I have been shamelessly procrastinating for quite a while now and have avoided writing this review, figuring that I’ve had many more “pressing things” to do – for the very simple reason that this is one of those books that are certainly not “easy”. As such it has called for quite a bit of pondering, because writing a hasty review would have not done it any justice. Let me start by typing a few words about Rick Harsch first. In fact, I’ll just pilfer a bit of my own text from the review of Harsch’s Arjun and the Good Snake that I wrote a couple of months ago.
Once upon a time, Rick Harsch was well on his way to becoming internationally renowned for his traditionally-published and widely acclaimed “Driftless Trilogy” (The Driftless Zone, Billy Verite, and The Sleep of Aborigines), which has also been translated into French and made its way into the curriculum of the somewhat obscure University of Tasmania (as Rick defines it in Snake, “the intellectual center of the only block of land to exterminate all its aboriginals“). However – rather unsurprisingly, if you know what an onerous conundrum of uncalled-for incidents tends to surround Rick most of the time – due to an extremely unfortunate sequence of events, including but not limited to the vastly premature death of his Hollywood agent, a bitter though hilarious (to an external observer) dispute with his subsequent literary agent, the bankruptcy of his French publisher and other similarly torturous circumstances, Rick Harsch’s tenacious infiltration of the world literary canon has been on a rather involuntary and undeserved hiatus of late. The infamous downward spiral of the traditional publishing industry that has got out of control after the advent of e-readers has only further complicated Rick’s theretofore cunning world-domination scheme.
In light of all of the above, Rick has recently decided to join the indie author tribe, and I’m helping him out by formatting his books for e-readers. Arjun and the Good Snake was the first book of his to be re-released as an e-book, in a series of others that should follow shortly. The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman was the second e-book to be published, and I’m almost done with three more, which should be out soon. Appearance goes together with Snake and represents the second half of Rick’s Indian Duology, or however he may refer to the pair of novels. Like in Snake, in Appearance he once again focuses on India; on, as he puts it himself in his description of the book, “…the spaces where love and delusion, myth and existence weave sinuously, rhapsodically, through the Indian world.”
The resulting “love story” is an extraordinarily poetic and meticulously thought-out narrative, describing a pilgrimage of an US American man through India in an attempt to overcome the dark forces (mundane as well as otherworldly, even demonic) that would prevent his reunion with his Indian love. However clear and relatively simple this basic plot may seem when you “boil it down” like this, Rick’s writing is, of course, not nearly as straightforward. What starts out as a tale of love in the face of culturally-related obstacles (with the traditional Indian family opposing their daughter’s relationship with a Pisaka, eater of dead flesh, as the girl’s mother refers to the narrator) soon develops into a feverish, phantasmagoric journey of a man-out-of-place through the unknowable intricacies of Indian history and myth. The pilgrimage itself may or not be real, and on his path the narrator is derailed by “suspicious” characters, assailed by demons, and drawn into “the foul game” (as one of the characters refers to it, and which involves a horrendous case of dysentery). Soon the story takes on a somewhat magic-realist dimension that makes it difficult to separate reality from delusions. After darker and darker turns the story culminates in a feverish monologue of the narrator whose pilgrimage has, apparently, not succeeded quite as he has imagined – or has it? Perhaps what really happens is that he finally succumbs to the demon Theengu Karuppu, as he suspected he would (and was warned about it)?
The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman is the sixth book by Harsch I’ve read, and such “uncertainty” with regard to his writing, resulting from the frequent “phantasmal” passage, seems to be his modus operandi: it’s simply something one comes to terms with and learns to love, or one doesn’t. When reading Appearance one should also be prepared to tolerate the frustration one might feel (if one is not exactly an expert in India) by all the Indian names, places, Tamil and Hindi words and concepts, and especially Indian mythology, which Rick, naturally, rarely bothers to explain (such “India-for-dummies” explanations would not have any place in a narrative like this, anyway). Rather than resorting to googling all of this one can also do oneself a favour and just remain relatively ignorant – as far as I’m concerned, one doesn’t have to know exactly what is going on to appreciate the story.
What I mean to say is, if you happen to be one of those readers who like their books clear, to the point, and lacking any digressions and seemingly gratuitous “asides”, you would probably do yourself a favour by staying away from Harsch’s Appearance (and probably Snake as well). However, if you can appreciate a random hint of obscurity and see value in an occasional internal monologue and cryptic passage, this is for you – especially if you can relish the exquisite “prose poetry” language that Appearance has to offer.