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Desai's latest irony: personal transformation


"Journey to Ithaca," by Anita Desai. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 309 pages. $23 In her last novel "Baumgartner's Bombay," acclaimed Indian writer Anita Desai, the daughter of a Bengali father and a German mother, explored the uneasy cultural clash between East and West in the character of a German Jewish refugee to Bombay. In her new novel, "Journey to Ithaca," two European flower children of the 1970s, the Italian Matteo and his German wife Sophie, travel the well-trodden paths of their generation through the subcontinent in search of spiritual enlightenment.

Matteo's journey is inspired by the idealized quests described by Hermann Hesse in his novels "The Journey to the East" and "Siddhartha." With Flaubertian detachment, Ms. Desai portrays the evolving struggle between the sensitive, troubled Matteo, with his yearning for faith and asceticism, and rational, skeptical Sophie, who despises the life that Matteo offers her, but cannot bring herself to leave him.

Their conflict coalesces around the enigmatic figure of the Mother, a charismatic spiritual leader whose disciple Matteo becomes. While Matteo is content to revere the Mother, Sophie is driven to discover the secrets of her mysterious past in order to demythologize her. Ms. Desai uses the story of the Mother's girlhood to complicate and deepen her theme of East meets West.

Whereas Hesse identified with his characters' yearnings, Ms. Desai's sympathy is complicated by irony. Yet the Mother, with her rejection of study and her doctrine of Love, is a compelling presence.

Compelling, too, is Ms. Desai's beguiling portrait of the Mother as a spirited girl in revolt against the enlightened assimilation of her parents, who runs away to join a troupe of Indian dancers performing the sacred Hindu dances.

The vignettes of the youthful Mother's career with the dance troupe - the depictions of a golden Venice and a degraded New York - have the exaggerated predictability of a fairy tale. As a frame around the dancer's story, the device of Sophie's search into the Mother's past seems not only awkward but strains belief; the dancer's narrative doesn't require it and, indeed, would be stronger without it.

More effective is Ms. Desai's implicit irony: the Mother has no children but her spiritual flock; Sophie is a mother who abandons her children to be raised by a mother-in-law whose values she rejects. Matteo is like a void waiting to be filled, passive and yielding to the Mother on the one hand, yet toward the obligations of his past and his family as inert as a stone.

Domination is another of Ms. Desai's themes: the dance leader's possession and rejection of his young Egyptian dancer is echoed in the Mother's attitude toward her youthful disciple Matteo. "Journey to Ithaca" is a serious work of literary fiction: an open-ended fable about personal transformation, about the conflicting claims of knowledge and divine revelation, and about power and responsibility.

* Anne Whitehouse wrote "The Surveyor's Hand," a collection of poems, and the forthcoming novel "Fall Love."

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