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Book Review : Trek Across India Tries to Bridge Two Worlds

Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh (Viking: $17.95; 422 pp.)

A rather long period of time transpired between the reading of this book and the writing of this review. The lapsed time was beneficial because “Circle of Reason” is so crammed with character and event, its structure so buried in ornamentation, that it seems at first almost impenetrable. (Not unreadable , just impenetrable.)

The novel begins in a small town just outside of Calcutta--a village out of a Ved Mehta narrative, complete with banyan tree, Hindu and Muslim living side by side, and a full cast of broadly drawn “Characters.” Young Alu, a forlorn orphan with a head shaped like a potato, is sent to live with his aunt and uncle. This childless couple live by strange loyalties to “industry” and “scientific thought.” (It’s no accident, the author implies, that they can’t have children.) Alu’s aunt is completely attached to her sewing machine; his uncle, who used to be a great fan of the Curie family, has retreated into a love of phrenology. He also--as wars bubble over the border from nearby Bangladesh--invests in enormous supplies of carbolic acid, and saves thousands of refugee lives by de-germing anyone who will stand still for it.

Meanwhile, young Alu grows into an (unattractive) adolescent. He hates school and is apprenticed to a weaver, who teaches him every secret of weaving in the book. Alu falls in love with the weaver’s daughter. . . .

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Do you think this is going to be a review that takes the easy way out, simply by telling the plot? No! This beginning doesn’t even dent the plot of “Circle of Reason.” The uncle of Alu cherishes Pasteur as well as the Curies; his favorite book is “The Life of Pasteur.” The town in which Alu lives is dominated by a venal schoolmaster who hangs his own life-sized portraits everywhere, including branches of that banyan tree. What is to happen in India, Amitav Ghosh queries, where egoism, venality, ancient religions, human lust and an almost totally misunderstood apprehension of scientific thought must all be woven together into one elaborate fabric?

After something like half of the narrative has gone by, a tragedy occurs; Alu is blamed for it and heads west across India. Jyoti-Das follows, in hot pursuit. Jyoti-Das is a bird watcher, which does not bode well for his police career, and also tips off the reader that he wants to fly, to soar. The best way to understand this book would be to take it down either to the nearest soothsayer or the nearest psychiatrist; not a single thing occurs here that is not of a symbolic order, and so . . . .

Alu flees to the west coast of India, orphaned again by the press of events. He catches a boat in the Red Sea and floats on over to Al Ghazira, an Arab city hard hit by the mad demands of the industrial age and the West’s insatiable appetite for oil. If the first half of this novel depicts the inability of the agricultural Third World to--what’s the word?-- adjust to the 20th Century, the second half, with yet another Third World continent, points out that industrialization, mongrelization, materialism are just as defeating.

Again, the theme would appear to be, how does one weave together all the currents of religions which don’t match, transistor radios and Muslim calls-to-prayer, old money and new, all the confusion and disparity of the separate “old worlds,” together with the sterility of “reason” which that “Life of Pasteur” would seem to imply? Because, after another tragedy, which should not be revealed here, Alu--just as his uncle back in Part One--has an attack of Carbolic Acid fever: Sterilize everything! Clean it up! Only then will we be able to press on into the future!

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This book compares to, or is in the genre of, “great” novels. It aims for the category of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” or Peter Carey’s “The Illywacker,” or “Catch 22.” Like all of these--and “Moby Dick,” come to think of it--it’s jam-packed with plots and subplots and flights of fancy. But there’s a taint of ego here. You get a sense of the author’s beefy hands, moving puppets about. . . .

The journey ends at Tangier, where the two worlds wave at each other across the Strait of Gibraltar. One must--by the logic of this book--either journey onward, to lands of dubious “progress” or homeward to “continents of defeat--defeat at home, defeat in the world. . . .” There’s a noble effort behind all this, but you feel the muscles straining. In none of the available senses is this an “easy” book.


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