POWERHOUSE MALAYALAM writer Paul Zacharia’s new novel, A Secret History of Compassion, crackles with trademark black humour, irreverence for all things institutional— ranging from the Communist Party to the Catholic church and everything in between, and the author’s engaging, abiding intellectual curiosity. Zacharia’s first foray into English—and into the realm of the novel—is a welcome addition to his impressive body of work, which includes numerous short stories, essays, and novellas.
Why a novel after all this time? Why English? Zacharia has been patiently fielding both questions in interviews. He has talked about his initial concerns about dealing with the complexities of the novelistic form, as well as the joy of finding his footing thanks to the power of the imagination. As for English, he finds it as “intimate” a language as Malayalam. He has been writing in Malayalam for 55 years and has grown up with English since his adolescence. This interface has been crucial to his evolution as a writer.
Choosing to write A Secret History of Compassion in English, he felt free to be inventive and write openly about many aspects of the human condition, including sex. He has no plans to translate the novel into Malayalam. He doubts if “the humour and the sexuality” will translate well, since Malayalam has a way of “demeaning sex” and conservative Malayali society lacks the vocabulary to talk about desire in all its messed up glory and complexity.
A Secret History of Compassion revolves around Lord Spider, a somewhat delusional writer of popular fiction; Rosi, freelance philosopher and Spider’s better half; and JL Pillai, shape-shifting executioner, aspiring writer, and voyeur. The novel’s title is also the title of an essay a harried Spider is trying to put together for a Communist Party souvenir. Rosi and Pillai volunteer to be his partners in crime as he struggles to write the essay and make the leap from fiction to non-fiction in a post-truth world. The cast of characters also includes eminences such as Stalin, Satan, Jesus in his 37th incarnation, a Gandhi lookalike, God herself, and in-house cynic Brother Dog, Tarzan the stud bull whose style is ‘tough, yet full of sophisticated insights,’ and Pretty Man, the snake-father.
The plot, which couldn’t care less about the ‘beginning, middle, and end’ golden rule, gallops on, taking strange twists and turns, veering off on unexpected tangents, merrily looping in and out of time like a trippy philosopher on hallucinogens, spilling secret histories, resurrecting childhood memories, introspecting, doubting, probing, and marvelling at the mysteries of Marxism, divinity, celebrity, history, human existence and the true nature of compassion. The zigzag trajectory makes for a thrilling rollercoaster ride. Startling flashes of insight and generous doses of black humour add to the narrative’s eccentric charm.
Zacharia’s prose is spare and chiselled. As in his short fiction, he expresses complex ideas in deceptively simple sentences. The dialogue too is light-footed and written for the ear. Conversations among the characters— whether about profound matters like the weight of human desire and the vulnerability of philosophers to ‘small pleasures of the flesh’, or more mundane affairs like breakfast and fried fish—have the rhythm and verve to keep the reader hooked.
Sample this: ‘What happens when the spirit rises up?’ Spider asked. ‘Is there a limit as to how high it can go?’
‘Sir, height does not play a part here. The spirit rises to the occasion of listening to something revolutionary, free from the interference of the nether portions.’
‘Perhaps I should,’ Spider added, ‘learn the posture from you so that I can improve the way I listen to my wife.’
Barring a few tropes—the pushy mother trying to seduce the famous writer with her starlet daughter’s physical charms, Rosi as eternal temptress (echoes of Eve and the original sin?) —A Secret History of Compassion is a wickedly inventive, challenging and engaging work of fiction by a contemporary master.