Aashish Kaul - The precisely realized yet dreamlike settings of Aashish Kaul's stories, the fastidious, melancholy sensibility of their no-longer-young narrators, lead us directly into the territory of late modernism, of Borges and Beckett and Nabokov
Aashish Kaul, The Queen's Play, Roundfire Books, 2015.
read it at Google Books
In the second age of the world, a time of prehistory, a time of myth, Mandodari, queen of the demon king Ravana, invents chess to carve out a role for herself in a world where male, martial virtues are paramount. As a chess player, she can play at warfare; as queen, she can be the most potent warrior on the battlefield. The Queen's Play attempts to write the origin of chess into the narrative cycles of the Ramayana, one of the two formative epics of ancient India.The cursory mention of a chess-like game in the Ramayana lore offers interesting parallels and openings between the game and the themes of the epic poem. At the centre of it is a queen, first entering and then growing from strength to strength to become the most powerful piece on the board, inventing a game which closely parallels the epic battle taking place not far from the royal palace, a battle which she is not permitted to join, a battle where she will lose her king. Foregrounding certain episodes from the vast tapestry of the epic, the novel develops new narrative variations that feed back into the classical text with freshly imagined material.
Aashish Kaul, A Dream of Horses & Other Stories, Roundfire Books, 2014.
The stories in this collection draw variously on the themes of love and loss, Taoist metaphors, socio-political concerns, and the writer's place and role in the world. Literary and complex yet accessible and fast-paced, each story differs widely in style, motivation, philosophy, and denouement from all the others. The collection encompasses topographies and places from China to France, and Ireland to India.
Kaul has done a very necessary thing in A Dream of Horses, which is to mount a passionate and sensual defense of what literature can do for us explorers of the abyss in these anti-literate, imagistic times. He has [. . .] penned a very sensitive and intricate investigation of the literary sensibility. ~ Scott Esposito (from the introduction)
Kaul is a poet of space and silences, of absence and dream, a journeyman through text and the fictional experience. The lived is translated into the contemplated and is created in a brushstroke - such is the condition of the artist. His stories are like the Oneirocritica on the modernist urge and method, the dream of a dreamer who is aware of his dream. . . . This is an admirable first collection that may become a singularity to Kaul's later work. Kaul has crafted seven seductive, necessarily orphic stories that linger like the taste of pomegranates. - Christopher Cyrill
Involvement as a reader in this book is a major appeal, as it offers opportunities to engage the intellect profoundly, not in solving a Mystery's puzzle, but as dialogue pushing the edges of literary innovation. This book moves the literary canon forward. - Literary Orphans Journal
The precisely realized yet dreamlike settings of Aashish Kaul's stories, the fastidious, melancholy sensibility of their no-longer-young narrators, lead us directly into the territory of late modernism, of Borges and Beckett and Nabokov. - J.M. Coetzee
Kaul has done a very necessary thing in A Dream of Horses, which is to mount a passionate and sensual defense of what literature can do for us explorers of the abyss in these anti-literate, imagistic times. He has not done it in the common way but rather in the best possible. Without drawing a circle between those who find their eyes brightened by the printed word and all the rest of humanity, without fetishizing books and the lifestyle that accompanies them, and, above all, without dwelling on that singularly boring individual known as the author, he has nonetheless penned a very sensitive and intricate investigation of the literary sensibility. - Scott Esposito (from the Introduction)
While the description on the back of the book by Aashish Kaul says “each story differs widely in style, motivation, philosophy, and denouement,” the book, which is due out the end of May from Roundfire Books, contains a coherent focus on movement and meta-movement through space, and the voice is consistent. I would even go so far as to say it reads something like a novel about one protagonist moving through space in a way that becomes cumulatively meaningful.
Normally, writers carefully avoid the taboo of writing about authors, and dreams, especially stories that end with awakening. Many readers might not like this book because that’s exactly what it’s about. As his story “Tahiti” claims: “Dream and reality are but different chapters of the same book. Wasn’t it Schopenhauer who said so? That book through which at times you drift serenely, while at other times, you tramp with thoughts tied to your step like large, prehistoric stones closes one day. Then, as one chapter merges into the other, loses its distinctiveness, you begin to see the true, enduring wisdom of its words.” However, both of these subjects are fully embraced in New Wave Fabulism and this book has all the components of that genre. New Wave Fabulism tropes include writing self-consciously about the stories we tell ourselves, which as humans, we often get wrong, and turn into mythos. Characters can only interpret the strangeness of life subjectively, and we can remain uncertain about what really happened, and if there even is such a thing as objective mundane truth. This genre, which straddles Literary Realism and Fantasy, has been running wild between the fences for a long time. Taming it has always been difficult; many are afraid of it because it refuses the whip.
New Wave Fabulism is often self-aware meta-fiction that involves the reader directly, “trying to forge a link between dream and reality.” A pipe is not a pipe. The narrator addresses this directly:”A book is an enigma. Words the fill its pages present a shifty, relative universe. Through a reader, they create constructs where the past attempts to meet the future, the present arranging the meeting. In this present, as the reader receives and breaks apart the text — revives the past, contemplates the future — he, unknowingly, merges the two and makes the present fluid, expansive, eternal: he defeats time. But the author waits for the reader in the heart of his labyrinth. Should one go in search of the other? And how?” Involvement as a reader in this book is a major appeal, as it offers opportunities to engage the intellect profoundly, not in solving a Mystery’s puzzle, but as dialogue pushing the edges of literary innovation. This book moves the literary canon forward.
The miraculous, fantastical things that occur relate often to space, because that’s what constitutes the context. “”A voice imploring her to pass through a magic curtain. From Amsterdam to Paris in three steps!” Dream of Horses’ persistent focus on location and the details of perspective and movement are reminiscent of Nouveau Roman. As in books by Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, the physicality of the world is important for its own sake. Many times in Dream of Horses, seemingly random tangential paragraphs describe the protagonist going here and there, going for a walk, seeing the landscape around him, not in service of a tight plot moving forward, but because space takes priority. ” Before a month had passed, I had walked all the trails in all the mountains, I had discovered a tarn in the hills behind the settlement, I had stared at the heights. At other times, I would descend into a valley, where not infrequently I found a hamlet adjoining which men tilled small blocks of land, one below the other, that appeared to descend straight into the heart of the earth. People lived in such hamlets frugally, content with their routine lives. The strong sun had browned their faces and shoulders, but their gaze reflected serenity of mind, having arrested life in its threadbare yet lovable form which the mountains had shielded for ages.”
A walking narrator is refreshing in this age which is addicted to car chases. The details of traversing locations are as highlighted as characterization, and sometimes become successful substitutes for plot. I find this a fascinating technique, different enough not to be derivative of the phenomenology inherent in Nouveau Roman style fiction. The spatial elements easily can be read as dream symbols for the psyche, though that interpretation remains subtle. “Unlike in life, mountains always propel me to chose the course that moves upwards. Thus I instinctively selected the narrow path rising past young twisted pines and shrubs whose names I did not know, when it was apparent that the wider, flatter, oft-trodden road I had left behind was the correct way.”
Spatial locations both conscious and unconscious, symbolic and real, mesh to create wondrous experiences that are inherently meaningful by the nature of interacting with landscape directly, taking it seriously as itself,, not as a backdrop for the important stuff. “The notes grow prominent and I realize with a slight jolt that I am already in the forest, lured by the melody. At first the notes are space out like droplets, but soon they rise and merge into a river of hope and longing. Unbeknownst to me, I have made the choice. Now all that remains is to walk the path to its end. Fortunately, the moonshine filters through the overhanging branches, and I have followed this path many times in the day. Still, I cannot make out at once when I hit the fork.” The fork becomes as elaborately important as you might imagine.
Though this book honors the non-human and strives to give it its due, it is easily accessible by the human heart. Some themes that could resonate with any of us include the deeper meanings of musical rhythm, circular and twisted time, the way we create our environments that are so highly individualized they resemble dreams that transform us, and how our lives happen as they do because of the random turns we make as we walk along on our way to get something to eat or look at the sunset rather than being obsessed with a MacGuffin, the touchingly profound and intense intersections between us all (She is already inside me, she is me.”), and the quest (“Unaware of the tears clouding his vision, the archer saw stretching before him a narrow path at whose end was the rose”). Some other themes involve the absurd, and how what we desire rarely happens, as well as the non-linear reality of our lives that is different from traditional narrative structure. We find in these pages ponderings on the relationship between objects and people and how our perceptions transform them in our minds, and the complexity of our relationship with symbols: “With horror I understand that I am losing my way in a labyrinth of symbols, where everything is a symbol for everything else, a web that may hold me prisoner forever.”The aggressive role of the imagination is carefully tracked: “While writing one day, an image grew on the page.”
The language is riveting: “Slowly the world, like a ball, pushed into a dark corner, seemed to roll about us into the night.” It might even be too poetic for hardcore genre readers, though the narrative extends beyond the realism that has become associated with Literary Fiction. The prioritizing of the relation to spatiality, the few ungrammatical usages of words, tense changes, and punctuation issues, as well as the self-conscious subject of waking up and narration, might bother some readers. “When I awake, she is in the balcony, silhouetted against those facades, each a twin of the other. When she turns to look at me, the rays break into smithereens at her shoulder. We went to Montparnasse to eat in a restaurant located in an alley off Boulevard Raspail. The sun did not reach into it and the shade emphasized the shade above.” However, I can completely recommend this book to adventuresome readers who like to walk along with the narrator and observe not only his actions, but participate in them conceptually and look around appreciating the landscape on that walk.
The cover photos and the brilliant introduction by Scott Esposito complete this beautiful book. Roundfire Books has done us a great service by putting out this collection. I feel changed by it, woven into it, in admiration of it: “I tell her that art has a precise function. To offer a glimpse of what it is to be. Every artist, every poet knows this. All his attempts are to catch, if only fleetingly, a pure image, or even a shimmer of it. But alas — this isn’t an easy task — not by a long shot. Only art that is playful can begin to move towards this end, content that it is to simply flirt with life, not arrest it.” Bravo. - Tantra Bensko
Aashish Kaul: Sense and sensibility: on literary taste