Better heed those first warnings, and all those !!!!! This – fellers! femmes! — this book – is mad. Like a hatter?
Ostensibly an “autobiographical,” All About H. Hatterr, by Govinas Vishnoodas Desani (New York Review Books, 318 pages) was first published in 1948. Desani explains,
…Though I was attending a world war, the first row, I worked….It seemed I’d be stuck for years; the post-Cease Fire ones too…well meaning people kept butting in, demanding that I stop breathing the bracing air of war-time England with my windows shut. I do anything for peace…the windows open, work would be impossible…
Desani tells all about his publishing troubles. His mode of telling is already over-the-cliff idiosyncratic. Then H. Hatterr begins his own tale, with the first scene of Hamlet as revised by Hatterr himself:
…‘Some ‘un approaching?’
‘Approach ho, all’s not well!…
All’s not well, and it only gets better. After all, who isn’t seeking truth? Dissatisfied with his life in England, Hatterr returns to India and seeks from The Sage, The Impresario, Archbishop Walrus, and four more teachers. He discusses his seeking with his pal, Banerrji, who listens, explains, and disputes in his own personalized English, but no one can blab like Hatterr. Following form he might have learned in a ‘proper’ English literature class, Hatterr heads each chapter with a summary, a “Digest.” Here, from Chapter II, Impresario:
All apropos of Female, the cause of causes: the eternal is dam’ dame sans mercy! A bourgeois feller’s frau – no sweet Genevieve, but a regular fever-fraught mamma – is being claimed by her secret lover and muchacher…
English, French, German, Spanish are all ingredients of an Indian (not Dakota) macaronic mulligan. Yum! What has he done to British (all that colonialism) English? Hatterr wanders — like living language? — asks questions in dialog tradition, and in that tradition, is answered with another question:
…‘Why is an evening newspaper published in the afternoon? …Truly, I cannot tell, master.’
‘Verily, lout! Begotten of dire ignorance, sham questioner! let me ask thee another, If the gods be compassionate upon a human, and heed his prayers, and bestow upon him, a meal of wholesome lean-meat, and all spice rice…; sublimated by the …attar of Italia, to wit, the prodigal pick of virgin garlic, intrinsic, audacious!…wouldst thou call the contents of his stomach… “man” or “monster” ?’
‘I cannot tell, O colossus of fathomless intellect, I cannot tell!’
Hatterr seeks more than life’s answers. He seeks a family; for, however unfortunate this truth, one cannot beget without a female. Is it love?
Why did a feller like me commit matrimony with a femme fatale like Mrs. H. Hatterr?…I equipped myself with blarney-phrases, convinced this female that she was the real jam, had me led to the middle aisle and gave the ready “I do” to the amenwallah her brother had hired for the occasion.
“Amenwallah” is Hatterr — more fun with words than I remember, anywhere.
Hatterr has been described as an Indian Ulysses: tales of travel, mishaps, and questioning, similar in structure and attitude to classic picaresque, poking fun, and plenty of it, at Freudian complexes, English poetry, Napoleon Bonaparty, everything. One might enjoy it for antic story; there are scenes of outrageous imagination. In perhaps the most famous, poor lovelorn Hatterr wants just a little kissing from Rosie, with her whip and other attractions, but winds up in a cage with Charlie the lion, and a steak on his, Hatterr’s, chest. He’s a “human plate.” Afraid? Yes, until a sudden “great admiration” for Charlie’s almond eyes transforms Hatterr, then Charlie, and “Allahu Akbar!” Charlie “slinks away.”
Warning! “By the Count of Monte Cristo,” if you tend to laugh out loud, read this at home with a handy hanky. Beware — of animals, wise ones, libido and femmes. Warning! You might develop a crush, as I did, on Desani’s rhythms, nonsense, illogical illogic, and defiance of proper language rules. Writers are often asked, Which author influenced you? Not for me, that question — which author? Which book?! If Desani, with Hatterr’s help, did it, then I can give it a try, “damme,” to write with the windows shut, and hear what’s in my head. But who will read it, all this crazy stuff? I did, and went nuts.
—Jeffra Hays, author of AffectionAires, 2012