Kandasamy, who now lives in London, packs a lot into 100 pages – not just two stories, but opinions about immigration, sexual violence, #MeToo, film criticism, selfhood, the individual’s relationship to history, the damage handed down by families. She does it with acute insight, and often wry humour. She is especially good on difficult relationships, and the gathering trap of liberal identity politics... Occasionally Kandasamy’s tendencies towards assertion and aphorism (“for Maya, disappearance is detonation”) and her references to art-house movies tip into pretentiousness; those allergic to French critical theory will find phrases like “another time bricolage of an earlier holiday” or the sweeping assumptions of one of her epigrams (“the purpose of avant-garde writing for a writer of colour is to prove you are human”) profoundly irritating. Sometimes she is heavy- handed. But her project is also short, sharp and effective, not least in the way events (pregnancy, friends of Kandasamy’s arrested at home, Karim’s worries about his own relations in Tunisia) begin to echo each other.
The key question about Exquisite Cadavers, however, is does all of this work? Does it show, as Kandasamy quotes Derrida saying, that “literature is the most interesting thing in the world, maybe more interesting than the world”? That is the hardest question to answer, because the terms are that it should be an experiment – there has never been a book quite like this. Better to ask, then, whether it surprises, grips, makes the reader take notice – all those things literature is supposed to do – to which the answer is, easily, yes, yes, and yes again.
Exquisite Cadavers is deeply lyrical, with space given for thoughts to build. Written in the omniscient third person, the main narrative flips between Maya and Karim’s perspective. Kandasamy zooms in, focusing on their dynamic rather than action. Karim is too fixed, Maya too malleable. Film tropes recur: Karim seeing through a filmic lens, Maya judging her life through films. With the writer present on the page, every choice feels driven. The result is an exploration of how discrimination can pull and pick at intimacy. Kandasamy’s presence only enhances the fiction; her sense of life and art introducing a never-ending conversation between writer, text and reader.
Their narrative acquires weight from the annotations, which document Kandasamy’s struggle watching political events from afar, seeing friends killed and arrested. She grew up in Tamil Nadu and became a leftwing activist, but now lives in London. Kandasamy worries about absenting herself from the fight and the inadequacy of fiction: “My concerns and my solidarity align with the oppressed and the exploited. And yet, creating art under capitalism, I sit here, playing with form, with format, with fonts.” She craves the “refuge” fiction can provide, but recognises the need to bear witness to reality.