Review: A Secret History of Compassion by Paul Zacharia

A scathing look at life. If wicked political satires are your cuppa, then do read this.

The reader’s first reaction on reading A Secret History of Compassion is to muse over the probability that Paul Zacharia wrote up the story, then dipped it into a vat of caustic soda. Everything is grist for his mill, or rather pen, here: writers, writing, politics, adoring fans, crows, dominating wives, birth, sex and death. Hangmen, Stalin’s secret, God’s secret. Dogs (or rather one spoiled rotten dog), war, peace, peace of mind, air travel. Oil baths, voyeurism. Umbrellas. LSN meditation. Patriotism. Perfume. Mysuru. And once given the irrepressible Paul Z treatment, these people, places and things will never quite seem the same to the reader again.

This is the celebrated Malayalam writer’s debut novel in English. For all the many eclectic strands in the story, there is an undertone of seriousness running all through it. The weird refuses to stay just this side of weird, sometimes entering bizarre territory, a couple of times tipping over into the outlandish. The narrative does not run smooth by any means, but the reader soon picks up the method in the seeming madness.

A Secret History… tells the reader about Lord Spider, a fortyish famous writer of many books in various genres. 

His oeuvre is impressive, with 90 mysteries and thrillers and 41 romances. All works of fiction, the reader will note. Lord Spider is in a good place, with photo shoots being organised for him, with royalty cheques of unimaginable sums coming in regularly, along with eager mothers of nubile girls pitching their aforementioned offspring for a starring role in the upcoming film version of Spider’s famous novel, The Killing Field of Love.

Now Spider has been commissioned to write a non-fiction piece, an essay on compassion for the Communist Party. And he is finding it difficult to transition from imagination to thought, which by itself is food for much thought. Tearing himself away with an equal amount of relief and reluctance from his muse and wife Rosi, he is stuck inside his study, faced with an immense chunk of writer’s block, when Lord Spider finds an intruder has quietly entered the room. This is J L Pillai, Spider’s ardent fan, a hangman by profession, as also apparently a shape-shifter.

At times, the elegant turn of phrase delights the old-fashioned reader. “He was perilously behind schedule,” reads a line. There are other classic lines like “Lovemaking is essentially fiction... by positing lovemaking as a turning point towards non-fiction, you are barking up the wrong tree altogether.”

Most of these epiphanies come from the ‘lifelong philosopher’ Rosi, and has Spider reacting with worry, concern, bafflement, annoyance and awe in turns. Once in a moment of self-doubt, Spider, faced with J L Pillai’s gushing adoration, cautions himself: “Careful, careful. How does he know I’m a great writer? Apart from my books which he may or may not have read, what proof does he have?”

Elsewhere, his thoughts alight on Rosi: “She wore an air of patent and polite waiting too, but only while making love. Spider had always thought that queer. What on earth was she waiting for?”

As for that essay on compassion, it becomes a cracker of a piece, thanks in large part to the assistance of his worshipful fan turned collaborator J L Pillai, and Rosi, who it turns out, harbours a secret that could well shake the Communist world up.

The story resembles a knobbly onion in that it peels off to reveal layer after whimsical layer. The politics at the heart of it is laid bare, witty and cutting, and all too true. Communism is skewered artfully but then, as mentioned before, so are so many things. Zacharia is clearly an equal opportunity offender.

However, occasionally, the author gives in to sheer self-indulgence and the reader cannot but wonder if the story couldn’t have been told in tighter prose.

Every incident spins off into many other related and unrelated incidents. This book is Zacharia’s longest piece of fiction so far, and at times, the effort tells.

This then is niche fiction; it might not suit every kind of reader. If wicked political satires are your cuppa, then do read this.

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