"It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth--penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told."
Here, Joseph Campbell has beautifully carved the meaning of almost an indefinable entity of 'mythology'. Indeed, the above lines capture the difficulties a writer carries with while writing a piece associated with myths and legends. Interesting enough, Olivier Lafont seems to marvel this difficulty in his novel entitled "Warrior". He not only deals with the narrative seamlessly but also gives a much keener edge to it.
The narrative captures many intertwining themes of modern popular fictions in one go , such as theme of alienation, loneliness, love, existential crisis and familial strife. Dealing with such universal themes has always make for great oeuvre and after reading the novel there is no surprise for its being shortlisted for the 'Tibor Jones South Asia Prize'. There are descriptions, elaborations, digressions; there are endless discussions and philosophical excursions; there are invocations, exhortations, admonitions, and whole manual of conduct working under the mythological frame that makes the novel worth-reading.
The most captivating side of the novel is Lafont's dealing with plethora of complex and wayward characters. He forms two extremely opposite worlds at the same time that go parallel in the story; the one is the real word of Mumbai metropolis with its natural and mortal human beings while the other is drastically mysterious and mischievous world of gods, demigods, demons, peerlesses, rakshasas, half-rakshasas and supernatural creatures.
Saam, the eponymous warrior of the story, is a demigod who is spending a life as common as any normal Mumbaikar. A watch mender by profession , he rides a bicycle, carries a cell phone, loves the mortal society and above all loves a girl of his heart, 'Maya'. This man with such sheer personality ablazes the mind of the readers when he is identified to be the last earthly son of the destroyer, lord Shiva. It is quite inviting to know how Saam, with the support of other immortals, comes forward to engage himself in an epic quest for saving the world from its devastation.
A miasmic atmosphere prevails at the beginning when an unprecedented blizzard hovers over the entire Mumbai city, thus anticipating the 'End of the days'. Supernatural things start following immediately after the blizzard. In the temple,
"The lingam opened its eye."
A stranger prophecies future to Saam. He says,
"The End of Time is at hand! The Master has set the Great Clock in motion, and the Inevitable Infinite is upon us!"
Amidst the realistic ambiance of Mumbai city, Lafont's readers slowly and gradually dive deep into a strange and magical labyrinth. This imparts the element of 'magic realism' to the story that Lafont carries further with much conviction, intensity and certitude.
After the havoc induced by the blizzard, Saam paddles hurriedly from Marine Drive to posh Bandra via his home at Old Mahim. The time he enters Rajkumar's Mansion at Bandra, the story jumbs into the unknown powerful world of Peerless; the community of immortals living on earth identified as children of lesser-gods. Hereby the realistic setting is invaded by something strange to believe. Rajkumar, the head of the Peerless, senses the utterly strange development in the world around and informs others in a terrified tone:
"Live lizards, frogs and snakes have been raining down on kolkata since this afternoon. At dusk, the Ganga reversed its flow and, as I speak, is disappearing into its source."
The continuous entry of the inhuman personages one by one creates thrilling sensations. Laalbaal is introduced as the 'Son of Vayu'. Ara's visit to Rajkumar's mansion is quite sudden. Ara is the son of a local divinity who pretends to know much about what is happening, what could happen next and how Saam could be proved the most eligible warrior to stop the 'Enemy'. Ara becomes the first to reveal Saam's association with Lord Shiva. However, it would be interesting to know the reason that keeps Saam away from using his inborn powers against the Enemy. Why does Saam seem so fickle instead of being the last earthly son of the destroyer Shiva? What is the significance of the bond of Covenant for all the immortals dwelling on earth? The narrative peels off all the layers.
Hereafter the plot becomes more engaging. Lafont emerges as a great storyteller who is effortless to impose that 'willing suspension of disbelief', without which the novel would fail in its prime purpose. Realities are being superseded under heavenly facade and the fuss is visible in other parts of the country such as Punjab and Bihar.
Olivier Lafont is unsurmountable in giving the plunge to natural and pure humane emotions in immortals. The human emotions of love and friendship find its passages into Saam and others giving a surge of happy relief. Saam feels,
"Whatever was happening, he had Maya, which was a good reality to be in."
Laalbaal's friendship comes forth as a great rescue to Saam, who remains a shadow of Saam throughout( but would he be the same till the end?) Later, the revelation of Ara's being Saam's half-brother provides another pace to the narrative.
The magnitude of war with the Enemy is first felt by the prophesies and suggestions made by Stone Man. Rajkumar too declares to Saam:
"The Enemy is more powerful than you, Saam. You can't fight him. He was able to compel me, and you know even you couldn't do that yourself. He's brought about the End of Days! The end of universe, Saam. What can you do against that kind of strength?"
Saam's first deadly but shadowy encounter with the Enemy in an abandoned factory is nerve-wrecking.
Lafont's enigmatic characters would surely make readers fall for his par excellent art of character-portrayal that remains to be one of the central focal points. Fazal, faculty at IIT Mumbai and specialised in "Hindu religion, philosophy and mythology" is a surprise gift for the readership. Fazal, instead of being a mortal, remains an extremely important character and companion to Saam till the end.
In between the story there prevails many myths; the myth of Padmini the dancer, the myth associated with the Kaal Veda and Pure Glass and the myth of the Sleeper under the mountain. Saam is in pursuit of the Kaal Veda where the existence of Pure Glass is referenced; Pure Glass that may give some clue about the further course of action for Saam. Meanwhile, the long existed strife between the two half-brothers, Ara and Saam, seems to be mitigated.
Saam, in his anxious and urgent attempt to save the world, forms a company of seven soldiers including two mortals; Maya and Fazal and Ara the spider too, whom he trusts reluctantly. I wonder as to how long the two mortal riders would be able to keep themselves enthusiastic and alive in such a war journey where they could be crushed in no time. The vulnerability of the mortals is well expressed by Lafont:
"Maya was clinging tightly to the neck of her horse, eyes wide open with terror. Fazal had made himself as small as possible..."
It would be unreal to imagine a warrior without his sword. The 'Warrior' of this story also possesses his specific 'ukku sword'; a sword with antiquity. Saam, describing the strength of his incredible possession, says to Maya:
"There is something living in the sword. Something inhuman and extraordinary, butit is trapped. Caged in ukku steel. I don't what it is, if it belongs to India or to Egypt or to Greece, but it is powerful and it hungers to be free."
Saam and the riders run on an extremely uneven journey; a journey full of thorns. On their way to Varanasi, while searching the ways to get Pure Glass, there happens an encounter with an idiotic group of the "Daughters of Durga". A venomous world of reptiles awaits. It is from Ketan, the king of raptiles that we come to know the importance of Fazal who, according to Ketan, one among the two mortals who read and understand Kaal Veda.
Olivier has many surprising punches in the narrative. The 'Ship of Worlds' is the most hyperreal place yet the best relief from the continuous chaos and tension. The captain informs;
"You may be on board for what seems like years, but when you step off, only an instant will have passed by"
Mahabharata epic is modified interestingly. Olivier grabs the attention of the entire readership here.
The catastrophe arises when Maya is captured by the Enemy(now a well identified traitor among the riders). The prime purpose of Saam to save the world turns to save a woman. Ultimately like ancient Indian epic , a woman becomes the focal point. Saam is totally transfixed by the transformation of the situation. One companion turns to be Enemy and another two enemy's soldiers. Saam regrets;
"Two of them betrayed us and kidnapped the third. We must hunt now".
However, should I be relieved that there is no more traitors in Saam's group? Beware readers!
Saam is met with many thunderbolts; first with ninety-nine appointed soldiers of the enemy, next with a traitor who seeks to avenge some past mischief on Saam.
The narrative reaches its zenith when Saam confronts his father(the lord Shiva) with lot of angst for killing his mother Padmini. Will Saam get to know of all the answers related to his family's past? Would lord Shiva Himself stop the Enemy or would guide his son to do the job? Would Saam ever be able to meet Maya or Maya is to be killed by the Enemy? The last few chapters answer it all.
No reader of this novel can fail to feel the chill which blows around Saam's nauseated mind due to these constant struggles, pains, chaos, destruction, deception and an immortal desire for ordinary life and companionship. Would Saam's desire to spend his life peacefully with Maya ever come true? Is Saam destined to wander till eternity? This quest for mortal happiness, in a time when other mortals engage themselves in greedy quest for materialistic pleasure, makes this novel worth-reading.
Reviewed by Prity Barnwal
A Master's Degree holder in English Literature,
Prity is an avid reader and reviewer hailing from Dhanbad, Jharkhand.