Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


A Book Which Makes Readers Wonder if the Artists can be Absent From their Arts

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

Published by: Context/ Westland Publications

Genre: Literary Fiction, 336p

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

Book summary

From Karim and Maya are lovers. They share a home, they worry about money, and then Maya falls pregnant. But Karim is still finishing his film degree, pushing against his tutors’ insistence that his art must be Arab like him. And Maya, working a zero-hours job and fretting about her family, can’t find the time to quit smoking, let alone have a child.

Framed with fragments and peppered with footnotes Exquisite Cadavers is at once a bricolage of influence, and a love story that knows no borders.

About the author:

Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist. Most of her works are centered on feminism and the anti-caste Caste Annihilation Movement of the contemporary Indian milieu. Exquisite Cadavers is her third fiction novel. Her second novel ‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’ was shortlisted for Women’s Prize (2018).


How much of an author is in a book? Does literature and art take shape from and form from the realities around the writer/artiste? How much does an author’s real life experiences or belief systems influence her book? Can an author writing literature walk away from it all? These are the questions that Exquisite Cadavers leaves the readers with.

There is no way else to say this but Meena Kandasamy’s latest fiction is a demanding book: it asks you to be attuned to the socio political situation of the country, it asks if you to question literary forms and structure. If you are willing to give in to the demands, this intense rumination over where an artistic creator hovers around his/her work is addressed in two tracks: the story of Karim, an Arab film maker and his wife Maya, who is caught in between an unstable job being one track and the author’s freewheeling (or is it selective thoughts?) written on the margins of the story telling the reader a bit of her world and the thoughts she is writing with and why she has structured her characters and settings in the milieu they are set. Are the two tracks parallel or do they meet at some point or wait, are they entirely separate? Are Karim and Maya the way they are because of the author’s own life and beliefs? Meena Kandasamy throws these questions as sharp gauntlets to the reader and literary critics and in the process weaves a spell.

The writing is sharp and cleaves at you with clinical precision and poetic elegance even as the author teases the reader with the way the main characters have been fashioned out – as outsiders with the baggage of their roots sometimes questioned, sometimes judged and sometimes made exotic. And then in the margin, you read about the author being asked by a white woman whether her son (born to a white man) is indeed her child. Karim’s character set in the mould of a film maker who must put in applications for film grants and the author’s thoughts asking how she is expected to write only about the many ills that the country of her roots (India) ails from is all sorts of astute commentary on the expectations of consumers of art. It tells you how the market demands artistes to peddle certain narratives, thereby curtailing one’s freedom and artistic creativity.

The writing structure is arranged such that there is a ‘main story’ that the author creates for readers (that of Karim and Maya) while the writing in the margins of the pages are the expressions from the author herself: what was happening around her, what she had been reading that made her think. It is a writing device that is both novel and makes the reading just a more intimate and personal. Readers who like to stick to conventional text presentation might well find the blend of fiction and the author insights just a disarming and even distracting for yes, you do wonder how to read them both. I ended up reading the ‘main story’ from end to beginning and then reading the author’s thoughts  on the page’ margin and then re read the entire book chapter by chapter by flipping the sequence. It ended up adding more nuance to the reading experience.

Reading Exquisite Cadavers is like being pulled into the soul of a painting and seeing what colours and forms on the canvas has come to be and with which thoughts from the painter. Read it if you are prepared to be rattled.

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