Today, I am here with a book review by Bibek Adhikari on Peter J. Karthak’s novel Kathmandruids.
Monomyths and meany-myths of Kathmandu
– Bibek Adhikari
Peter J. Karthak’s experimental Kathmandruids challenges the conventional method of telling a story that is prevalent in the Nepali fictional milieu.
A short story of eleven thousand words—even though short stories are mostly below that word limit—gets turned into a humongous book: Kathmandruids, Peter J Karthak’s latest delivery, which is half-fiction, half-nonfiction.
Citing Gao Xingjian in the epigraph, Karthak presents his take on how novels should work, as if to justify his decision to merge the worlds of fiction and nonfiction. He writes that fiction is, in fact, made up of “travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, jottings, unrhetorical discussions, unfable-like fables, some folk songs, your own legend-like nonsense”—all put together in a single bowl, or rather violently yoked together in a glamorous fashion. Yet, the very entropy of ideas makes the novel a supremely experimental one.
Karthak’s latest novel relies heavily upon its structure. Written in twenty parts with five Nepal Mandalas—polemical writings about the history of the country and its people—the book draws back its influence upon the circular journey of a monomyth, the archetypal hero. The hero goes on an adventure, struggles against many decisive disasters, is victorious, and returns home transformed. That is the basic premise of the 1871’s Joseph Campbell’s concept of a monomyth, which was heavily influenced by Carl Jung’s view of myth and collective unconsciousness. Contrasting that idea of the monomyths, meanymyths (a neologistic term) takes on minor characters, mostly flat and static, who do not learn any valuable lessons throughout the hero’s journey, nonetheless act as foils, deepening the former’s character traits and dimensions.
The four major monomyths of the novel, Kathmandruids, are Birendra Bahadur Shahi, Delight Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah-Rana, Purushottam Prasad Pundit, and Maina Devi Pundit. Birendra is the supreme godfather of Nepal, the so-called social equaliser, who has a knack for bypassing laws and minting money out of his criminal deeds. Delight is the founder principal of Delight Academy Nepal (DAN), and she pulls together all the acts in the book. Purushottam, the antagonist, on the other hand, is the secretary of the then His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, who keeps freeloading on the spoils of his official positions. His wife, Maina, likewise, always grubs on and gulps down the very spoils brought home by her husband. All these principal characters go on a cyclical journey, at times supporting one another, at others challenging and tempting each other. They all hit rock bottom, go through a metaphorical abyss (death and rebirth) and come out of it transformed, even atoned. Towards the end of the book, they seem to bring the ‘gift of goodness’ to the world, thus completing a full cycle.
The novel can be compared to Homer’s Odyssey or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Both these epics begin with the start of the hero’s journey of adventure. Kathmandruids, however, begins at the very beginning, with one of the main characters, Birendra, pooping. What follows afterward is several pages of a sermon on peeing and pooping. Since the novel begins with toiletry, it reads like a mock-epic, scorning at the convention. The scatological chapter then leads to the character’s daily routine—from jogging to love-making. The readers also get to learn about the daily habits of the other three prime characters. But the palpable joy of being transported to the realm of fiction gets interrupted by seminal articles—of the Nepali mandalas—and the reader might be left exasperating, and wishing to stay more about the fictional world than dwell in the boulevards of scholarly articles.
There’s one of the reasons why the author chooses the work to be called a double-helical novel. The two strands of fiction and non-fiction stand as a pair of parallel helices intertwined about a common axis—the backdrop of Kathmandu valley. This beautiful yet uncommon imagery combines the made-up world and its characters to the fact and factoids about the landscape and its real people. The non-fiction part, however, tries too hard to be pedantic at times. Narrated by an alter-ego-like mouthpiece, Swarna Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana (once an A-class Rana, now a spiritual seeker, a yogi, a sanyasi, who travels around the world, preaching peace and love), these chapters on the history of Kathmandu valley tells a lot but shows very little. The essays range from commentaries on the Mahabharata to the Medieval Monomyths of Asta Aju of Tham Bahil to Araniko of Patan to the Major Modern Monomyths like Ram Bahadur Limbu, the first Nepali to win a Victoria Cross.
The question this book raises is this: can fiction and nonfiction in Kathmandruids merge? Unlike Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence, they look like separate works of art. Apart from the fact that the narrator appears in one of the Nepal Mandalas when he submits his manuscript to Swarna Rana, there is no strong link between the two strands. As prophesied by the author in Part 19 of the novel, they do not coalesce; they just disappear. That means one can read the fiction section of the book separately, or they can read the non-fiction first, and then go back to fiction afterward. This kind of loose connection makes the book suitable for multiple readings.
One of the major flaws in the narrative arc of the double-helical novel, however, is the author’s penchant for repetition. The descriptive passages about the four major monomyths are repeated to such an extent that readers cannot help but yawn at such clumsy redundancy. Unlike the author’s proclamation that “the repeating comes with fresh and timely contexts,” they add very little to the story. Another major flaw can be traced back to the age-old axiom of writing: show, don’t tell. The writer seems to be telling a lot of stories beforehand rather than showing them to the readers in vivid detail. At one point, the readers may even feel that the writer is guiding them event by event. The problem of enumeration can be another major flaw. Instead of using the standard three parts or four parts list, the writer uses a paragraph-long list, enumerating all the possible options, leaving little room for the readers to ponder over.
Alliteration seems to be writer’s forte. From the name of the characters to the name of the chapters, Karthak enjoys playing with language. His mastery over the English language makes him a stylist of some sort. The way he writes, paying special attention to the sounds and rhythm, is what makes the book an interesting read. Another positive (or could it be negative?) quality about the book is that it is charged with such libidinal energy that one cannot ignore it while reading. Birendra, the protagonist, always keeps thinking about sex. Maina and her kitty-party partners also talk about sex quite openly, describing their husbands’ penises and their fascination with sex-toys without any hesitation. Even the descriptive part of the book is cloaked under the shadow of sexual feelings and misgivings. For the narrator, radishes are like “elephants’ phalluses” while cabbages are “huge as Jayne Mansfield’s breasts.” This burst of sensual details adds layers and carnal flavours to the work.
If one can ignore the amount of repetition and the problem of enumeration, the fictional world of Kathmandruids is an enjoyable one. If one is looking for a book that provides a snapshot of the history of Kathmandu valley, the non-fictional part of Kathmandruids is the right choice. But if one is looking for a rich fictional experience coupled with seminal factoids, one might be at a loss. No matter the errors, the ‘everything novel’ is a thought-provoking experimental yarn that challenges the conventional and orthodox method of telling a story that is so very prevalent in the Nepali fictional milieu.
The review was originally published in Kathmandu Post, 24 August 2019.
Presented by Dr Sangita Swechcha
Dr Sangita Swechcha is a Communications Professional, Researcher, and a Fiction writer. She has over 15 years of experience in international communications and media relations. She is a Guest Editor for Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI) and coordinating ‘Nepali Literature month’ – November 2019. She is a novelist and a writer who has written a novel ‘Pakhalieko Siundo’, a joint collection of stories ‘Asahamatika Pailaharu’ and a collection of short stories ‘Gulafsangako Prem’ in Nepali.
Forthcoming in English translations in 2020 in e-book formats first: A novel ‘Pakhalieko Siundo’ and a collection of short stories ‘Gulafsangako Prem’, titled in English as ‘The Rose: An Unusual Love Story’ (looking for international publisher/s for publishing print versions of these books). Her twitter handle: @SangyShrestha. Email: email@example.com Connect on Facebook.