The novel has a structure, and it's important, but it's really the language, the crazy, extravagant language, that makes it memorable. The story is this: H. Haterr is a Eurasian, the son of an European merchant seaman and a Malaysian mother. He's taken by his father to India at one year old, his father dies shortly, and he's raised in India by a do-gooder Scotch Presbyterian. We get all that information, and more, in the first three pages. But H. Haterr ends up rejecting his Christian, European heritage and seeks out Indian wisdom.
In fact he apprentices himself to seven Indian sages, and each of the seven chapters has Instruction from the sage, with each sage in a different city, a Presumption, which characterizes the wisdom of the sage, and a Life-Encounter, which is an event that follows from Haterr's meeting the sage, generally involving his friend Banerrji.
The sages that Haterr encounters are all frauds in one way or another, but that doesn't stop him from seeking out the wisdom of another--and another--and another.
From the Instruction of the last sage, the Sage of All-India:
Satiated, said the Sage to the disciple, "Ask what thou wilt, my son. My heart is exceeding glad upon thy humility, thy selfless service. Know, thou hast served me for two years this Thursday. Thou hast served me well, dear one. The auspicious moment for rewarding thee has come."
"O mightiest of all the Sages," said the disciple, going down on his knees. "I am ignorant. I have no learning. I beg of thee a boon, liege! Give me, Sire, one instruction, one mighty aphorism, which thou knowest to be the best, the wisest of all the lore which befalls from gods on unworthy humans."
"Verily, my son, the aphorism of all the aphorisms, the doctrine of all the doctrines, the rune of all the runes, the Hinduism of all the Hinduisms, the mantra-supreme, and the reward for thy two years' labour is now uttered as follows: Abscond from charlatans and deceivers as thou wouldst from venomous snakes!"This is advice that H. Haterr needs to hear, but the messenger is perhaps not the one who should be delivering it.
But that quote may give the wrong impression, though. There are definitely other passages of mock-theological, but then there are also things like this:
Maybe, I am judging good and bad from my own sweet experience; by the standard how pro or anti myself an experience, a country, or a feller has been.
You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours--you first! Not give and take strictly; but take first, then give.
Maybe, I am a victim of the pleasure principle.
But a feller has got to measure things by the scale of pleasantness and unpleasantness...This is much more like the way H. Haterr discusses philosophy.
Despite the weirdness of the language, it's easy reading; the adventures are extravagant; and H. Haterr's quest for wisdom is engaging in its comic way. Is it a masterpiece? Despite the blurbs, probably not. But there's nothing else quite like it, and it's fun.
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