Reviewed by Inderjeet Mani
Latin America can lay claim to some of the world’s most magnificent geographies and vital ecosystems, teeming with unique life-forms and vibrant subcultures. The area has also borne witness to vast empires and savage colonial histories, and fired the imaginations of many gifted writers and artists. In The Alphabets of Latin America, the poet-diplomat Abhay K. distils this vast multiplicity into a festival of short poems that serves as a fascinating travelogue and guidebook. Visiting the length and breadth of the region while posted in Brazil, the poet shares universal moments of yearning, sadness, insight, and transcendence. Like some of the author’s other works, the book has already been translated into multiple languages, including Spanish, Italian, and Malayalam.
There are gems aplenty to be found in this literary El Dorado. A poem on Borges is a brilliantly Borgesian mirror. Writing about Brazilian calabashes, the poet tenderly recalls the bottle gourds grown long ago by his mother on the thatched roof of their simple home in Bihar. A hymn to Yemanja, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the sea, paints a vivid picture that brings to mind a Botticellian Venus. At Iguazu Falls, the poet is drenched, dumbfounded, and silenced, at once saddened by thoughts of a dying planet and yet drawn towards that elusive union with nature. Romance and sensuality remain, thankfully, ever-present. In Brasilia, a rising moon mirrors the awakening of desire; in Medellin, lovers wandering the streets experience their romance as a supernatural event; and in Bogota, a star-crossed pair makes a tryst with destiny. At Buenos Aires’ Barolo Palace, whose design mirrors the cosmology of the Divine Comedy, the poet ascends to paradise in the company of a Beatrice who reminds him of what is truly important.
The longer poem Carnival: Prufrock at the Carnival in Rio sparkles with energy and wit, the strictures of individual anxiety and alienation that mark T. S. Eliot’s dry original dissolved by the fizzing ecstasy of samba dancing and revelry:
No, I am not Ram or Buddha, nor was meant to be I am a flirtatious lord, one that will see a samba queen dance, in her full spree
Whether the subject is the city of Santiago or the work of Frida Kahlo, haikus are to be found leaping like flying fish from the page. I enjoyed some of the lighthearted surrealistic tableaus, including this postcard-like picture of Brasilia:
Brasilia is a string of shining pearls at night
Brasilia is an exotic Turkish delight Brasilia is a coiled serpent ready to bite
Among the Latin American writers who take their places on Abhay’s stage are Cortazar, Garcia Marquez, Castro Alves, Jorge Amado, Lispector, Mistral, Neruda, Fuentes, Paz, and Vallejo, their collective presence a marvelous invitation to the reader to further explore their work and that of others mentioned in the book. Building such bridges between cultures must be instinctual for a diplomat, and this work dutifully celebrates the ties between Latin America and India. The Ambassador Abhay remembers Victoria Ocampo, who was Tagore’s great muse, and imagines himself as Cecilia Meireles, whose poetry was deeply influenced by both Tagore and Gandhi. In bringing these two civilizations together, the poet merges their landforms, letting the waters of the Ganga and Urubamba mingle and allowing the Andes to serve as the setting for the Hindu myth of the Churning of the Ocean (Samudra Manthan). The poet here becomes a shape-shifting shaman, soaring over the Andean peaks and seeking mummy-hood and reincarnation into a hummingbird or condor. Figures and themes from one culture are transplanted into the other; at the Mayan citadel of Tikal, he is reminded of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, imagining a Mayan Buddha meditating under a local equivalent of the peepul tree.
Though the poems are often panoramic, the images sometimes fail to cohere together, due in part to the limited use of figurative language. Certain poems may also have benefited from greater syntactic variation and experimentation. These, however, are small failings given the overall impact. And light as the verse often is, the poems do not shy away from darker passages of the region’s history. The events of the duplicitous capture of the last Inca emperor Atahualpa and his final garroting are narrated by the victim himself, in keeping with the traditions of magical realism.
The extreme brutality of Latin America’s political past and the continued instability of the globalized present make one wonder about the poet-diplomat’s stance towards history and time itself. In his response to one of Ruben Dario’s most melancholy poems, Abhay proposes a hopeful humanism:
Man is happy for he is alive like a Quetzal full of colors—flying no greater joy than to live and thrive no deeper despair than dying to be, to know, to find one’s way the bliss of having lived and to hope that tomorrow will be better than today
In a commentary on the ‘dancing stones’ of Macchu Picchu, where the mortar-free stone masonry quietly settles back into place after earthquakes, Abhay offers this succinct advice:
those who dance, endure and stay those who don’t, are blown away.
Inderjeet Mani (@InderjeetMani) studied fiction with Carlos Fuentes and has had a long personal involvement with the literature of Latin America. A former professor and scientist from the US, he is now a fulltime writer living on the Gulf of Thailand. Mani has authored two novels Toxic Spirits (2019) and The Conquest of Kailash (forthcoming), tpgether with many other titles from Oxford, Nebraska, MIT, and elsewhere, as well as shorter literary and scientific works.
Abhay K is an Indian poet-diplomat and India’s twenty-first Ambassador to Madagascar and Ambassador to Comoros. He has previously served in diplomatic capacities in Russia, Nepal and Brazil. His published collections of poetry include Monsoon, The Magic of Madagascar, The Prophecy of Brasilia, The Eight-Eyed Lord of Kathmandu, and The Seduction of Delhi. Books he has edited include CAPITALS, 100 Great Indian Poems, 100 More Great Indian Poems, New Brazilian Poems, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems, and The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems.