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May 26, 1999

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Academic Novel By Real Life Professor Provokes Controversies

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Professor Seduces Student, Gets Killed With a Sanskrit Dictionary

Alysha Sideman

The professor of Indian studies is a happily married man but he is obsessed by his one carnal failure he has never made love to an Indian woman. In his quest to overcome the shortcoming, he sets out to seduce his nubile student, Lalita Gupta, even though the second generation Indian American is not interested in India.

The comical and erotic adventure, however, ends in tragedy when the professor is found murdered with an exotic weapon a Sanskrit dictionary. But this is not a mere mystery. For as the story continues the book has 408 pages packed with words the reader is drawn into philosophical and linguistic mysteries.

Love in a Dead Language Writer Lee Siegel, who teaches Indian religions at the University of Hawaii, offers a quaint novel, Love in a Dead Language (University of Chicago Press). Partly an exotic farce, partly a murder mystery, and partly a meditation on Vatsayana's Kama Sutra, the book has started gaining a lot of exposure.

'If Love in a Dead Language isn't a free-standing rope,' wrote The New York Times, 'it's a major laughing matter and deserves space on the short, high shelf of literary wonders.'

The book, which has 40 line drawings, offers many delightful puzzles. As one commentator writing for www. amazon.com noted, 'Siegel has joined the ranks of John Updike and Vladmir Nabokov and Paul Theroux, who have written novels that pretend not to be novels.'

'Love in a Dead Language, for example, purports to be the work of one Professor Leopold Roth, and comprises both a translation of, and commentary on, the Kama Sutra, as well as the professor's more personal annotations concerning his amorous yearnings for one of his students,' the commentator notes. 'Siegel himself appears in a foreword, protesting vigorously that "I would never permit my name to be associated with a book such as this." '

'This squeamishness is understandable when it becomes clear the entire purpose for this translation is to aid Roth in seducing young Lalita Gupta while leading a study group in India. Seduction, betrayal, and eventually death all follow on one another's heels. When Roth rather abruptly dies midway through the translation, Siegel refuses to finish it and the task is left to a graduate student, Anang Saighal. So now we have yet another author who is not Siegel adding another layer of commentary to both Roth's professional work and his private journals -- contradicting, criticizing, footnoting, while at the same time revealing details about his own unhappy life.'

The long novel not only offers a complicated plot and etymological puzzles and digs at academia but also involves the likes of Richard Burton, the explorer who translated the Kama Sutra for the first time into English in the late 19th century.

The reaction of some early readers posted on the Internet has ranged from outright hostility ('boring, over-blown, self-indulgent, Lee Siegel can't tell a story') to high praise ('the book is in the best tradition of Borges and Nabokov.')

'HATE IT HATE IT HATE IT,' declared a New York reader. 'People who like this book have to be the author's friends. This so-called novel is all about the stream of consciousness, sub-consciousness, unconsciousness of a very boring man.

'Knowing something about the author, this professor of Indian studies has to be his alter-ego. You are always inside his head, there are no real characters, no dialogue, and no atmosphere. The ideas are half-baked, the narrative is repetitious. No wonder it's published by an academic press.'

A reader from Evanston wrote saying the novel would be either hated or loved. 'I loved it and would like applaud: ''Author, author," but where IS the author in the text? In fact, this is one of Siegel's chief questions in this tale of erotic love and murder.'

The reader continued. 'The story unfolds through a series of mirrors, each held up by a different character as he or she vainly struggles to dominate the narrative.

'Writing through an abyss of mirrors is a tricky business, but by and large, Siegel pulls it off admirably. And, not least, the book offers a great introduction to the Kama Sutra. Plus game boards!'

Warned a reader from Phoenix, Arizona: 'Those of us who wants to read a good story should NOT buy his book.'

But a reader from Houston jumped to defend Siegel, arguing that his book should be read in the same spirit as one reads the works of Borges and Nabokov

'Lee Siegel isn't trying to tell a story. He's telling several at once, following in the literary tradition of Borges, Nabokov, Barth, and Cortazar,' the reader said. 'Not an easy task, but by and large, he pulls it off with wit and care. And the reader should bring wit and care to the reading of this book: not easy, but infinitely rewarding. And a real tease in terms of the ways in which various formal aspects of a book (text, footnotes, illustrations) constitute discrete narrative voices.

'In this book, the voices weave, fight, talk back to one another, swallow one another, and ultimately tell an intriguing, ironic tale of murder and -- guess what -- love.'

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