The Book of Desire

The Book of Desire is a thing of beauty. It arrived wrapped in white and gold tissue, tied with natural string, packed in cardboard. These things matter. I thought someone had sent me a gift. Opening it was a ceremony. Keeping it will be a pleasure. And tucked between the covers were some postcards in Anna Morrison’s designs, so I can spread the love.

By now, I’d expect no less from Galley Beggar Press, who also published After Sappho. They remind us why paper books from people and places far off your radar are absolutely worth it.

The translator, Meena Kandasamy, addresses the violent phenomena of translation head on. Her decolonial, feminist introduction is fantastic. She charts the history of the Tamil language, and its survival against the odds – particularly in the power relations within India. The Kāmattu-p-pāl, the Book of Desire, is the third part of the Tirukkuṟaḷ by the poet Tiruvaḷḷuvar. This key text in Tamil literature is more than two millennia old and has hundreds of male translations. Meena Kandasamy is the first woman to translate it into English. She stretches her translation beyond binaries, to make many-gendered possibilities for the lovers.

As you can see, the language looks glorious on the page – if the script defies you, there’s a transliteration facing the translation. Tamil (like Finnish) is agglutinative. You build meanings by adding little bits to words. So one of the pleasures of reading this is looking for matching, recurring, bits and seeing how they are glued together.

The 250 kurals in the Book of Desire are on the pleasures of sex, renouncing shame, and… the delights of sulking:


When I said I loved her

more than anyone else,

she sulked, asking,

than whom, than whom?

After all, the point of the quarrel is to make up and make love. This translation is full of fire and longing. If you don’t get many physical books any more, make an exception for this one.

Translator, editor, writer, reader

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Posted in poetry, translation

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