Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Song of Kali

Of all Dan Simmons’s novels, Song of Kali is my favorite. Not just because it takes place in India and features a nightmarish goddess, but because of the twist near the end. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story begins when Robert Luczak receives news that his editor wants him to find out about a prominent Indian poet, M. Das. Everyone believed Das was dead, but he has since resurfaced (literally, as it turns out). Luczak’s Indian-born wife and their seven-month-old daughter go with him to Calcutta to meet the poet.

It’s a fairly low-key start, but the story quickly spirals down into what happened to Das, which involves suicide and resurrection at the (multiple) hands of Kali. And Kali herself is unforgettable. I’d seen a picture of her before, but the book goes into vivid, disturbing detail to show something that is part woman and part demon and part overwhelming, unstoppable force that permeates everything down to the human heart.

She was power incarnate, violence personified, unfettered even by the bonds of time which held other gods and mere mortals in check.

In the sweltering, smoky night-heat of Calcutta, Luczak learns of this goddess – at first from word of mouth and later up close and personal. A theme of this book is that behind all the purposeless violence in the world is the purpose of Kali. And that violence will touch Luczak’s family in a way he never expected, and can’t prevent.

The descriptions of Calcutta aren’t beautiful, but they make for an realistically oppressive atmosphere. Life there tends to be nasty, brutish and short. The snippets of poetry in the book are well-written, but they tend to be on the dark side as well.

But the book ends on a hopeful note as well, the acknowledgment that no matter how pervasive the Song of Kali, there are other songs to be sung. All in all, this is a very thoughtful take on evil – or more relevantly, on senseless cruelty and meaningless violence. It’s much, much more than just a horror novel.


Shannon said...

Ooh, that sounds like an interesting read. I might need to go look for it. Thanks!

Marian Perera said...

Hope you like it - just be warned, the twist at the end is shocking. I really believed things had worked out, and then wham. Not many authors go so far, that's for certain.

gypsyscarlett said...

How does he handle Kali? I'm curious, because films and novels tend to depict her as an evil demoness, focusing only on the death part, forgetting that she is also the goddess of rebirth and change. She forces people to face things. And once those fears or negative energies are conquered, she is a benevolent Mother Goddess to her worshippers.

She can be extremely frightening, but not evil to those who have worked with her. I'd love to read a more balanced view on that.

Marian Perera said...

Tasha, I'm afraid this isn't the most balanced treatment of Kali. Partly because it's narrated by someone who doesn't know a great deal about her (at the start, anyway) and partly because of the theme - which is that she's evil.

Though there are hints that her worshippers see something more in her, since they call her Mother and make it clear that in her service, they fear nothing else. Just as you mentioned.