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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Zero Degree

Charu Nivedita

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To purchase Zero Degree

Title: Zero Degree
Author: Charu Nivedita
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 231 pages
Original in: Tamil
Availability: Zero Degree - US
Zero Degree - UK
Zero Degree - Canada
Zero Degree - India
ஸீரோ டிகிரி - India
  • Tamil title: ஸீரோ டிகிரி
  • Translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy and Rakesh Khanna

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Our Assessment:

B : uneven and all over the place, for good and bad

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Near the conclusion of Zero Degree the narrator wonders -- as the reader may well have at points along the way already --: "Is this really a novel, or merely a bunch of notes thrown together into a book ?" Indeed, even the question of who the narrator is is often an open one -- not his specific identity, but rather which among several, as:

The “I” that appears at the beginning of this novel refers to me, Charu Nivedita, the author. But there are actually several other “I”s responsible for the book. [...] In the tangled mess, it is often confusing who the “I” refers to -- sometimes it is Muniyandi, other times it is Surya, other times it is simply lost in a fog.
       With several recursive levels of identity, from the actual author to fictional variations (Muniyandi is also a writer (among other things); among his projects is writing: "the greatest erotic novel in the world", while Surya: "wanted to write a novelization of the life of Muniyandi,"), identity -- writerly identity, defined as much by work as person -- is central to the novel, and it's no surprise the narrator acknowledges at one point: "I don't know who I am". For much of the novel, Muniyandi is the central figure, and much of his life (and some of his projects) are laid out -- though not necessarily reliably ("I have to stop myself from building up these imaginary stories about Muniyandi", the narrator admits).
       If Zero Degree is, in part, about writers and writing, it is particularly interested in reaction to these. One chapter, for example, is entirely in the form of a review of Muniyandi's book, by critic Ninth-Century-A.D.-Dead-Brain (a name that suggests in just how low regard the (every ?) literary critic is to be held -- but who, influentially, figures elsewhere in the book and literary scene (and whom Charu does exceptionally well-endow, in one of the novel's more coherent and amusing side-stories)).
       More directly, Zero Degree actively engages with the reader him/herself: chapters include a questionnaire, with questions such as:
◙ Do you believe this will be an important Tamil novel ?
Yes [ ]         No [ ]
       As well as, for example:
◙ Do you think the novel is original ?
Yes [ ]         No [ ]

◙ If no, which of the following authors has he plagiarized ?
Kosinski [ ]
Perec [ ]
Donald Barthelme [ ]
Ronald Sukenik [ ]
Italo Calvino [ ]
       (Which gives you some idea of Charu's influences -- as might the dedication of the English version of this novel, to the memory of Kathy Acker.)
       And it's not merely the literary engagement with the text by the reader the author/narrators are interest in; so, for example, other questions on the questionnaire get more personal, including: 'How many times do you masturbate in a month ?' and 'Who do you fantasize about when you masturbate ?'
       The novel's first chapter already directly addresses a reader, as a 'dear Lady Reader' -- sometimes a specific person, sometimes representing a whole class of readers -- who is then also repeatedly invoked and addressed throughout the novel, as well as being someone who later also enters into the fray herself with comments on texts and author (such as: "I think it would be good for you to see a psychiatrist, said a Lady Reader"). Unsurprisingly, among the variations is eventually also even a character who identifies (herself) with the 'Lady Reader':
Yes, I’ve read every word Muniyandi has ever written. I’m sure there’s no other lady reader who understands all the secret meanings behind his words, the meanings that he himself is unaware of. He’s had several phone conversations with me, never realizing who I am. Do you know why he keeps on referring to the “Lady Reader” in his writings, again and again, helplessly ? His whole obsession is me. Yes, that Lady Reader is me. That’s my real name, Vasuki—lady reader. In his work, he has changed my name from Vasuki to Aarthi. I am his sister.
       [In the translation words/sentences in bold type mark those that were in English in the original well.]
       Such layering of (possible) identity -- and the lack of recognition of who/what lies underneath it all -- is common in this very multi-layered fiction. So also that first chapter, directly addressed to the dear Lady Reader, imagines dozens of possible variations -- including many that clearly extend beyond the chapter's premise of imagining: "My Dear Lady Reader, as you begin to read this text, , you may be…", as many of the possibilities involve situations in which the reader could not actually physically be reading (e.g. "lying in a deep coma in the hospital"), suggesting a much broader definition for 'reading'. In this, and numerous other ways, Zero Degree is (or at least tries to be) boundary-pushing (or transcending).
       Chapters come in many different forms, from the aforementioned list, questionnaire, and book review, to more straightforward narrative or poetry to other variations (such as a chapter presented as: "a collection of notes gathered for a 999-page historical novel that is yet to be written"); if those in the novel itself aren't enough, the work is full of mentions and discusses numerous other variations, from a 'telephone novel' to: "a complete novel using only the words pain, body, thrill, flesh, blood, pus, serpent, and yoni, and their synonyms".
       Characters are fleshed out some -- notably Muniyandi -- but even as more is known about them they do not become much more clearly defined or fixed: details about Muniyandi's projects or his traveling to (and perhaps dying in) Rwanda are facets of character but do not come together in more obviously coherent form; here as throughout, Zero Degree is not a novel of easy or clear answers. Charu's point is not so much one of obfuscation -- though it might sometimes feel that way -- but rather of the complexity of the individual, of representation, of art: nearly everything as, ultimately, indeterminate.
       Charu's playfulness perhaps over-relies on shock-effect in places, but the humor certainly helps, with many of the interactions and episodes humorous; a good dose of absurdity helps too. Even the not-infrequent ponderous-philosophical bits are often leavened by just the right deflating touch:
I'm writing. What else can I do besides write ? I'm dying. What else can I do besides die ? Etc. etc.
       Yes, it makes for an unusual, sometimes frustrating work of fiction, too often slipping from any grasp readers might think they're managing -- the observation that: "In my enthusiasm to put the novel together, the chapters have become shuffled" sometimes seeming all too plausible. But the variety, and the exuberant audacity to the writing and of the material do make for a text that is quite consistently engaging.
       A Translators' Note points out that this is: "the author's second novel, and features many of the same characters that appeared in his first, Existentialism and Fancy Banyan" and one can easily see Zero Degree as part of a larger project, rather than necessarily fully stand-alone; still, even on its own it has its rewards.
       (Typical too of the novel's playfulness (and open-endedness) is even the Translators' Note, cut off abruptly mid-sentence and with a note appended claiming: "The remainder of the translators' note was destroyed by a computer virus".)

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 July 2020

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Zero Degree: Reviews: Charu Nivedita: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Tamil-writing author Charu Nivedita (சாரு நிவேதிதா) was born in 1953.

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© 2020 the complete review

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