Authors: Aashish Kaul
First published by Roundfire Books, 2014
Roundfire Books is an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd., Laurel House, Station Approach,
Alresford, Hants, SO24 9JH, UK
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Text copyright: Aashish Kaul 2013
Introduction copyright: Scott Esposito 2013
ISBN: 978 1 78279 536 0
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Designs and Patents Act 1988.
catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
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Aashish Kaul was born in New Delhi and now lives in Sydney. He read law in India, and is currently completing a doctorate in arts at the University of Sydney. His work has previously appeared in publications in Australia and the United States.
Scott Esposito is the co-author of
The End of Oulipo?
(Zero Books, 2013). His work has appeared in the
Times Literary Supplement
The White Review, Bookforum, The Washington Post, The Believer, Tin
House, The American Reader, Music & Literature
, and numerous others. He edits
The Quarterly Conversation
and is a Senior Editor with
Buried deep within
A Dream of Horses
we find a library alongside a church, both perched out over an abyss. It is just the thing, one realizes suddenly, exactly the thing we should expect to see tucked among these seven dreams that Aashish Kaul has persuaded us to take for reality: literature has always impinged on spirituality’s turf, and in this book we are in the presence of an intelligence that can make from this overlap truth’s hard diamonds. The caretaker of this library knows his books so well that he can tell them by the sound of their pages as they turn. I picture him as a hunched, solid man who will spend a day in the medieval work of turning out a page of fair copy in some ancient script, as indifferent to the changing of the seasons as a mammoth granite. His library on the edge of a void is not, like Borges’s Library of Babel, infinite; quite the opposite, it is all too finite, not having acquired a new piece in a decade. Yet within this modest chunk of the eternal, Kaul is capable of uttering that which is unceasing about literature: “Countless unread stories awaited me to set them free of the very words that held them captive. If only I would read them and allow them refuge in my head where, free of a form or structure, they could float at leisure. I was tempted to liberate them, to read them, one after the other, till I had set the very last one free. How ephemeral, I
thought, is the process of creation, of writing books, of lending random words to equally random thoughts merely to grant another the privilege of release.” This task, it seems, humanity will never tire of. How blessed to make the acquaintance of one of our kind who does it with such immense faculty.
Can it possibly be a coincidence that the seven protagonists of these seven tales are all lone individuals, half-wandering, half-questing through the abyss? That balm of release that the man finds in the library is what they all seek, consciously or not. They are drawn toward it, powered by it, done and undone through it.
I believe it is meaningful that the library hangs out over emptiness, because Kaul clearly belongs to that band of writers whom one of their number has termed “explorers of the abyss.” These are people who take it for granted that reality is obscure, befogged, and impenetrable, and they do not write literature toward the real so much as against our foolish, too-widespread assumption that we can easily know it. They began, perhaps, with the likes of Goethe, Whitman, Emerson, and Melville, they continue up through Proust, Woolf, Nabokov, and Sartre, and then come all the cherished B’s—Beckett, Borges, Bernhard, Bolaño—to say nothing of the other 25 letters.
Who carries the torch today? Here’s one. Kaul has done a very necessary thing in
A Dream of Horses
, which is to mount a passionate and sensual defense of what literature can do for us explorers of the abyss in these anti-literate, imagistic times. He has not done it in the common way but rather in the best possible. Without drawing a circle between those who find their eyes brightened by the printed word and all the rest of humanity, without fetishizing books and the lifestyle that accompanies them, and, above all, without dwelling on that singularly boring individual known as the author, he has nonetheless penned a very sensitive and intricate investigation of the literary sensibility. “The Light Ascending” begins by describing a man who walks the same path in the mountains over and over again—not
a description of a writer, although a description of writer’s block if ever there was one. So we are not surprised to find that he
a writer, one, in fact, who has received commendation from the great “JC,” yet who has not been able to find his way forward. He continues walking his path, until, one night, the path is filled with the music of a flute. Our blocked scribe travels deeper and deeper into the woods until all is lost, and at this moment “I realize I am in a dream, mine or another’s, I can’t tell.” The block has lifted. He finds a cottage bearing JC within and a curious chess game where the knights and bishops have become Beckett, Borges, Faulkner, and Joyce, surrounding the white queen (the muse), the squares around them “the chequered world of art, of joy and despair chasing each other.” He and JC continue this game of giving new names to the common symbols surrounding us until the fog lifts “and it feels like I am fast falling into a bottomless pit of darkness.” What else can this story be but an elaborate rendition of that sublime sensation conferred when deeply immersed within a dream or a book?
One does not frequently see such a concentration of dreams in a single volume, of characters dropping off to sleep, then coming to with a bolt, murmuring words in the twilight between these states of being, wondering which state they are in. Perhaps we should not be so surprised to see a writer taking stock of that other third of our lives: as Kaul paraphrases Schopenhauer, “dreams and reality are but different chapters of the same book.” This preoccupation with the most common liminal experience of them all is, I think, symptomatic of Kaul’s fascination with another kind of liminality: the spaces between those names we give to things in this world and the reality they fail to possess. “You can taste the success on your lips,” he writes, “but it is only a word spiralling in your head.” What a joy it is to discover another of those few writers who really seem to grasp by pure instinct that, for all our righteous mystification of it, language is really just an insufficient means to gutter the flood of sensations
assaulting us by the minute. Make no mistake: awareness of language’s limits, does not mean diminished ambitions for its use. This is also an author who is steadfastly determined to scrape out a few more feet of consciousness for language to call its turf.
It is a testament to his skill with this clumsy medium of exchange for how often he makes us “taste the success.” Though I have never met Kaul, his fiction compels me to believe that he is a person who enjoys the sensual side of life, because he so aptly drizzles throughout these pieces exactly the small pleasures with which the senses persevere between those feasts we arrange for them as a matter of luxury. For instance, the unexpected delight of this salaryman: “The firm was a boutique practice, whatever that means, though it almost always means that you come into money, but not without its dark side—the work filled dark nights. Only when you took a taxi late at night, how you enjoyed the wind making a mess of your hair.” Whenever I read that I see a man with the perfectly strict coif mandated by office etiquette closing his eyes in release as it is all undone on some empty highway in a lonely taxi. The hair’s loosening becomes his own, his lips part in a silent
, and for a moment he is a boy again. In short, he lives. Images such as these are the product of a writer for whom words constitute a universe of their own; he has dedicated himself to discovering which ones best defy the black and white of print, which combinations of them will produce the most wonder.
Indeed, it is wonder that guides these seven seekers. One of them says with resignation that “we reach the absurd through different ways,” confident, as are all, that we will discover this lackluster prize whether or not we aspire to it. It is not the absurd that these characters fear—for you cannot fear a thing that has grown so wearisome in its commonness—they rather fear that even where absurdity gives way to wonder, wonder will not resolve into truth. A lot to ask, you might say, but then that
should give you some idea of the stakes these tales are playing for. To wit: momentarily inhabiting the mind of Beckett, Kaul writes that “the eye cannot truly see until the last tear has been expunged”; if that Irishman who plumbed the absurd so much deeper than we are capable, if he himself finds truth so hard to grasp, then what chance do we stand? Do not despair. Read on. We may not be granted the Truth in
A Dream of Horses
, but we do find some truths: with each story’s last word their truths are manifest, all at once we realize that the many points in the sinuous path we have just traced out are not stars but a constellation.
Lastly, it must be said that even though this is not a book that only shares its charms with those who live and breathe for literature, there are particular delights for those who do. In a lovely duet twinning Borges and Beckett into an everlasting stream of recollection, Kaul pauses to linger over their mutual love of Dante:
Speaking now for the first time since he rowed them out here, he tells of his school copy of Dante with his notes scribbled in the margins from fifty years ago to which he returns whenever he reaches a stasis in his work. Superstitiously, perhaps, he feels he will find there something new to begin. After all, he says in a voice barely perceptible, it was with Dante that it all began. The motion in stasis, and stasis in motion. The moving unmover.
The Comedy, says his companion eagerly, is, of course, the greatest work in all the literatures of the world. In its cosmology, I don’t believe for a minute, and yet it is the book I love the most. As for the moving unmover, one may look also at Zeno or the sophist, Gorgias of Lentini, who could well have been behind Kafka.
Look at the movement of these words. From Beckett’s discovery
of Dante as a schoolboy, to the personal superstition this love grew into, to his sense of the revelation it unleashed, which gives over to Borges’s peculiar love for Dante, to his superstition of it, to his own revelation past it. Each time I read these two short paragraphs I laugh in delight at how the laces pull so tightly together and how Kaul has managed to fashion something new from the triangulation of three immortals.
There are many, many other books in
A Dream of Horses
. In fact, we see here a writer brave enough to openly wrestle with his influences, not only in the splendid epigraphs borne at the front of each tale like a torch to light the way, but also in the content of the stories themselves, rife with allusion, name-naming, sidelong glances, and whispered words of thanks. Their enumeration is in keeping with the spirit of openness, of camaraderie, that is so much in evidence throughout this collection. A mention of a few here will perhaps give a better sense of the author than anything else I could say: they include the aforementioned greats, plus John Hawkes, Stendhal, Proust, Carlyle, De Quincey, Novalis, Valéry, Artaud, Schopenhauer…There are more, many more, I leave it to you to find them. Your search will be a most joyous one. Turn the page, take a breath, plunge into the delights that await.