cover image Love in a Dead Language

Love in a Dead Language

Lee Siegel. University of Chicago Press, $25 (408pp) ISBN 978-0-226-75697-4

""General observations, copulation, seduction, marriage, adultery, prostitutes, and erotic arcana,"" the seven subjects treated by the Kamasutra, are also the motifs of Siegel's whimsical farce. Presented as the unscholarly annotated version of the Indian erotic lexicon as translated by deceased professor of Asian studies Leopold Roth, the novel interpolates the commentary of Roth's skeptical literary executor and former student, Anang Saigha, with notes from ancient translators of the text. Roth's Kamasutra bears little resemblance to the original Sanskrit. It is, in fact, a hymn to entirely uninterested college senior Lalita Gupta, whom Roth construes as the vessel for all his romantic, Eastern fantasies. Ditsy, foul-mouthed Lalita cares nothing about her parents' native land, but to Roth she is a goddess, repository of the East's erotic and spiritual wisdom. Half-mad with love, Roth carries Lalita off to India for a ""summer study course"" (she's the only pupil) and seduces her in a hotel at Khajuraho where a famed erotic sculpture stands. Upon their return to L.A., Roth is suspended from teaching, Lalita's parents charge him with rape, and his wife, Sophia--women's studies prof and chair of the sexual harassment committee--dumps him. While inserts and footnotes heighten the absurdity (the book is dense with cartoons, Hollywood memorabilia, news clips and 19th-century travelogues), Siegel's criticisms of orientalization and exoticism are serious. And Roth has more than just Lalita on his mind: his daughter Leila was murdered at the age of 12, leaving Roth, his wife and Leila's twin bereft. This multifaceted novel is also a whodunit, for Professor Roth died no natural death. His body was found in his office, hit from behind with a Sanskrit-English dictionary. While this ribald romp, satire on Westerners' spiritual hunger and sendup of academia may prove too rarefied and serpentine for some tastes, others will find it a sophisticated treat. (May)