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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Ascetic of Desire

Sudhir Kakar

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To purchase The Ascetic of Desire

Title: The Ascetic of Desire
Author: Sudhir Kakar
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 301 pages
Availability: The Ascetic of Desire - US
. The Ascetic of Desire - UK
. The Ascetic of Desire - Canada
The Ascetic of Desire - India
. L'ascète du désir - France
. Kamasutra oder die Kunst des Begehrens - Deutschland
L'ascesi del desiderio - Italia
  • Originally published in India in 1998. First US edition 2000.

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Our Assessment:

B : solidly written but surprisingly bland tale about the Kamasutra and its author

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 30/5/2000 Martin Kämpchen
The NY Times Book Rev. B 19/3/2000 Edward Hower
The Tribune A 31/10/1998 Khushwant Singh

  From the Reviews:
  • "So wenig die literarischen Qualitäten auch überzeugen, Kakars psychologische Einsichten in die menschliche Sexualität und in die Beziehung der Geschlechter sind bewundernswert. Das authentisch dargestellte Panorama einer kulturell reichen Vergangenheit erweckt den Eindruck, es handele sich um einen historischen Roman." - Martin Kämpchen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Not many of the book's characters are developed in such a way that we care about them as individuals. The overly complicated plot line is often interrupted by philosophical digressions; sometimes the book reads more like a fictionalized treatise on love than a novel. Despite these problems, The Ascetic of Desire isn't dull for a moment." - Edward Hower, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Using extracts from (Vatsayana's) treatise, Sudhir Kakar, India’s leading psycho-analyst, has reconstructed his life and times. He has done so with the consummate skill of a master-craftsman using psycho-analytic techniques, imagination and felicitous prose to bring to life a scholar of ancient erotica who died over 1500 years ago." - Khushwant Singh, The Tribune

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:

       Sex is notoriously difficult to write about. It is different things to different people, and what is erotic to some can be pornographic, obscene, or boring to others. One of the the few works on sex that has survived (even if it is not necessarily much read) is the Kamasutra. The name alone of this notorious treatise, written some time between the first and sixth century A.D. in India, continues to evoke the erotic and exotic.
       Variations on the theme continue to appear apace, with Lee Siegel's postmodern take on the book, Love in a Dead Language (see our review) the most recent example to date. Sudhir Kakar's book was written earlier, but only found an American publisher afterwards (though it has been a bestseller in India for some time).
       Kakar's novel is told by a young man who comes under the influence of Vatsyana, the author of the Kamasutra, and who comes to record his life. This allows Kakar to invent a history and background for the mysterious author about whom practically nothing is known except his name, the area where he lived, and the book he wrote. The student, a youth just beginning to explore sex, makes the ideal contrast to the worldly Vatsyana, now retired and torn between severing his ties with the world, going out into the forest, or continuing his life with his beautiful wife.
       There is a fair amount of sex here, and all sorts of explanations about the Kamasutra, an odd work with its lists, descriptions, and often unlikely areas of emphasis. Kakar writes quite well and he builds a plausible edifice around the mysterious book and its author. The India of the times -- a period when it was among the most cultured and advanced in the world, far ahead of a Europe that was in dark decline -- is interestingly imagined. Kakar also fleshes out the characters, and particularly the young narrator relates his own story and concerns and confusion convincingly.
       For all that, however, the story is remarkably bland, the sex (of which there is a great deal, and of which much is fairly explicit) technical rather than erotic. True, the Kamasutra is a manual, a guide to sex, and there would be nothing wrong with seeing its author as an academic rather than a lover. But this is not what Kakar does. He clearly tries to make the story erotic. And here, with very few exceptions, he fails.
       The prurient should enjoy this book -- there's sex all about, in all its variations. The Kamasutra took a very broad approach to sex so there are a number of curious areas of emphasis, and Kakar has some fun with these. This is not, however, an erotic or romantic book, and it is not written well enough to be considered much of a literary achievement either. Harmless, but ultimately disappointing.

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The Ascetic of Desire: Reviews: Sudhir Kakar: Other books by Sudhir Kakar under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar studied in Germany and Austria, receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. He has written a number of non-fiction works. The Ascetic of Desire is his first work of fiction.

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