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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Serpent and the Rope

Raja Rao

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Title: The Serpent and the Rope
Author: Raja Rao
Genre: Novel
Written: 1960
Length: 404 pages
Availability: The Serpent and the Rope - US
The Serpent and the Rope - UK
The Serpent and the Rope - Canada
The Serpent and the Rope - India
Le serpent et la corde - France

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting approach to the philosophical novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 18/11/1960 Peter Green
The LA Times . 24/8/1986 Pratapaditya Pal
Le Monde . 29/12/1959 Marcel Brion
Nouvelle Revue Française . 10/1959 Jean-Paul Weber
The Sewanee Review . Summer/1964 S. Nagarajan
Sunday Times . 13/11/1960 D. & M. Gillon
The Times A 3/11/1960 .
TLS . 9/12/1960 Michael Robson
World Lit. Today . Fall/1988 Kathleen Raine

  Review Consensus:

  Odd and challenging; has its qualities

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)his curious plot is no more than a peg on which Mr. Rao hangs all manner of digressive riches (.....) In his wide culture and unexpected Anglophilia Mr Rao recalls to me Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the author of A Passage to India: his novel is a rich, exotic, finely woven tapestry." - Peter Green, Daily Telegraph

  • "Although the book has been praised as a classic in the confrontation of two cultures, it really recounts the cultural and emotional problems of a 21-year-old Brahmin whose roots are much too deep in Indian civilization for him ever to be transplanted to Europe. (...) (T)he book provides an eloquent account of a young Indian's reluctance to accept the European way of life, even though he does seem to be amoral in sexual matters and remarkably well-versed in both European and Indian philosophy, mythology and literature. All in all, The Serpent and the Rope is a highly cerebral novel that will be enjoyed primarily by intellectual readers. The author's style is felicitous and the descriptive passages, whether of Benares or Cambridge, are both eloquent and witty. At the same time, however, the dialogues are often much too erudite and, sometimes, even contrived." - Pratapaditya Pal, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Raja Rao's aim is to create a style which will reflect the rhythms and sensibilities of the Indian psyche, and since it is in Sanskrit that the Indian mind has found its most consummate linguistic expression, he has tried to adapt his English style to the movement of a Sanskrit sentence." - S. Nagarajan, The Sewanee Review

  • "(T)alk is, in fact, the besetting sin of a book which is certainly an epic, and could, if the author had been more savage with secateurs, have been a great novel. Even as it is, it remains a magnificent guide to India, and, for those who are prepared to work for their pleasure, a book to read and re-read." - Diana and Meir Gillon, Sunday Times

  • "It is something quite different. It defies comparison. It almost defies description. (...) The writing is utterly beautiful. No other word will do." - The Times

  • "(A)nother leisurely novel (.....) R. Rao has tried to render the Sanskrit tongue in terms of English expression (.....) The "new" style is not too strange to the reader familiar with the subtle rhythms of, say, Miss Rosamond Lehmann or Miss Elizabeth Bowen; the effect is of a sympathetic English mind, feminine in its intuitiveness, capturing something of the mental and physical features of a well-loved foreign country." - Michael Robson, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Probably Rao will never (in the unsubtle West at all events) be a popular author, because the demands he makes on readers are very great; his scope exceeds our cultural norms. (...) Rao's genius lies in his extraordinary gift for saying the unsayable and building up its circumstances. (...) I know of no contemporary author whose understanding of women is as full of beauty and depth and love as is Raja Rao's (.....) Raja Rao is much more than an apologist for India who also loves and understands the best in Europe: he is a universal writer who brings the water of the Ganges to heal the ills of the modern world." - Kathleen Raine, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Serpent and the Rope, Ramaswamy, is, like author Raja Rao, a: "provincial Brahmin from Mysore". He argues that: "all books are autobiographies", and while he means that in the broadest sense, The Serpent and the Rope is certainly in many ways autobiographical: like Rao, Ramaswamy went to study in France; like Rao, he married a Frenchwoman -- here called Madeleine. The period is shifted, however, as Ramaswamy is roughly a generation younger than Rao, with the action in The Serpent and the Rope set after the Second World War: Ramaswamy arrived in Europe only in 1946, while Rao had come there in 1929 (and married Camille Mouly -- the Madeleine of the novel -- in 1931, with their marriage effectively over before the war even began).
       The time-shift does allow Rao to incorporate some of the events of the meantime, including Indian independence; Hitler and Stalinism also feature, though in fact there's very little about the geopolitical shifts of the 1940s, with the Second World War and its aftereffects hardly rating much mention; Ramaswamy is much more concerned with and interested in the abstract. Somewhat surprisingly, Ramaswamy is, in fact, a student of history -- "my special subject was the Albigensian heresy" -- and over the course of the novel he is working on finishing his thesis on the Cathars, trying to: "find a direct proof of India's link with the Cathar heresy". But his interest is Cathar thought -- its good-and-evil duality, and the similarities to Indian philosophy -- much more than the real-life events unfolding because of it. Indeed, as he at one point tells Madeleine, the reason he is studying Catharism is: "to prove that I am metaphysically right".
       Though he has come to Europe, to study European history (albeit with a focus on establishing an Indian link), Ramaswamy is through and through Indian. Emphatically, too: a Brahmin. The novel's opening sentences may seem almost off-hand, but Ramaswamy begins here because this is his essence, who he is:

     I was born a Brahmin -- that is devoted to Truth and all that. "Brahmin is he who knows Brahman," etc. etc. ...
       He is of India, and his world-view has been shaped entirely by his environment. Simplistically put, The Serpent and the Rope can be said to be a novel of a failed marriage -- married only a few years, the cracks between Ramaswamy and Madeleine are already yawning wide when the novel opens and it concludes with their divorce --, and it might seem to be a story of how East and West can never meet. Certainly, there is much that Ramaswamy can not adapt to, but their differences are of a different and more fundamental order. Madeleine even comes to strictly dedicate herself to Buddhism -- but that, of course, just exacerbates the divide, as it is equally foreign to Ramaswamy. (Madeleine insists: "it's the religion of the modern age" -- while Ramaswamy, seeing all as timeless and infinite, can barely even find meaning in a designation such as: 'modern age'.) As he explains to her when it's clear their lives have become unreconcilable:
     "What is it separated us, Rama ?"
     "India ? But I am a Buddhist."
     "That is why Buddhism left India. India is impitoyable."
       For Ramaswamy, 'India' is all (and Madeleine incapable of ever becoming part of that: nothing can make their rupture clearer than when she writes to him: "There's no question now of my going to India"). Returning to it on one of the two longer trips he undertakes to his homeland over the course of the novel one can feel the depth of his longing as he reaches it after a long absence: "It was India I wanted to see, the India of my inner being". As he explains to Madeleine:
     "Your India, then, Rama, is in time and space ?"
     "No, it is contiguous with time and space, but it is anywhere, everywhere."
     "I don't understand."
     "It stands, as it were, vertical to space and time, and is present at all points."
     "That is too mystical even for me."
       So also, 'India' is beyond history for this historian:
India has, as I always repeat, no history. To integrate India into history -- is like trying to marry Madeleine. It may be sincere, but it is not history. History, if anything, is the acceptance of human sincerity. But Truth transcends sincerity; Truth is in sincerity and in insincerity -- beyond both. And that again is India
       Only incidentally is the contemporary situation in the newly independent India addressed -- most directly by one of Ramaswamy's close female friends who married someone who is destined to rise in the bureaucratic ranks:
I hold receptions, and our young and new Republic is growing strong. Ministers, Secretaries of State come and go, and I think, what is this India we are building ? Oh, Rama, it makes me sad, sad ! Some want it to become like our neighbour China, and others like their foster-mother white England. And nobody wants India to be India.
       Well into the novel, Ramaswamy explains:
I am not telling a story here, I am writing the sad and uneven chronicle of a life, my life, with no art or decoration, but with the "objectivity," the discipline of the "historical sciences," for by taste and tradition I am only a historian.
       The chronicle seems fairly uneventful. It does begin with a major change, the role of head of the family falling on the still young Ramaswamy with the death of his father. His (second) stepmother is barely older than him, while he has three siblings from a previous stepmother, including two sisters approaching marriageable age; because he is based in Europe, Ramaswamy can only assume some of his duties fully -- though his second trip back to India is for the marriage of one of those stepsisters.
       In France, his marriage is slowly crumbling -- not least because of other figures that show an interest in and tempt the couple. The disintegration is not acrimonious, and parts of their relationship hold up well; the fact that their first child, a boy, had died certainly weighs on the marriage, and when Madeleine loses the next child, another boy, too -- while Ramaswamy is in India -- it is clear they are not destined to be a true 'family'. Typically, Ramaswamy does not dwell on the tragedies: when he receives the telegram telling him his wife delivered a boy by caesarean who died shortly afterwards: "I was neither in pain nor was I relieved; I felt above both, like a child looking at a kite in the sky"; in the evening, he takes his sister and stepmother to the cinema, and there's basically no more mention of what happened. This isn't the kind of novel where tragedies like this are worked through front and center; Rao does so much more subtly.
       Ramaswamy works on his thesis, which also takes him to Paris and England several times, where he easily leads a life apart from Madeleine. He also has some health issues, suffering from phthisis (tuberculosis); among the novel's amusing scenes has him finding his marriage-reluctant sister reading The Magic Mountain only for him to cough up a great burst of blood; eventually he is operated on too, and spends considerable time in hospital.
       Beyond family, several acquaintances play prominent roles in the lives of Ramaswamy and Madeleine; there are a variety of affairs conducted over the course of the story, and several couples do form, though practically none find complete satisfaction with each other. The man-woman divide is prominently featured in The Serpent and the Rope. Ramaswamy admits he wants: "a companion of pilgrimage" -- but Madeleine needs to go her own way (leading her to Buddhism); other women offer some of what Ramaswamy seeks, but he never here finds the fitting other. Ramaswamy's veneration of woman -- not women, but woman, as idealized form -- and his transcendent world-view stand rather in the way of his finding what he seeks.
       Much of The Serpent and the Rope is a paean to 'woman' -- often beautifully put:
     Woman is the world. Woman is the earth and the cavalcade, the curve of the cloud and the round roundness of the sun. Woman is the space between mansions; whose secret, knowing emptiness from which word goes from house to house man to man.
       Death and dissolution also figure prominently in Ramaswamy's worldview -- with him a believer in a form of eternal life. And The Serpent and the Rope is above all a philosophical novel in which these concepts are explored and expounded on. If Ramaswamy seems like an unusual protagonist -- certainly by the standards of the 'Western' novel --, in how he describes the events and people around him -- on the one hand almost seeming above much that happens, on the other hand moved to his very core by it -- it is also because he is so firmly grounded in his philosophy, and his certainty about it, rooted so deep in a timeless, infinite India.
       Ramaswamy's world is binary and absolute -- as also in the explanation from which the book takes its title:
     The world is either unreal or real -- the serpent or the rope. There is no in-between-the-two -- and all that's in-between is poetry, is sainthood.
       Ramaswamy sees writing, too, as an absolute:
For all books are autobiographies, whether they be books on genetics or on the history (in twenty-two volumes) of the Anglican Church. The mechanics of a motor car or of veterinary science all have a beginning in the man who wrote the book, have absorbed his nights and maybe the nerves of his wife or daughter. They all represent a bit of oneself, and for those who can read rightly, the whole of oneself. The style of a man -- whether he writes on the Aztecs or on pelargonium -- the way he weaves word against word, intricates the existence of sentences with the values of sound, makes a comma here, puts a dash there: all are signs of his inner movement, the speed of his life, his breath (prana), the nature of his thought, the ardour and age of his soul.
       Language features prominently in the novel, with many of the characters polyglot. There are longer quotes in Sanskrit and French, and several of the characters are learning various languages (including Madeleine, who studies Pali (among other languages), for example)
       For the Brahmin Ramaswamy, Sanskrit is the ideal:
Sanscrit, the pure, the complete, the unique. He who possesses Sanscrit can possess himself.
       Clearly, there is also an effort on the part of Rao to echo some of the feel and function of Sanskrit in the prose of the novel -- one of the reasons it might read, at first, as slightly stilted, a rough translation from another language. Arguably he does not go far enough with this, in some respects, but certainly the story-telling, in the larger sense -- especially with its focus on the abstract and eternal rather than the immediate and transient -- effectively reflects an (ancient) Indian writing-tradition.
       Rao also shows some of the natural talents of a novelist. He does not describe the growing gulf between Madeleine and Ramaswamy in too much detail or speceifics, but easily captures it in small scenes such as when Ramaswamy notes, in introducing the tension between them early on:
     No, things were not going well. There was nothing we could say to one another which would not sound like something the departing say to each other at a railway station.
       There's a humor to the novel too -- including in observations such as Madeleine's, about her Buddhist reading:
Some Buddhist texts read like a novel by Aldous Huxley -- so curiously intellectual, almost perverse.
       Amusing, too, are some odds and ends, such as Ramaswamy's surprising monarchism -- or his enthusiasm about England, especially in comparison to France, including the observation that:
There was much less drunkenness in the streets and much better taste in the women's clothes, which were British in style and not cheap Dior or Fath.
       (One suspects Rao lost some credibility at this particular point, not just with Francophone readers.)
       For better and worse, The Serpent and the Rope is a philosoophical novel -- and that of a philosophy that likely is largely foreign to many of his readers. For all its simple (because absolute) seeming claims -- about Truth, death, history, India, man, and woman --, even expounded on at such length, Rao doesn't offer (or aim for) the kind of clarity that many might expect (or hope for). It is nevertheless interesting -- but might also be found to be wearing.
       The Serpent and the Rope is certainly intriguing, in numerous respects -- but might also be a bit much for many readers.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 June 2021

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The Serpent and the Rope: Reviews: Raja Rao: Other books by Raja Rao under review: Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:

       Indian author Raja Rao lived 1908 to 2006. He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, 1988.

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© 2021 the complete review

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