Book Review: Exquisite Cadavers is about a young couple navigating life in London

Faizal Khan
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Oscar-winning Austrian director Michael Haneke surprised cinema lovers three years ago when he chose a mobile phone format to open his film Happy End, which mainly focuses on the migrant crisis in Europe. Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan earlier used an unusually square 1:1 aspect ratio for Mommy (2015). Vertical films, shot by many filmmakers today, even have a festival dedicated to the format.

Format-busting works crop up regularly in the arts, defying norms and defining ideas. Take, for instance, Meena Kandasamy’s new novel, Exquisite Cadavers, which moves the goal post on the limits of reading. The author challenges the contemporary single-column format to return to the original two-column page. It doesn’t end there. While the inner columns create a story, the outside columns correspond to references from real life. Sometimes both styles merge, reflecting the melting of reality and fiction, and the resulting flow into the other.

In a preface to the book, Kandasamy calls Exquisite Cadavers an "Oulipo", a literary experiment founded in France in the middle of the last century to create works using constrained writing techniques. The experiment here is to detach the story from the author while simultaneously documenting influences. The title of the book draws from Exquisite Corpse, a game perfected by surrealists while playing the parlour game, Consequences, where players contributed words to form a story. Frida Kahlo turned the game on its head with her drawings, where body parts replaced words.
The story of Exquisite Cadavers revolves around Maya and Karim, an imaginary couple in London. Maya is of mixed race and works as a layout artist at a liberal newspaper. Karim is a Tunisian student at a film school in London working on his debut film. It’s not an easy life for the complicated couple. There are Jihadi Johns and Shamima Begums to think about. The film school wants Karim to make a film about identity. He, in turn, writes a dissertation proposal on camel in cinema. Nobody gets the sarcasm. The couple get cards slipped under their door with inscriptions that read: "Thanks for never joining ISIS."

The outside columns in the book-the personal references-are not too different either. Growing up in Tamil Nadu, Kandasamy writes about how her father’s ban on cinema and television at home made her life miserable in school. Her classmates accused her of repeating dialogues of films she had never watched. The author also documents the arrests of Dalit activists in India. The references include assassinations as well. Some of the victims were known to her through her own work as a feminist and Dalit activist.

The Oulipo experiment by Kandasamy for her third novel follows the auto-fiction style of her previous work, When I Hit You: Or, The Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife (2017), her experience within a violent, abusive marriage. The Gypsy Goddess (2014), her first novel, narrated the 1968 Kilvenmani massacre of 44 Dalits in Tamil Nadu for demanding higher wages. Exquisite Cadavers, the author writes, started as a reaction to the reception of When I Hit You. The issue at hand was about defining an author by her experience instead of the work of art. In the new project, therefore, the story is as removed from the author’s own as possible.

Like Haneke and Dolan analysing the refugee crisis and the challenges of being a single mother in their films with altered aspect ratios, Kandasamy uses her two-column fiction-reference format to handle identity politics and oppression. Exquisite Cadavers tests narrative elegance by breaking the rules of the game. Kandasamy plays the game unmindful of the consequences.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

Book details

Exquisite Cadavers
Meena Kandasamy
Westland
Pp 100, Rs 399