Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy
Atlantic Books, November 2020
112 pages / Amazon (pre-order now)
Exquisite Cadavers is a novel in two simultaneous parts – a fictional story of a terse couple, Maya and Karim, and non-fictional notes on the process of arriving at those points of the story. In her interviews Kandasamy acknowledges that the inspiration for the method comes from Derrida’s Glas. The book feels like a retrospectively crafted map to her earlier works; in a place in the margins Kandasamy writes that she read the films to read her ex-husband: an instruction, perhaps? Of how she wants us to read her. The title of the book, a reference to the game cadavre exquis, is a game wherein words or images are collectively assembled to form a whole. A collage that is at once random and deliberate. She writes, “…the exquisite cadavers of the title relates to the game of consequences, where each player veers the narrative along a path of their defence.” I find the use of the word ‘veers’ interesting here, the method is therefore simply not plugging in, or adding bits – but effecting a shift in one’s favour. A delightful nod to the growing understandings within feminism about the assemblage nature of our identities and solidarities, of the hope to control the narrative.
Kandasamy has a particular deftness in portraying a radiography of strained relationships. In When I Hit You, as well as in Exquisite Cadavers she places a great deal of emphasis on the infection that closed spaces bring into human relations. In When I Hit You, the unnamed narrator is enclosed within both the violent marriage and the house where she is cut off from the world. In Exquisite Cadavers, Maya and Karim are a couple that disagree a lot. They too are enclosed, initially; Kandasamy thus felt the “urge to push them outdoors” because enclosed spaces call for quarrels. One of my favorite lines in the novel comes up right after this moment, “…the velocity of all the saved-up speech, the deferred gratification of intimacy.” The imagery of this sentence – words falling out of you at great speed into your lover’s body, at the end of a long day – cannot be missed. It is perfect because it is true.
Perhaps the heart of the book is in this line, “…No one discusses our work in the framework of the novel as an evolving form. No on treats us as writers only as diarists who survived.” In 2018 when When I Hit You was longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize, there were a series of blogger reviews questioning its place on the list. A summary google search allowed people to put a face to the intentionally unnamed narrator – a deliberate choice that Kandasamy took because she wanted the story to be universal – and the book was swiftly labelled as nonfiction/memoir. This re-characterisation of books is not rare, readers often try to dig up the meanings in the hope of arriving at “the Truth” of the book. The actual truth, however, cannot be arrived at. Lidia Yuknavitch comes to mind who wrote in her book, The Chronology of Water, that the real truth is inaccessible because the minute you try to access memory it shifts, so even the “true-stories” are fictional. Women are often reduced to archives of the violence that they experience. Their mind is ignored. There is a Cartesian duality at work here where the raw emotion is reserved for the margins and the rest for the fresh white center page: the margins visceral and abundant, and the center more refined and aphoristic. Exquisite Cadavers is a study in the breach of this line between fiction and non-; it is a fluoroscopy of the movement between the two, the leakages between – for when have the margins “…exhibited any tendency to respect my decision to cautiously separate the fictional and the real?”
Kandasamy also breaches few other boundaries, the one between the domestic and the nation. Very early in the book she writes, in the margins, “Is it political? No, love. It is very domestic.” At the time this book was written, both Kandasamy’s birth country and adoptive country were in deep political turmoil and continue to be; the book, to current India and elsewhere, poses a very crucial question – one that asks, can we be relegated to the margins? How long can we be kept as managed bodies? “Have the margins always remained disciplined?”
How does one read a book like this, though? One that not only breaches our understandings of fiction but also that of how a page should look. There is actually no perfect way to read Exquisite Cadavers. It challenges our reading habits – at least it did mine. She urges us to reread, to suture the story in our heads where gulping it down ready-made feels normal. To slow read and to find refuge in the words, to come undone in their presence instead of merely looking for a finiteness that eludes Exquisite Cadavers.
Barathi Nakkeeran is a corporate lawyer turned writer/researcher. She is currently pursuing an M.A in Gender Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, India. Her work has appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly, and Health Research Policy and Systems.