Exquisite Corpses of Meena Kandasamy: Novelists Who Lived

Earlier this week, author and poet Meena Kandasamy won the Hermann Kesten Prize from the PEN Center in Darmstadt, Germany – awarded annually to those who defend the rights of persecuted authors and journalists. The whole of his work is so essential for any reader of modern thought, that no opportunity should be lost to speak of it.

Perhaps his slimmest work to date, exquisite corpses was written as “a reaction to the reception” of her second novel – the women’s prize – shortlisted When I hit you or, portrait of the writer as a young woman has received. Several reviewers and readers were quick to label his earlier novel a memoir even though Kandasamy had unequivocally written it as “a work of self-fiction.” Here she takes the margins (non-metaphorically!) and also takes control of her narrative, blurring the lines between fact, fiction and inspiration, but at her discretion.

Exquisite Corpses by Meena Kandasamy

We’re thrown right in the middle of a fragile marriage in London, fraught with tension from the start. We meet Maya, a mixed-race British journalist, and Karim, a Tunisian filmmaker, “African at the heart of a beast, Arab stranded in the desert”. Race is an integral part of their world. On almost every page, alongside Maya and Karim’s story, we learn more about the writer and his whereabouts – both external and internal. Like a lucid dream, her subconscious – where she ruminates, delves, forgives and thinks – and her daily experiences bleed into the fictional couple’s life.

Unstable in this family life, Maya and Karim behave like most urban and educated couples. They argue, follow Scandinavian detective films and series, discuss careers, but they cannot escape the politics of their time. While on the sidelines, the mundane slowly transgresses into the horrific, as Kandasamy records unflinching detail of the atrocities happening around the world – from everyday Islamophobia in Britain to crimes against minorities ( and humanity as a whole) that are perpetrated systematically in one’s own country.

It’s a deeply humorous and deeply alarming experience that jumps off the page and isn’t afraid to test the reader or make them feel uncomfortable, but never loses its sensitive grip on the philosophies it investigates. If art is to comfort the disturbed and upset the comfortable, then it is a work that succeeds on both counts.