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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sound of the Kiss

Pingali Suranna

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To purchase The Sound of the Kiss

Title: The Sound of the Kiss
Author: Pingali Suranna
Genre: Novel
Written: ca. 16th cent.
Length: 217 pages
Original in: Telugu
Availability: The Sound of the Kiss - US
The Sound of the Kiss - UK
The Sound of the Kiss - Canada
The Sound of the Kiss - India
  • or The Story That Must Never Be Told
  • Telugu title: కళాపూర్ణోదయము
  • Translated and with an Introduction and Afterword by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman

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Our Assessment:

B+ : complicated, fascinating

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The translators of Piṅgaḷi Sūranna's sixteenth century work, The Sound of the Kiss, "see this book as, in a certain sense, the first Indian novel", and in their extensive afterword -- titled 'Invitation to a Second Reading' (because a first one may clearly not be enough ...) -- expound on that idea. As presented here, it certainly looks enough like a novel, but Sūranna's work is much more, too -- it was presumably genre-busting fiction back then, and it still retains that feel now. Aside from the mix of poetry and prose, it is a multi-layered narrative of stories with (and about) stories; it is also a work that is not just rooted in a vivid mythology but uses it to create an even richer fantasy-world: there's stuff going on here that most modern fantasy or science fiction writers would shy away from.
       To call The Sound of the Kiss a love story is ... accurate, but rather misses the point. There are incidents and episodes that fit the traditional mold of romance, but much also transcends it. So, for example, the couple that dominate the early part of the narrative, the "totally irresistible" Kalabhashini (with: "her consummate skill in making love in inventive ways") and Manikandhara, find themselves at a crossroads that demands ... that Manikandhara lop of his beloved's head with a sword; Kalabhashini willingly meets her fate, but, as the Lion-Rider Goddess complains after the fact:

Manikandhara ! You delayed a fraction of a second out of compassion. Therefore, you'll enjoy the kingdom you've won only in your next birth. Then you'll be born as a fully grown man. As for Kalabhashini, since she was totally focused on pleasing me and showed absolutely no fear of death, by my order she will have her head reattached and will go home to her friends and relatives.
       That life-cycles mean constant rebirth is not surprising, but the instant fixes are, a bit -- but throughout, great sacrifice (which also means having complete faith in the all- (or at least more-)powerful beings) can bring with it great reward, and there's more than one body part that gets chopped off in the course of the tale.
       This is also a story filled with transformation, including the rebirth (and, in various ways, reinvention) of various characters -- most notably Manikandhara as Kalapurna (as his romance with Kalabhashini was, in a sense, just preamble). Transformations as part of the life-cycle -- death and re-birth in another form -- dominate, but there are other clever ones, as in the comically absurd scenes where the couple Nalakubara and Rambha encounter first another, identical, Rambha -- and, when they've chased away the false one, are confronted with a double of Nalakubara.
       Because of these unusual life-arcs, much about the story-arcs is not traditional either. Love, and life, are considerably more complicated here (especially since life involves lives, and doesn't usually end at death). There is also not one simple, single story-thread: The Sound of the Kiss includes many stories that are recounted for the characters, sometimes filling in background or details, but often more tangential.
       It can be overwhelming: as the goddess Saravasti complains to Brahma:
I know you can put together entire worlds, but do you have to practise the craft of words on me ?
       Saravasti at least had the advantage when dealing with Brahma's inventions that:
I taught you to speak with hidden meanings and moods.
       Readers, even with the help of some footnotes and both an Introduction and an afterword by the translators, may still find much that is hard to fathom.
       Yet there are ample rewards to The Sound of the Kiss even on just a first reading (and even as it can be hard to make sense of the sequence of what is presented) beginning with the vividly imagined descriptions, such as:
     Their eyes blue as lilies, they came down to the forest, which rose like a goddess to welcome them. The pollen of its flowers was Rambha's yellow sari, dark bees were her long tremulous hair, and the bird-cries were the jingling of her ornaments. Or, to put it differently, these women blended into the grove, their dark hair merging with the bees, their bodies with the vines, their breasts with burgeoning flowers, their delicate fingers with tender buds, their smiles with everything that blossomed. As they moved among the trees, these women became part of the forest, like water flowing into milk.
       The super-natural elements are, of course, unusual, and it can be difficult accepting the concept of people having body parts chopped off and just as readily made whole again, but aside from the sheer ridiculous implausibility of so much of this it does make for some very good action-drama.
       The translation is a bit uneven, as the translators have an extraordinary amount to grapple with here; even as it is new, The Sound of the Kiss is clearly part of a long and rich literary tradition, none of which is likely to be familiar to almost all readers of this version. On the whole, it works quite well -- there seems to be a good sense of what Suranna was trying to do -- though there are the occasional real clunkers ("This supercharged Siddha deserves a high-voltage bed").
       As one character says about just one of the tales recounted in the novel:
This story is full of surprises. I've never heard anything like it.
       The Sound of the Kiss isn't just a collection of such surprising tales; it's like an exponential sum of them. There's a great deal of complexity here, from the structure to the language to the references; this translation allows for a good entry point to the work, a first sense of it. The afterword -- 'Invitation to a Second Reading' ! -- helps and beckons more, but it remains a far from readily accessible text. Nevertheless, regardless of the level of engagement the reader is willing and/or able to bring to it, The Sound of the Kiss does offer considerable rewards.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 May 2012

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The Sound of the Kiss: Other books by Piṅgaḷi Sūranna under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Piṅgaḷi Sūranna (పింగళి సూరన) lived in the 16th or 17th century in southern India.

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