LOVE IN A DEAD LANGUAGE

A Romance

By Lee Siegel

Univ. of Chicago. 375 pp. $25

Reviewed by Paul Di Filippo

Prior to the publication of his newest book, the immensely clever and libidinously hilarious metanovel Love in a Dead Language, Lee Siegel, a professor of Indian religions at the University of Hawaii, might have struck even a perceptive reader as a figure most clearly consanguineous with someone like Mark Salzman, author of Iron and Silk (1986) and The Laughing Sutra (1990). Knowledgeable devotees of esoteric Asian traditions, both men seemed content to fruitfully cultivate a literary field sown about equally with seeds of scholarship, journalism and old-fashioned storytelling.

But Siegel's new book flies on Nabokovian wings so high above his earlier work, and along such a surprising yet retrospectively adumbrated vector, that a completely different postmodern lineage must be invoked in his case. To say that Love in a Dead Language is a novel John Barth would be happy to claim as his own might begin to convey some of the bawdily intellectual pleasures and ludic stylistic features of this unique hypernarrative.

Two of Siegel's earlier books provide some useful mileposts toward the genesis of Love in a Dead Language. Net of Magic (1991), subtitled "Wonders and Deceptions in India," a captivatingly wry account of Siegel's firsthand investigations among the itinerant street magicians of modern India, inhabits a place as far from dry academic monographs as possible. Boldly and with critical objectivity, Siegel utilizes himself as a character to evoke "the aesthetics of wonder and the psychology of amazement." Skeptical of New Age fascinations, half in love, half repulsed by the gaudy fecundity of the Asian subcontinent, a partisan of rogues and illusions, Siegel renders a vibrant portrait of his subject. His depictions of the eccentrics he encounters are crisp and colorful, his sketching of scenery and history enlivening. Structurally, with its frequent re-startings and perspective shifts, his book exhibits a willingness to grapple with form in pursuit of enlightenment.

The City of Dreadful Night (1995), a full-fledged novel, also features a protagonist named "Lee Siegel," who gradually dissipates during the unreeling of the biography of one Brahm Kathuwala, a vagabond storyteller. In this book, Italo Calvino and Bram Stoker shake hands across the ages, as Siegel commingles the legend of Dracula with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Western modes of horror employed by Stephen King and Clive Barker dance with the charnel-ground spookery of Hindus and Muslims, and the end result is that "borders between different worlds crumble. . . . Real people suddenly become characters . . . characters suddenly [become] real."

In Love in a Dead Language, Siegel pursues this blurring of fiction and reality about as far as such surreal conflations can be pursued, at the same time recounting a rollicking, cockeyed, melancholy May-December "romance" laced with satire and chicanery, academic will-o'-the-wisps and psychosexual speculations.

There are four main characters in Siegel's tale, and one of them is a book. The three humans occupying center stage are Leopold Abraham Roth, professor of Asian Studies at California's "Western University"; Lalita Gupta, one of his undergraduate students; and Anang Saighal, Roth's lone grad student. (Anang's former mentor is one "Lee Siegel," who makes infrequent yet crucial appearances in the story.) The book that serves as a pivot around which these characters and dozens of others will revolve is the Kamasutra. Ostensibly, the University of Chicago Press volume we now hold is Roth's incomplete, heretofore unpublished translation of this Indian erotic classic, fleshed out with Roth's commentary on the ancient text, all assembled posthumously (we learn of Roth's ignominious death through biblio-battering early on) by Anang Saighal. However, because during the last months of his life Roth was wracked by emotional troubles, half-deranged and erotically obsessed with seducing the callow Lalita, a symbol of the India he must conquer, the textual commentary takes the form of a word-drunk ramble across Roth's whole life, right up to his demise.

From the first page, we are plunged into a dense thicket of narrative deceptiveness. Not only does the Kamasutra itself historically feature duelling authors, but Anang's manuscript annotations (a welter of passive-aggressive footnotes) often deny certain scenarios Roth presents as "true." Thus the reader walks a constant tightrope between interpretations, producing a stimulating vertigo. This is all in line, of course, with one of Siegel's overtly acknowledged prose models, Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962), where second-rater Charles Kinbote similarly deconstructed the work of poet John Shade.

The Nabokovian influence extends obviously even further, as fiftyish Roth plays Humbert Humbert to Lalita Gupta's Lolita. But in an inspired move, Siegel gleefully reverses many of Nabokov's equations. Roth, a Caucasian, represents through his love of all things Indian the Old World, while American-born Lalita, genetically exotic, could not be more Western and modern. Moreover, despite Roth's somewhat naive machinations, extending from the Taj Mahal restaurant and Mogul Lounge to the Taj Mahal itself, the sexually experienced and foul-mouthed Lalita eventually trumps his strategies, even while undergoing her own unexpected epiphany.

The ofttimes slapstick tale of Roth's undoing through his misplaced, misconceived affections is certainly emotionally affecting as well as intellectually cunning. As a character, Roth thoroughly engages our attentions on many levels. Stifled sensualist (Leopold Bloom?), Jewish worrywart (Philip Roth?), our fusty, lusty professor sounds at times like he's read too much Kingsley Amis or Anthony Burgess, at others like he's overdosed on Nathanael West or Evelyn Waugh. The supporting players in his life -- Lalita, a Dravidian Christina Ricci; and Anang, a Bengali Ben Stiller -- offer only slightly less depth.

And along the way, Siegel the Swiftian dragonslayer thrusts a few lances down the throats of colonialism and Orientalism, Hollywood fantasies and pop culture idiocies, literary ambition and academic follies. Citations from apocryphal books written in the manner of Ebenezer Cooke's, Barth's Sot-Weed Factor, lend a historical perspective to Roth's travails, establishing that India has continually lured unprepared Westerners to their doom.

But the most astonishing thing about Love in a Dead Language is its ingenious construction. Insofar as any printed volume can lay claim to being a multimedia work, this book earns that distinction. This novel's basic structure -- a passage, often highly relevant to the action, rendered from the Kamasutra, followed by Roth's commentary and Anang's annotations -- is leavened by all sorts of cleverly utilized material: reproductions of newspapers, movie posters, computer screen dumps, mandalas, film scripts, business letters, musical scores, comics, term papers, telephone books, palm-leaf manuscripts, and more. By the time the reader is invited, quite near the book's end, to turn the text upside down to peruse a topsy-turvy chapter, thereby inducing a moment of disorientation as the suddenly inverted book makes the bulk of the story seem yet to come, Siegel's conjurations will have succeeded in utterly fuzzing the tenuous interface between our world and Roth's scented garden of comic carnality.

Excerpt

In my senior year at St. Stephen's, I wrote a prize-winning paper entitled "Love as Game in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy." There were superficial comparisons with the love poetry of Kalidasa, a selection of whose works I, necessarily and desultorily, read in English. When Vikram Bahadur, my only intellectual rival in English literature at St. Stephen's, reported me to the principal for having a copy of Kamasutra in my hostel locker, I evaded expulsion with the inspired explanation that it had been necessary to consult the "normative sastra, not only in order to decode various amorous allusions in Kalidasa, but also to elucidate the mores of the cultural context and literary milieu in which the essential aesthetic sentiment had been realized by the Indian poet." I claimed, furthermore, that I had reason to believe that Sterne, through his relationship with Mrs. Draper, the woman in India whom he called his "Bramine," was acquainted with the Kamasutra.

Bahadur's calumnious treachery against me backfired -- the principal, a witless (and, at least latently, pederastic) Anglo-Indian pedant, punished poor Bahadur for merely knowing what the Kamasutra was. It is a dangerous book.

As a consequence of that essay, I was awarded a scholarship at the East-West Center (a name that, at the time, had fatidic significance to the child of a man from the East and a woman from the West) in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the middle of the ocean, a center far away from anywhere, a place from which America and Asia were peripheral and Europe was antipodal. In packing for the new adventure, I tossed my Kamasutra into a garbage bin together with the only other bits of Sanskrit literature that I had read. . . .

-- From the foreword of Lee Siegel's novel Love in a Dead Language

Paul Di Filippo's latest novel, "Joe's Liver," has just been published.