Completed 3/15/2023, Reviewed 3/16/2023
The Song of Kali is the first novel by Dan Simmons. He would later go on to win the Hugo for Hyperion. This book won the 1986 World Fantasy Award. It’s more horror than fantasy although by looking at many Fantasy Award lists, you will find a lot of horror. This one takes place in Calcutta. Upon reading, it becomes pretty clear that Simmons hates Calcutta. In fact, he spent 2 ½ days there, resulting in this paean of hatred. If there is a good quality of Calcutta, you won’t find it here. But what you do find is a well-written horror novel steeped deeply in the mythos of the goddess Kali.
Bobby Luczak is an American poet and writer. His Indian wife Amrita is a professor of mathematics. They have a baby daughter Victoria. Bobby is assigned to go to Calcutta to retrieve a new manuscript of the legendary Indian poet named M. Das who has supposedly been dead for nearly eight years. He takes his wife and daughter on the trip so that they can stop in London to visit her parents who have not yet seen Victoria. Upon arrival, Bobby is immediately disgusted with the squalor and poverty. He connects with people who promise him the manuscript, but not a meeting with Das. They tell him of how Das has been resurrected by the goddess Kali and has written an important work about her and her coming into power. He gets a major runaround through the misery and violence that is Calcutta. The end will break your heart, traumatically.
It was hard for me to get into this book. Simmons paints a horrible picture of Calcutta, complete with rats, garbage, poverty, fecal waste, and death. Everywhere he turns, people are squatting in the streets urinating or defecating. There is no reprieve from this misery except in the hotel where the Luczaks are staying. Even when it gets into the cult of Kali and the mythology surrounding her, I found it difficult to stay connected with the book. The descriptions are that miserable. I have to say, though, that the prose is quite good, otherwise, I don’t think I would have had as visceral a reaction to it.
The book is told from Bobby’s first person perspective. You experience his disgust throughout the book. He meets a variety of people, all who claim to be part of the writer’s guild that brought him over. But rather than a simple transaction, acquiring the poem’s manuscript is a complicated and dangerous mission. He encounters a cult of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. She has supposedly resurrected Das who is now dedicated to bringing her to world consciousness. Bobby’s fatal flaw is that his curiosity wins over his disgust and he tries to pursue a meeting with Das even after he gets the manuscript. He believes he needs this meeting to write a reasonable article for Harper’s, the magazine hiring him, as well as for “Other Voices”, the independent poetry magazine to which he contributes.
I give this book four stars out of five. The writing is really good. However, I can’t say I enjoyed the book. I was caught in an internal struggle of liking the writing and being disgusted by Bobby’s reaction to the city. It made me think of a tables-turned scenario, where an Indian comes to Portland, goes walking on the waterfront amongst the homeless, trash, and refuse, gets accosted by meth-heads, and writes a book about how horrible Portland is. Is this the scenario of Simmon’s two and half days in Calcutta? Or is it a first world observer trying to wipe the muck of the third world off their shoes so they can ignore it as they return to their comfy mountain home and schoolteacher job?