A Rite for a Dead Man
U. R. Ananthamurthy
A. R. Ramanujan, Translator

(NYRB Classics)
If you are interested in the intricacies of Indian Brahmin law, then this is your meat. Mind you, the subtitle is A Rite for a Dead Man, but it would have been much better titled Searching for a Way to Bury a Dratted Miscreant.

Naranappa was a lousy follower of his religion, and can not be treated to a respectable burial, as would be performed for the more respectable. He hung about with Muslims, took on a young lover, and lived off the fish taken from the sacred river without permission.

Praneschacharya - - - a respected village elder, a master of Vedic learning - - - has been charged with finding the way to bury him without discrediting the ethics of the village. But it is a tough call, and he wanders about for days as the body grows more ripe in the house of the one who strayed from the path. And when Praneschacharya goes to pray to seek an answer in the evening, he gets waylaid by Chandri (Naranappa's young and beautiful lover), eating bananas there at the edge of the forest. She somehow entangles the helpess elder in her sari, and despite his being an ascetic, she ends up "holding him close."

    He cried out like a child in distress, "Amma!" Chandri leaned him against her breasts, took the plantains out of her lap, peeled them and fed them to him. Then she took off her sari, spread it on the ground, and lay on it hugging Praneschacharya close to her, weeping, flowing in helpless tears.

Despite the odd - - - even alien - - - set of a religion that seems arcane and unyielding, Samskara is an interesting cultural journey for the reader and even, ultimately, makes holy sense in a strange way.

All we could ask is that the author, in the future, try to come up with some less vexing names for his characters: Vishvamitra, Dasacharya, Draupadi, Naranappa, Lakshmana, Sitadevi, and most especially, Ananthamurthy and Praneschacharya do not come easily as identifiers for this soomewhat alien otherworldy reader.

§   §   §

The Murderous History of Bible Translation:
Power, Conflict, and the Quest for Meaning
Harry Freedman
In 1535, William Tyndale, the first man to produce an English version of the Bible in print, was captured and imprisoned in Belgium. A year later he was strangled and then burned at the stake. His co-translator was also burned. In that same year the translator of the first Dutch Bible was arrested and beheaded. These were not the first, nor were they the last instances of extreme violence against Bible translators. The Murderous History of Bible Translations tells the remarkable, and bloody, story of those who dared translate the word of God.

The Bible has been translated far more than any other book. To our minds it is self-evident that believers can read their sacred literature in a language they understand. But the history of Bible translations is far more contentious than reason would suggest. Bible translations underlie an astonishing number of religious conflicts that have plagued the world.

It doesn't get into Harry Freedman's brisk and intelligent guide to the frequently violent circumstances surrounding Biblical translation, though I would certainly believe the "murderous" part of the title has been hyped a bit. And why not?

Harry Freedman describes brilliantly the passions and strong emotions that arise when deeply held religious convictions are threatened or undermined. He tells of the struggle for authority and orthodoxy in a world where temporal power was always subjugated to the divine, a world in which the idea of a Bible for all was so important that many were willing to give up their time, security, and even their lives.

One very interesting aside involves the Spanish Inquisition, who suspected converted Jews of using translations of the Old Testament to continue practising Judaism. It led to mass-burnings of the Bible - - - "a mountain of books" according to one Jesuit - - - a fact nobody seems to have thought ironic.

§   §   §

Henry Green
(New York Review Books)
English novelist Henry Green whose real name was Henry Yorke was an aristocrat, born to great wealth and privilege, schooled at Eton and Oxford and the heir to a magnificent stately home in Gloucestershire.

Caught was first published in 1943, now New York Review Books is republishing the book. My question is why? I found it to be ponderous and depressing, reminder of what a vile hierarchal society was at that time.

Caught's main character, Richard Roe, is a well-to-do businessman who, like Green. joined London's Auxiliary Fire Service at the outbreak of World War II. Early in the novel, we learn that his son has recently been abducted from a department store by the sister of his Fireman Instructor, Albert Pye.

Although the child is very quickly recovered, this unfortunate coincidence, which Richard describes as "disastrous," means that both Roe and Pye are constantly reminded of the abduction by their proximity at the fire station, with severe consequences for Pye's mental state and more subtle ones for Richard's.

When Roe goes down for the first time since the outbreak of the war to visit his wife and child in the countryside, where they have gone to stay with her sister, his interactions with his young son are awkward and uncertain.

    He wished, and he wished too late, that he had never made a point of not kissing Christopher. He was upset, at that moment, no contact with his son could have been too close. But he did not dare, for he was afraid, if he took Christopher in his arms, that he would break into tears, and then the boy might be frightened.

    As he drove away he felt he had lost everything, and in particular the boy. Yet he had to admit that he could, at the time, feel nothing stronger than irritation when, some months earlier, as will appear, Christopher had really been lost in London.

At first, the auxiliary firemen in the novel appear to spend most of their time chasing after women. When they are finally called to a fire, a man faints from excitement, they enter the wrong house, and they ultimately discover that the elderly woman next door at their intended location has managed to put out the small fire herself. In their embarrassed haste to return to the station, they leave their main officers behind.

We do not encounter the firemen in the heat of real action until the end of the book, and even then, we do not "see" it in the present moment of the narrative, but hear about it second-hand, as Caught's main character, Richard Roe, describes the first night of the air raids to his wife some time afterward.

Green is particularly proud of his ability to capture dialogue, that is mimic the the speech patterns of the lower classes.

- - - Warren Sharpe