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Roberto Calasso: La rovina di Kasch (The Ruin of Kasch)

I am not sure that this is a novel but no matter. It is a very fine book that uses novelistic means to rove over the history of the last 200 plus years. As Calvino put it La rovina di Kasch tratta di due argomenti: il primo è Talleyrand, il secondo è tutto il resto [The Ruin of Kasch has two subjects: the first is Talleyrand and the second everything else]. Calasso himself has explained both the title and what the book is about. The title The Ruin of Kasch refers to an African legend of Sudan, recorded by the great anthropologist, Leo Frobenius, as it was narrated to him by an unknown camel driver in 1911. The legend is about an ancient kingdom which was based on the periodical sacrifice of the king, decided by the priests in relation to the positions of certain stars in the sky. One day, a stranger coming from the East – which implies coming from the Indian Ocean and possibly being himself and Indian – appears in this kingdom. His name is Far-li-mas and he is a great story-teller. The power of his stories is so overwhelming that the priests forget to look at the sky in order to decide when it’s the right moment to sacrifice the king. So their regime is overturned and a new era starts, when there will be no more sacrifices of the king. But this era too doesn’t last long, because some envious neighbours invade the kingdom of Kasch and make the new regime collapse. So this is the ruin of Kasch. As for the subject, he says it is a sort of discontinuous narrative centred on various episodes going roughly from the years of the French Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War and further, up to today.

This book has received decidedly mixed reviews. Those who are expecting either a conventional history book or a conventional novel or, indeed, a conventional book on myths, are in for a nasty shock. It is none of these and all of these. Talleyrand is the link between the old way and the new way. He was also, of course, the ultimate survivor, loyal to whatever regime was in power, be it extreme Left, extreme Right or something in-between. The key theme, as the legend of Kasch shows, is the lack of sacrifice in the modern world. Sacrifice had many roles. It was, first of all, an obligation because we were tied to a ritual. Now, in the modern, post-French Revolution world, we have no obligations, no rituals and our lords and masters are free to do what they want. Recent events have, of course, confirmed this view. Calasso tracks Talleyrand but also shows an incredible amount of learning, throwing in stories, lessons learned, philosophical speculations, his own take on known and unknown events, myths, particularly the Vedic ones, and a vast amount of history. A spate of characters – from Max Stirner (essential reading for anyone interested in anarchism) to Joseph de Maistre, a father of modern conservative thought – populates the pages of this work. Whether it is novel, history, philosophy or anything else, this work is an essential text for anyone wishing to understand the modern world and its antecedents.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Adelphi
First published in English 1994 by Belknap Press/Harvard University Press