Anita Desai | Critical Review by Richard Bernstein

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 1,030 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Richard Bernstein

SOURCE: "Spiritual Quest Discovers a Reality Only Too Real," in The New York Times, August 30, 1995, p. B2.

In the generally positive review below, Bernstein comments on plot, themes, and characterization in Journey to Ithaca.

The search for meaning, or, as one of the spiritual insurgents in Anita Desai's new novel puts it, for the Divine Visage, can tear life to shreds. It makes people blind to others, contemptuous of mere reality. And yet, of course, those deranged by their quest for the Light dwell in a glow of heroism and purity. When the Buddha sat for 40 days and 40 nights under the bodhi tree he was not tending to household chores. We envy the spiritual searchers and we worship them, even as we find them vaguely disreputable.

Journey to Ithaca, Anita Desai's 10th novel and her first since the celebrated Baumgartner's Bombay, is a kind of love triangle set against the madness of extreme spiritual searching. Like Ms. Desai's other novels, it is also about India, a bewildering territory of degradation and dreams where foreigners especially (and all three people in this triangle are foreigners) can feel either utterly alien or at home. Indeed, while some may be captivated by the promise of a Higher Truth, others are so repulsed by the political and economic reality that they regard searching for Truth in India as a form of self-delusion, a solipsism of the perplexed.

And thus does Sophie, the German wife of a wandering, intelligent, soulful, selfish Italian named Matteo, find herself in the grip of somebody else's Indian obsession. Journey to Ithaca opens with Sophie accompanying Matteo, who has fallen ill, to the hospital. Sophie wants to go home, to Europe and to a kind of bourgeois sanity, but Matteo, at least in her view, has become a slave to the third figure of the triangle, a wizened, elderly, charismatic guru known as the Mother. In a series of brief, dense passages, Ms. Desai fills in the story of all three characters, then projects forward as Sophie's and Matteo's comprehensive and exclusive visions head toward their climactic clash.

As always, Ms. Desai writes with intelligence and power. She has a remarkable eye for substance, the things that give life its texture. Nothing escapes her power of observation, not the thickness of the drapes that blot out the light in a bourgeois Parisian home, or the enamel bowl in the office of an Indian doctor. Sophie, smart and disillusioned and loyal, is finely and powerfully drawn. She is a young woman who "gets it," far more-so than her spiritually avid husband or her materialistic parents or the guru who has taken her Matteo away from her. Like Ms. Desai herself, she sees everything, the delusions that surround her and their causes.

Still, Ms. Desai's new book is a mixed blessing. It is wise and observant yet overwrought, edging into grandiloquence and improbability, the emotional drama artificially thickened by images and metaphors that are inflated and not especially fresh. People rarely just speak in Ms. Desai's world, but they frequently "hiss." Eyes are always "flashing," or they are "gleaming" at "treasures" or "feasting" on beauty. Crickets are roused to "audible ecstasy," newspaper headlines, even not very sensational ones, "scream," Sophie "explodes into a giggle," and after an Indian dancer and charlatan becomes annoyed, "a storm cloud" settles "low on his brow."

At the very end of Ms. Desai's story, Sophie, having rather improbably traveled to five cities on four continents to investigate the Mother's background, is asked what she learned. "Nothing much," she says. It is not so much a factual statement as one of despair and fatigue, a philosophical recognition that it doesn't really matter anyway. But the question that always lurks behind the spiritual travails of Ms. Desai's characters, more self-indulgent than deep, is: What do they really amount to? The answer is: more than "nothing much" but not enough to be intellectually sustaining either.

Matteo, the child of a well-off family in idyllic Bellagio, failed at the things other boys did, like sports and school. He is a sulky young man who retreats into isolation. "His entire presence seemed made up of his silence," Ms. Desai writes, until his private English tutor introduces him to poetry and a spiritual search. Together, they read Herman Hesse's Journey to the East and Siddhartha, very dangerous books. And when Matteo meets Sophie, the daughter of a German banker who, visits his house in Bellagio, he marries her and takes her to India.

There, in the most gripping passages in Ms. Desai's story, the two plunge into incompatible worlds. For Matteo, the idea is "to understand India, and the mystery that is at the heart of India." "I have found it," Sophie says mordantly. "At its heart is a dead child. A dead child, Matteo." Matteo replies: "And why is it the dead child? Why not the temple?"

The temple, or, more correctly, the ashram that they find after some experiments with urban squalor, is in the hills, presided over by the Mother, whom Matteo worships and whom Sophie sees as "a monster spider who had spun this web to catch these silly flies." In the last 100 pages or so of Journey to Ithaca, Sophie sets out to discover exactly who the Mother is, wanting to regain Matteo's affection by proving to him that she is a fraud. What she learns is that the Mother began just like Matteo, only she was stronger and more entrepreneurial. She was once a young woman from Egypt in whom a greed for the spirit blended so closely with megalomania that the two become indistinguishable.

Ms. Desai's portrait of the guru as a young woman was inspired, it would seem from the acknowledgments, by the life of a real person. The Mother represents an alternative path to the alternative world needed by wealthy kids like Matteo, with that world in turn represented by India. She emerges in a rich, slightly overblown portrait that sticks in the mind, if only because all of us at one time or another have been tempted to journey toward "Cosmic Infinity," even if most of us are wise enough not to take the trip.

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This section contains 1,030 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Richard Bernstein
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