especially among Indian readers

Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso.
Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso. (Screenshot via Vimeo / Tracce.tv)

The writer and publisher Roberto Calasso (1941-2021), widely acknowledged as one of the stalwarts of Italian literature, died on Thursday following a long illness. The 80-year-old Calasso’s work had been translated into over 20 languages and was noted for its elliptical, ambitious meditations on mythology, literature and the trajectories of modernity across various cultures.

Over a dozen of his books were translated into English, including K. (2005), Ardor (2014) and The Unnameable Present (2019). However, Calasso’s most widely read translated works were the three thematically linked book-length essays he wrote through the 1980s and 1990s: The Ruin of Kasch (1994), The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993) and Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India (1998) (the last two were translated by the British writer, Tim Parks).

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Broadly speaking, these three books investigate the nature of mythology and ritual, and how they affect the way societies behave. Structurally, all three books use a lynchpin figure or event (the French statesman Talleyrand for Kasch, the mythical Garuda for Ka) to branch out into a forest of dazzling narrative digressions, all of which circle back to Calasso’s key thematic concerns.

For obvious reasons, the one Calasso book most likely to reach Indian readers was the impressively unclassifiable Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India (1998). In his earlier work The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993), Calasso had condensed (and philosophized about) the major strands of Greek mythology within a novelistic whole, strung together around the titular marriage. Ka is Calasso’s encore for this methodology, this time using the Hindu bird-god Garuda as literary scaffolding. Wendy Doniger called it the greatest book ever written on Hindu mythology and one is inclined to agree: across 15 chapters, Calasso moves from Vedas to Puranas to Upanishads to the Buddha with the speed and the appetite of a polymath, deploying cross-cultural (and sometimes anachronistic) connections brilliantly throughout (where else would you find a Hindu deity being compared to characters by Kafka and Tolstoy?).

Covers of English translations of Calasso's books.
Covers of English translations of Calasso's books.

Among other things, Ka is a book about the magical, shape-shifting qualities of all texts and, therefore, of imagination itself. Towards the beginning, when Calasso is retelling some classic Hindu origin myths, invoking the Rig Veda, the style he uses is appropriately lyrical, the language conjuring cosmic proportions (“A hundred strips of cowhide would not have sufficed to cover it”). The quest to find both human and divine purpose is encapsulated in the monosyllabic question ‘Ka’ (who), making the ur-deity Prajapati (the first thinking being, the fountainhead of all divinity) a kind of Vedic Doctor Who in Calasso’s narrative.

As the narrative introduces the first gods (starting with Prajāpati) and then the first gods-and-demons conflicts, all the way into modernity’s dawn, Calasso’s tone becomes distinctly more modern, too. And in a signature move, Calasso pauses and tells us exactly how and why this tonal shift comes about.

“For men, what change are the names, and likewise the literary genres in which deed and variation are accomplished. Thus Prajapati became Brahma. Thus Rudra became Siva. Thus, from the allusive cipher of the Ṛg Veda and the abrupt, broken narratives of the Brahmanas, stories picked up only to be hurriedly dropped, one passed to the ruthless redundance of the Purānas, their incessant dilution, their indulgence in hypnotic and hypertrophic detail. Narration once again became the receptacle of every form, every calculation, every duty. A huge and divine novel unfolded, slowly.”

There’s an awful lot to unpack in this passage, taken from the beginning of Ka’s fourth chapter, not least the bold literary framings of major Hindu schools of thought. But the most crucial feature, in my opinion, is the way Calasso deconstructs the various styles of storytelling associated with Hindu texts, laying down their strengths and weaknesses with rapid brushstrokes. Also, these are not detached observations: Calasso clearly has a soft corner for pre-modern Indian intellectual traditions. As Sunil Khilnani noted in his 1998 New York Times review: “(…) Calasso’s hieratic nostalgia is apparent: Aryan India suggests to him a comforting pastorale, just as it did to those scholars of religion, Mircea Eliade and Georges Dumezil.”

Roberto Calasso (1941-2021).
Roberto Calasso (1941-2021). (Screenshot via Vimeo / Tracce.tv)

Nevertheless, Calasso presents a typically eloquent (if occasionally grudging) charter of respect for Buddhism’s disruptive effect on the subcontinent; hierarchies upset, thought processes altered forever in its wake. He calls the Buddha the “boldest character of all, he who took the irreversible step, origin of every deviation, first subversive”.

With so many interconnected, undoubtedly challenging themes in every chapter, it’s remarkable how fast-paced and how devastatingly funny Ka is. The Shiva-Parvati chapter is Calasso at his daring and playful best. Indra’s plot luring Shiva into siring a demon-slaying son goes hilariously awry when the blue-necked god, interrupted mid-coitus, spills his seed down Agni the fire-god’s throat. Taking the mickey, Shiva deadpans, “Isn’t this exactly what you came for?”

Elsewhere, the early days of Shiva-Parvati domesticity are described in a beautifully underplayed passage: “An argument began. Ever since they’d been alone, this had been their life: sex, dice, bhanga, arguing, tapas. And erratic conversation. Each phase enhanced the others and came around again quite regularly.” Ka was reviewed warmly by Indian critics. Shashi Tharoor called it "an astonishing collection of myths and legends, philosophical inquiry and speculative narrative". Calasso also made several well-received appearances at the Jaipur Literature Festival down the years, in conversation with mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik on multiple occasions.

That Calasso was able to juggle such a dizzying array of styles, allusions and intellectual traditions was in part down to his polyglot ways; French, Latin, German, Spanish, Greek and Sanskrit were some of the languages he counted in his quiver. His parents were scholars of law and German literature, respectively and during his Florence childhood (about which a slim posthumous volume, Memè Scianca, will soon be released), Calasso quickly became a precocious reader, developing an affinity for Proust and Baudelaire in particular. In the 1960s, he started working for the then-new Italian publishing house Adelphi Edizioni. He continued to work there for almost six decades, becoming Chairman in 1999 and buying the firm outright in 2015.

Calasso’s passing is a tragic loss for world literature, but I wager the man himself would probably ask us to return to the stories. As one of Ka’s two epigrams, taken from the Yogavasistha, states: “The world is like the impression left by the telling of a story.”

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