Anita Desai | Critical Review by Gabriele Annan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 1,154 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Gabriele Annan

SOURCE: "In the Path of the Mother," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4809, June 2, 1995, p. 20.

In the following mixed review of Journey to Ithaca, Annan faults the narrative for being full of "gaps and improbabilities," but praises Desai's sincerity and even-handedness.

Journey to Ithaca is not so much an Odyssey as a quest for an Eastern Holy Grail. Anita Desai sets the Prologue in a garden by Lake Como, where Matteo's young English tutor is introducing him to Eastern mysticism by reading him Hermann Hesse's The Journey to the East. A few years later—it is now 1975—Matteo marries a German girl called Sophie. Both do it to get away from their parents. Matteo is still obsessed with India, so that is where they go, backpacking from one grotty lodging to another, and finally from an austere and unfriendly ashram in a slum to a benign and beautiful one in the Himalayan foothills. There Matteo falls under the spell of the holy Mother, an engaging old woman of unknown origin, wise, formidable, practical, high-spirited and possessed of a mysterious spiritual attraction—an Eastern Saint Teresa.

Sophie is jealous of her, and resents Matteo's absorption in the work and rituals of the ashram. So she walks out with their two small children, dumps them on Matteo's parents in Italy, and sets off to investigate the Mother's provenance and career—presumably intending to discredit her. The theme and structure of the novel remind one of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, in both a young woman of the hippie generation reconstructs the career of another young European woman who fell under the spell of India fifty years before. The story uncovered is told in flashbacks intercut with episodes of the search.

Sophie finds that the Mother grew up in Alexandria after the First World War, the daughter of a French schoolmistress and a Westernized Egyptian academic. As a schoolgirl, Laila fell in with a group of young Islamic anti-imperialists. Drawn by their seriousness and lack of frivolity, she took to wearing a headscarf and attending classes in the Koran. Her parents were horrified and packed her off to her French aunt in Paris. The materialism and silliness of the French family seem overdone, but perhaps we are meant to see them through Laila's eyes. Laila is filled with thirst for spiritual enlightenment, but otherwise she could be the heroine of an Angela Brazil story; headstrong and outspoken, but a real brick at heart. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say she is like the horsey Irish convent girl in Antonia White's Frost In May, a tomboy with charm and a religious vocation.

In Paris, Laila is swept off her feet by the beauty and spirituality of an Indian dance performance. She begs Krishna, the handsome leader of the company, to accept her as a pupil. He carries her off on a tour of Switzerland, Venice and the United States, and in a few weeks Laila becomes so proficient that she replaces the leading lady—which is hard to believe. So is the fact that none of her relatives try to retrieve her. Krishna partners her in glamorous erotic dances, and discourses on the religious nature of Indian dance, and the inseparability of sacred and profane love. He demonstrates his ascetic commitment by refusing meat and alcohol, though not sex. Laila worships him and becomes his mistress. This is implied with unfashionable pudeur. The scales begin to fall from her eyes, though, when she notices how Krishna exploits their Venetian hostess. Far from being the incarnation of spiritual values, he is vain and rapacious. Quite soon he replaces Laila with a very young Indian girl.

In America he sells out to commercial vulgarity by jazzing up the dance programme at the expense of religious content. The tour flops just the same, and the company returns to India. Laila leaves in order to go on with her search for enlightenment. After many vicissitudes she finds a suitable guru and has a mystical experience with daggers of joy piercing her breast: "the pain was so intense I shrieked aloud". The final part of her quest is told in her own words in a little red diary which Sophie discovers in Krishna's possession. Krishna is now a decrepit old man living in a Bombay slum. He can barely remember Laila. It seems odd that he has kept her diary, odder still that Sophie manages to find him. What the diary doesn't explain is exactly how Laila turned into the Mother. Still, Sophie appears to work it out, for her next move is to return to the ashram. She finds it half-abandoned. The Mother is dead, and Matteo has left. No one knows where he has gone.

Sophie's quest has no sleuthing in it, no tension. She doesn't actually search: she just lands outside an apartment block in Alexandria or Bombay, and the relevant flashback begins to roll. A lot of it is background: India, Egypt, Paris, Venice, New York and small-town America are all elaborately evoked, sometimes in vivid, telling detail, sometimes in the language of a travel brochure: the slums tend to come off better than the beauty spots. Either way, the travelogues slow down the story's momentum. And it needs momentum, because the protagonists are flat. Sophie has no characteristics except discontent, Matteo none except wimpishness. The Mother has plenty, but they add up to a recognizable type of holy woman—a Saint Teresa, in fact, down to the mystic dagger through the heart—and they generate a certain conventional story line and vitality.

This is a curiously inept book for a novelist of Desai's experience. The narrative is full of gaps and improbabilities, as well as clichés such as "laughter bubbling up in her throat"; the dialogue is stagey and unconvincing. Still, clumsiness can produce a sense of impatient sincerity and that is what happens here. Journey to Ithaca reads like a book of devotion, a Pilgrim's Progress, or pages from Lives of the Saints. Yet it preaches no particular creed. On the contrary, Desai is even-handed: Islam has much to be said for it; so has Christianity as practiced by devoted, competent missionary nuns and doctors in an Indian hospital; and in Hinduism there are bad ashrams as well as good ones. Her message appears to be set out on the novel's title page in Cavafy's best-known poem, which tells you not to expect "that Ithaca will offer you riches. Ithaca has given you a beautiful voyage. Without her you would never have taken the road."

If this is really what Desai means to say, then the denouement at the end—by far the most effective passage—is even more surprising and inexplicable than it seems at first sight. Back in his grandparents' garden on Lake Como, Sophie and Matteo's little boy has a strange experience; it may or may not be mystical, but either way had better not be revealed in a review.

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This section contains 1,154 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gabriele Annan