Sex, Stalin, Satire, Satan and Jesus
'A Secret History Of Compassion' is a mind-blowing read illuminated by the amazing creative energy and craft of Paul Zacharia, who makes a memorable debut as a novelist in English with this. A satire in imaginative prose, the book makes fun of everything that humans believe in: Communism to Capitalism, Stalin to Satan, Godmen to God and Fiction to Thought.
The protagonist of the novel, Lord Spider, is being asked by the Communist party to pen an essay for their souvenir intended to raise funds for destitute comrades. As a pop novelist with dozens of titles to his name, the paranoiac author finds the transition to non-fiction very unsettling. That too, to write a piece on Compassion! He has a deadline to meet; he seeks the advice of his wife Rosi, a freelance philosopher. She advises him that he has to penetrate the Communist philosophy of lovemaking, a "mystery cult" said to have been founded by Joseph Stalin. Rosi says, "lovemaking is essentially fiction. So by positing lovemaking as a turning point towards non-fiction, you are barking up the wrong tree altogether."
As author grapples with the essay, Jesus Lambodaran Pillai, a relative of Jesus enters the story. He is a hangman and a wannabe fiction writer; he happily agrees to collaborate with Spider on completing his essay. There the fun starts. JL Pillai is a shape-shifter who roams the world in the shape of a bat and claims to be a 'meditative voyeur'. In meditative voyeurism, Pillai says, "we transcend into a consciousness that may be called the Witness of the Universe."
Well, as the genius of a writer, a fellow traveller of Communism who hates romantic stuff and loves realism, and the Witness join hands to write a non fiction on Compassion, the readers are taken on a roller coaster ride. The irreverence with which the author demolishes revered myths and institutions is just astonishing. His fanciful tales brutally unmask the underbelly of the hypocrisy of the world we inhabit and the dishonesty and deception we use to navigate through our daily lives.
Here is a quote from the essay completed by Spider and JL Pillai: " Imagine, if you can, a time when politics is so compassionate that politicians abolish elections so as not to disturb public life!" When Pillai repeats a mundane activity several times during a narration, Spider angrily responds thus: "there is always a limit to the reality one can accommodate. what we need to do is to negotiate with reality in unreal ways to make it user friendly." Yes, in our times everything, including Truth, must be user friendly!
The author is unsparing in his attack on the media and Communism. Spiders' wife Rosi reads dailies a week later, as "it makes news flat, insignificant and toothless." In another episode, a death row convict tells the executioner before his hanging that he learnt about his crime through newspapers, which put him on trial and convicted him. He laments that newsmakers chose him and so did the judge!
The essay throws light on some aspects that we were not aware of: that it is not in the nature of Capitalism to part wealth without profit or dispatch a tender feeling without a price tag and that wealth is inseparable from evolution. It says that "biology does not root for genes that have no purse strings!"
The episode yours truly liked best was the 'enactment of death', as described by Lord Spider. It is just unmissable: I haven't come across anything as exciting and hilarious as this incident from the life of Spider, when he had gone to witness a film shooting accompanied by his stud bull Tarzan. The journey to the Valley of Lost Songs, "a valley in the eastern mountains where, on certain nights, forgotten songs gather and share memories," is so beautiful that the camouflage of satire vanishes behind the hills.
At times, especially when Spider speaks of his youth,it seems the novelist himself is the protagonist. Zacharia peels the outer layers of our miserable daily lives and cuts them open without Compassion and shows us what lies within. The procedure is brutal, but enjoyable. The only problem is that the author seems narcissistic at times and gets carried away and loses himself. The novel could have been trimmer, I feel. But, as a political satire, 'A Secret History of Compassion' is brilliant. Never was destruction so beautiful, deconstruction this romantic and satire so charming!