Roberto Calasso funnels impossibly vast texts into intoxicating storybooks
After a dismal first session, Roberto Calasso had a radiant outing in his second, where he read an excerpt from an upcoming work — a second book on Indian myths after his magnificent Ka (1996). After retelling the Greek myths in The Marriage Of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka was a parallel book of Indian myths, going from the Rig Vedas right up to the Buddha. Many have marvelled at Calasso’s synthesis of such vast corpuses of texts into 500-odd page “novels”. He laughs in reply, “Mythologists are like huge trees with many branches, and all the branches are connected to a trunk — in order to understand a single branch, you’ve to see the whole tree.” He cites the example of Shiva, whom you need to view with his antecedent Rudra. The Italian author and publisher insists that his major books have been chapters of a single lifework. Along with the oldest myths, Calasso has also tackled our more recent stories such as that of the 18th century painter Tiepolo. He says his book on Kafka came from a single line of Ka — the relation of the creator deity Prajapati to other gods seemed similar to how Kafka’s character K relates to 19th century fictional characters.
The Indian mythologist Devdutt Patnaik, his co-panelist at the festival, said he was so inspired by Calasso during the second session he felt like touching his feet, because the older man had glimpsed the deepest, inarticulate truths in Brahmanic literature. “The stories are there, waiting to be put together,” says Calasso. For him, mythology’s essence is in letting stories resonate with each other and in “thinking through storytelling”. His first book on Indian myths took him eight years to write, while his next one has already taken ten. Combining a novelist’s stamina and a poet’s fineness, he’s remained committed to his more native concept of sprezzatura— the art of being artless.