This review first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 1 January 2012.
The Rivered Earth
Vikram Seth was between books when he decided to write libretti. Most writers would be content with leisurely lunches but Seth, who describes himself as indolent by nature, chose to write 4 texts for 4 musical performances to be conducted over 4 years. A mix of original work and translation, they draw from three cultures – Chinese, Indian, European – and are set to music by the composer Alec Roth.
In The Rivered Earth Seth says, “the two halves of the phrase encompass the four texts, since the first begins with the image of the moon reflected in a great river, and the last ends with the image of the blue earth spinning through time and space”.
Seth and serendipity are closely linked. It was, after all, a chance encounter in a second-hand bookstore with the English translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin that made him switch career track and write his own first novel in verse, Golden Gate, written entirely in Onegin stanzas.
But the versatile Seth is also a novelist, a memoirist, and a children’s writer. His most famous work is perhaps A Suitable Boy, which at 1349 pages is the longest novel in English literature in recent times.
Each libretto in this book is presented with a foreword that provides a backdrop for the particular work. Calligraphy by Seth, in Chinese, English, Hindi and Arabic, prefaces each text.
Apparently, the go-ahead for the project took so long that Seth had no time to write anything new for the first libretto. Serendipitiously, Seth had something on hand. In his twenties Seth lived in China for two years, studying at the Nanjing university, doing research in economics and demography and traveling around the country. During this time he also translated three Chinese poets, including Du Fu who lived in the eighth century. His translations of Du Fu, some of which Roth had set to music earlier, came in handy as Songs in Time of War, the first libretto.
Most of the poems are set during a terrible rebellion in the Tang dynasty, which caused vast devastation and famine. The poems are accessible and do what Seth says he seeks of poetry, that it should move you, make you think, and laugh. Poem 8, The Old Cypress Tree at the Temple of Zhu-ge Liang, is particularly poignant.
“Although its bitter heart is marred by swarms of ants,
Among its scented leaves bright phoenixes collect.
Men of high aims, who live obscure, do not despair.
The great are always paid in disuse and neglect.”
In Europe, which forms the setting for the second libretto, Shared Ground, Seth moves from the Tang Dynasty to the Stuarts, to Salisbury, England, to the very house where the idea of the book of libretti was first born. It was the house where the poet George Herbert had lived and died. Seth first encountered Herbert in a book of poetry belonging to his mother, requisitioned it, and thereafter dipped into it frequently. “Though I am neither Christian nor particularly religious, he (Herbert) has remained among my favourite poets”.
When Seth heard that Herbert’s house was on sale, he visited it on a whim, fell in love with it – that serendipity again! – and bought it. Seth’s one worry, however, was that his host might attempt to bully him into his philosophy or style. In a delightful poem titled Host he recounts:
“He’ll change my style.” “Well, but you could do worse
Than rent his rooms of verse.”
Joy came, and grief; love came, and loss; three years –
Tiles down; moles up; drought; flood.
Though far in time and faith, I share his tears,
His hearth, his ground, his mud;
Yet my host stands just out of mind and sight,
That I may sit and write.
After ranging over China and Europe Seth turned to India in 2008, which coincided with the 750th anniversary of the consecration of the Salisbury Cathedral, where the work was to be performed. Looking for a theme at once grand and intimate he settled on all of human life and titled it The Traveller, at the suggestion of his composer. In Rig Veda, the ancient hymn to creation, he gleaned a structure for the libretto. To the four traditional stages of life in the Hindu scheme of things – childhood, youth, adulthood and old age – he added two more: those of the unborn and the dead. Suitable texts for the stages were taken from various Indian languages – Tamil, Hindi, Brajbhasha, Urdu, Bengali – and Seth wrote a short poem of his own to accompany the texts in each stage of life.
The tone of the poems reflects the various stages: undead-philosophical, child-playful, youth-passionate, adult-contemplative, old-reminiscent, dead-yielding.
The fourth and final libretto is titled Seven Elements. Having taken geography as inspiration for the first three Seth decided to include the aspect of time in the fourth. Here too he borrowed from the three cultures and came up with seven elements: four elements of the European tradition – earth, air, fire, water – to which he added the Indian element of space, and borrowed the Chinese elements of metal and wood. The result is seven poems.
The Rivered Earth sets up a challenge for a reviewer. It is text for a musical performance and yet, when presented in a book form, it is poetry. Should it be reviewed as a book of poems or as text that is to be sung to the accompaniment of music?
Seth himself provides the answer. One poem, Fire, was rejected by Roth as unfit for musical composition; he deemed it too literary, “fine as a poem, useless as text”. A stung Seth retreated and after copious amount of wine consumption came up with a second version.
The poems in this book pulse with emotion and speak clearly, never plainly. In a foreword Seth mentions how the Chinese have always turned to poetry when in need of solace. That, then, is the gift of The Rivered Earth.