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Compassion in a post-truth world

Book Review

We live in a topsy-turvy world. Mass murderers get acclaimed as messiahs, hard-core criminals are apotheosised as yogis and sadhvis, and absolute ignoramuses are elevated as dignified gurus of ancient wisdom. On the other hand, sane voices are being muffled, if not silenced altogether. How does one create credible fiction with conventional heroes and plots in such an inverted world? Impossible. What does writing amount to in such a situation? Paul Zacharia answers that question and does much more in his debut English novel, A Secret History of Compassion.

Zacharia is a renowned Malayalam writer. His stories and longer writings provide refreshing peeps into human affairs. He can be funny and serious at once, spiritual and irreverent, mystical and cynical. In his first English novel, he is most of all that, yet much different from his usual self.  A Secret History is a baffling novel. None of the characters is realistic. The whole setting of the novel is a dream world. The narrative is post-truth.

The protagonist, Lord Spider (who has a few other pseudonyms too), is a popular writer whose annual income from his thrillers and mysteries is a mind-blowing sum. He has been entrusted with the job of writing an essay, his first non-fiction work, by the Communist Party with which he has more than friendly associations. The transition from fiction to non-fiction is quite arduous for him. Fortunately, Jesus Lambodara Pillai who is a hangman by profession in addition to being a mystical voyeur and aspiring writer offers his assistance. The essay which is completed towards the end of the novel is a product of the hangman and Spider’s wife Rosi. Rosi is a freelance philosopher. Lord Spider’s contribution to the essay is almost nothing though he claims the authorship.

The essay which begins with the futuristic claim that “The time is not far off when robot armies, interstellar ships and AI units controlling WMDs and slaughterhouse machinery run by EI will be programmed with Compassion” is really not the central theme of the novel. What the three writers of the essay say and do is what makes up the bizarrely absurd phantasmagoria of the novel.

God and Stalin are women in that world. Jesus flies about in the sky and J L Pillai meets him occasionally since the latter can alter his shape into a bird or whatever he chooses. Pillai has a blood relationship with Jesus too. Satan turns out to be quite different from what we know about him.

Everything from God to Satan, compassion to communism, fiction to truth is different in that world. Patriotism is a multipurpose strategy which has nothing to do with love for one’s nation. Religious martyrdom is an act of folly on the part of both the martyr and his torturers. Lovemaking is fiction. God shares the profession of the fiction writer. “We share the same profession,” God says when Spider tells her about his profession. “Only, I don’t write fiction. I make it happen,” God elaborates.

Before meeting god, however, Spider was of the opinion that “gods simply don’t get any sleep” because they suffer from insecurity feelings about whether they will be replaced “tomorrow” by other gods since “replacements were aplenty”.

What we should beware, according to the essay on Compassion, is “the shroud of silence that hides History’s unending massacres of the Body’s Uprisings – the brutal extermination of the Revolution of Passion. O! Beware the silence masking the tragic History of love and lovemaking. Listen, if you can, to the fearsome last rites of orgasms, to the inconsolable whimpers from the annihilated universe of sweet lust…. Ask: Who expelled Compassion from the paradise of love?” [Emphasis added]

During its convoluted course, the narrative mocks the usual elements of popular fiction: “terror, horror, pathos and salvation.” Zacharia’s novel does not offer these; it offers more – it offers the “fear in a handful of dust” of a bewildering Eliotean Waste Land.

The novel is replete with literary and historical allusions. There is also much religion and philosophy interspersing it. Only those readers who have some literary finesse are likely to enjoy this novel. Even they may not wish to read the book more than once unlike much of the other works of the author.
A page from the novel



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