“Five movements in praise,” by Sharmistha Mohanty
Sharmistha Mohanty is an exquisite, very original and strong writer. There is nothing given for granted either in her novel or in her single phrases as if the entire design and each passage were the result of a research and a fight against clichés and déjà vu. Among other things, Claudio Magris wrote: “…Sharmistha Mohanty has written an enchanting book, profound and delicate, a book to which I feel particularly close: life as a journey, to discover oneself and others: the journey as an immersion into a different time, into a present that widens out to embrace the world…” I agree with his appreciations about the author and the book; I partially agree with the definition of a journey: her book is a journey, of course, as every book is. However, not only “Five movements in praise” is a strange path of the soul that Sharmistha Mohanty faces, something that differentiates it from many other authors, each one in search of himself. Not only the plot, if I can speak about a plot in the literary term of the word, is a unicum. But essentially, the continuous perception of nature, the dialogues with light and shadows, the people that materialize from the depths of the spirit, the discovery of minute things and universal ingredients, a stone as well as an act of gratuitous cruelty, the memories and the visions, the extreme care of the language, all that designs a rarefied account or rather a distant atmosphere that is an account in itself. I think we have to speak about a process of disaggregation and then of rebuilding to reach a new spiritual feature, a higher level of literature.
Is it a journey? There are many layers in the book, or rather many stairs to climb, and I think that the metaphor of the journey is only one you can use, perhaps the most visible – also because the narrator is a traveler. “The traveler is not in search of adventure, the wilderness, endless cities. His travels are impelled by an extreme necessity, the need to save his life, from the inside out. The body has never been in peril, but his life, his life has…”
The first feature of the first chapter of the book, Town, which strikes me, is a sort of isolation of the narrator. The narrator is alone, and this sentiment is more rare that I could imagine. There is a strange voice that resounds throughout the scenes as if the narrator spoke in a desert volume. You see niches, rooms and escape routes, and horizons and figures and stories, each one sculpted in a vivid, unique substance. However, the narrator is lost in some existential quarantine. The narrator is alone. Maybe for this reason, the nature is so important in this book, so invasive even.
Reading the first pages I was shocked by the sudden vision, in my mind, of the famous painting “In vedetta”, by Giovanni Fattori, a masterpiece of the school of the Macchiaioli, of the second half of the nineteenth century, also called Il muro bianco, the white wall. There is a sense of lack of contact, I’d say, that is more strong that the feeling of exile or loneliness. Also, the Macchiaioli did their works mainly outdoors – and Sharmistha Mohanty’s piece is an outdoor one too, aimed to capture light, shade, and hidden tonalities to build something more ethereal and complicated.
Giovanni Fattori got to draw the distance of the time, the quality of being remote, and I think that Sharmistha Mohanty expresses the same quality in her words, putting the narrator in the face of an astonishing panorama, a “white wall” that reflects our abandonment.
The narrator is “in vedetta”, on watch, a kind of detached but vigilant move, and is able not only to absorb the external inputs, but to act on them like an active camera, never as a mirror. The white wall is in the end one of his creations, as well the catching light and the sense of anticipation, of suspension.
I said that the isolation of the narrator is more rare that I could believe, correct, because I was used to measuring the sentiments by using a Mediterranean metre, my one, and here the narrator shows a sensibility that remind me of Asian music and mantra and prayers, something that I understand but doesn’t belong to my genes. And so, also the remoteness seems deeper.
After the first chapter, I remained thoughtful, even disconcerted. Sharmistha Mohanty broke the usual format and structure of a novel, bringing me in a construction I didn’t imagine. Among other things, Tim Parks wrote: “…Sharmistha Mohanty is remarkable above all for her determination to shift narrative away from the easy urgency of Western fiction towards a text that hovers between the contemplative and the hypnotic, sculpting extended landscapes of feeling from the quiet friction between realism and myth…”
I endorse the smart concept of “easy urgency” if it is related to the general North American literature of today, not to the entire Western (?) fiction, of course. By the way, the South American literature, and I’m thinking for example of Gabriel García Marquez, is far away from an easy urgency and cross another process of deconstruction of fiction between realism and myth. Or Ángeles Mastretta, a Mexican, who filters her stories with a fine material of pity and charitas – just to say another reference. However, perhaps only André Gide reached the same effect of Sharmistha Mohanty in deconstructing novels, cancelling standard rules (yes, I know, who made the rules?) and manufacturing an own mould to create new bricks.
It is important how and not what, and Sharmistha Mohanty shapes her own process with a delicate touch, sure, and with a rigid command. I sense a hard work of discernment, discrimination, and refinement, and how her form becomes substance capturing solidity and body and mass from the shrinking of the account itself, from the essentiality of the expressions. This is strange only at a superficial reading: from her continuous scrutiny, the heart of the single paragraph, slim, quintessential, minute, emerges stronger and solider, since the systematic subtraction adds substance and weight.
And for me this is Sharmistha Mohanty’s best gift, a rare feature.
There are steep stairs in “Five Movements of Praise,” as I said. The second chapter, Forest, is more liquid. At first and in the end, the account is set in a wood that is a painted forest “…So he begins to walk through the dark blue night between the tamal trees, each one of which is curved in a different direction…” but it seems to me that Sharmistha Mohanty’s effort to break space and time – in this chapter she wrecks the account as if it was a nut, finding a new shining core – floats in a superficially quiet but hidden stream. More than a wood I see a river, and I feel new fears, phobias and losses. The narrator is not alone anymore but surrounded by apparitions. There are voices that never existed; a sort of nostalgia for something dreamt, searched in vain, strongly wanted. I feel that the current is strong under the surface, and I wonder why the water is so dark.
This part is wait and anticipation, full of presences that fill the volume. The undertow is going to provoke another reaction, I know, and a strange suspense drifts while, in my mind, other pictures, maybe old drawings take substance, still incapable to emerge.
The third chapter, City, is a description, suffered, bottomless, and stunning of the darkness, so I perceive it. Here, the author has a black, soft pencil in hand and designs a texture of lines to obtain corners, intersections and mainly shadows. The framework is going to take its shape, but a premonition still remains strong, heavy. And so, like a form of liberation, in the following two chapters, Caves, Landscapes, the revelations blow. The story takes off in another magical way, exploding but at the same time shrinking in itself like a painful, definitive reflexion. I found the best pages of the book here, when Sharmistha Mohanty seems to abandon her strict command – but actually everything in the writing is under control – to close the eyes and follow her sentiments. “A dead mother, not loving, not loved, appears one day in the mirror in my own body. Not in shape or feature, because we don’t resemble one another. She appears only in the flow of blood and the posture of muscle behind the raised eyes as I look at my reflection in passing…” Here, when Sharmistha Mohanty moves out and becomes visible, when the traveler is only an avatar, there is the peak of the book. Eventually, she speaks with me, and in my imagination, in my culture, this is the goal and the result of the entire process of this mystic recipe, even though music and conclusions are ‘Asiatic’ again, no doubt.
Now, I think how much Asia is big and deep – who am I in front of such immensity, this flow of thousands of worlds?
How much Sharmistha Mohanty is part of a part of Asia.
How much this book is an extraordinary gate for a traveler like me, a school, a filter, and a warning shout too.
And finally the images that I had in mind, hidden, buried, emerge and I see the prints “Imaginary Prisons” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 1778) that show mental constructions of enormous subterranean vaults with black stairs and threatening machines. His visions are hypnotic, mesmeric, and capable of great fascination for Romantic writers. Giovanni Battista Piranesi drew his tortuous and impenetrable prisons in the meantime trying to find a way-out, an existential answer. And finally, yes, I think “Five movements in praise” is a construction, the design of the author’s own jail, and at the same time the search for an escape, for a key.
I’m not searching for “an immense night, continuous with the universe” and I don’t believe in a kind of religious harmony during our existence. I prefer the imprecision of love (I wish a Kierkegaard-like love as the key for my next life) and the energy of the feelings of hate and revenge more than immobility – at the end of the day I’m a Mediterranean animal, I know. But also for me, for a foreign traveler, “Five movements in praise” represents a turning point in my literary education, and a steep climb towards high and rare literature.
A dream you cannot miss if you want to break free from the widespread, impolite fiction of today. An emotional example of art of writing, a Pamuk-like calligraphy.
Thank you, Sharmistha.
“Sharmistha Mohanty is the author of two previous works of fiction – Book One and New Life. She has also translated a selection of Tagore’s fictional work. Mohanty is founder-editor of the online journal Almost Island and the initiator of the Almost Island Dialogues, an annual international writers meet held in New Delhi. She is on the International Faculty of the Creative Writing MFA programme at the City University of Hong Kong.”