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Robinson Remixed: Kaivalya treats book lovers to darkly funny Cortázar play
ADITYA MANI JHA  30th Aug 2014

Julio Cortázar

oberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives is one of those cult postmodern novels that seem to reveal new shades of meanings with every fresh reading. The book is filled to the brim with the surreal humour, endless invention and sheer bibliomania that distinguished Bolaño's work. In an interview featured in the anthology Between Parentheses, the author said: "To say that I'm permanently indebted to the work of Borges and Cortázar is obvious." As lovers of Latin American fiction will testify, there are clear parallels between The Savage Detectives and Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar's elusive, idiosyncratic masterpiece and literary fiction's answer to the "choose-your-own-adventure novel" (The book prescribes both linear and non-linear chapter-wise navigation routes, leaving the choice up to the reader).

Apart from his novels and pathbreaking short stories, however, Cortázar also wrote plays and translated numerous works into Spanish. One of these assignments was translating Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, a classic novel that Cortázar clearly had strong views about. On the occasion of the author's birthday last week (on Tuesday, 26 August), the capital's bibliophiles were treated to Kaivalya Productions' Goodbye Robinson, a radio play written by Cortázar. Although an English-language version does exist (part of an eponymous collection released in 1995), the troupe, performing at the Instituto Cervantes, used an in-house translation by Akshay Kale.

Goodbye Robinson is a postcolonial retelling of Robinson Crusoe's adventure. Just like Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea questions the treatment of Bertha Mason, Jane Eyre's "mad woman in the attic", this play subverts the way Friday thinks and speaks about his master-slave relationship with Crusoe. For starters, Friday buttons his lines with a weird, mirthless half-giggle (brought out particularly well by the actor playing Friday), upon which Crusoe asks for explanatory notes. Friday then delivers this hilarious response: "The truth is there is nothing funny about it, master. I don't get it either, trust me, it's something completely involuntary. I have consulted two psychoanalysts, one Freudian and the other Jungian in order to double the odds, like we do at the racecourse, and to be on the safer side, I also got myself examined by one of counter-psychology's leading lights. By the way, he was the only one who accepted me as the Friday of your book without a shadow of doubt."

That last line also hints at the veracity — or lack thereof — of the coloniser's account. The first step towards righting historical wrongs is to acknowledge the need for such an endeavour. When Crusoe goes back to visit Juan Fernandez, the island where he was marooned, he finds that far from being hailed as the man who put them on the world map, the island harbour strong anti-British sentiments. At the hotel, Crusoe is given "the most isolated room possible", and he is strongly advised to avoid contact with the locals. The era of the "civilising" white man is well and truly over, in Cortázar's world. Indeed, even as Friday leaves his master to mope around alone, he informs Crusoe that in all likelihood, he'll be busy with the women of the island, who are supposedly into "long thumbs".

It felt a little strange, at first, to "watch" a radio play instead of listening to it, but the performances of the whole cast more than made up for it. As director Varoon P. Anand explained after the show, all the songs used were Argentinian Spanish songs, to go with the spatio-temporal setting of the play. "There was one song that had a lot of naughty words in Spanish, so we apologise for that. Of course, if you don't know Spanish, you don't know what you heard..."

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