The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Xanadus of the mind

on wine and hashish (Hesperus, £ 5.99) by Charles Baudelaire is Andrew Brown’s translation of two little gems on addiction, inebriation and creativity by this Parisian master of ennui and spleen — “On Wine and Hashish” (1851) and “The Poem of Hashish” (1860). These are ambivalent explorations, in prose, of “les Paradis artificiels” — Xanadus of the mind, and their relationship with the desolation and complexity of the mundane world. Wine — for which Baudelaire shows a Dionysian enthusiasm — is much less of a problem than hashish. The exotic allure and dangers of hashish take Baudelaire not only to the aestheticist cabal of Le Club des hachichins, but it also pulls him to the Orient. He had actually made an abortive voyage eastwards in 1841, setting out on a packet-boat for Calcutta but returning when he reached Mauritius and Ile de Réunion. This voyage may have introduced him to the perils of hashish: “Wine elevates the will, hashish annihilates it. Wine is a physical aid, hashish a weapon for the suicidal. Wine makes one good and outgoing. Hashish is isolating.”

one last mirror (Penguin, Rs 200) by Andrew Harvey is a sensitive experiment with fiction as a vehicle of spiritual reflection, even meditation: “to look into this last mirror without fear”. Harvey is well-read in the writings of Rumi and in Buddhism. He attempts to explore the human implications of these forms of spirituality, especially of the Dhammapada, through the relationship between David, a 20-year-old Englishman in metaphysical despair, and a 70-year-old Sri Lankan woman, Savitri. The novel takes us through a range of voices, from the mystical to the witty, and finishes with a beautifully enigmatic Japanese poem: “When, with breaking heart/ I realize/ This world is only a dream/ The oak tree looks radiant.”

a dose of laughter (Penguin, Rs 200) by R.K. Laxman brings together 100 of this master cartoonist’s pieces on doctors, the medical profession and healthcare in general. These are alternated with a large number of “doctor-related jokes”. As expected, Laxman’s work is excellent, although such a prolific cartoonist is bound to come up with some dispensable work. But the jokes in this collection are rather poor. They are neither sophisticated, nor crass, either of which could have made them more bearable: “A doctor was having an affair with a patient’s wife. One day the patient rang up sounding frantic. ‘Doctor, I feel like killing myself,’ he said. ‘What shall I do'’ Without realizing it, the doctor blurted out, ‘Just leave that to me.’”

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