Even in ancient Greece, [such] stories were perceived as scandalous because they had so much sex and violence. --Roberto Calasso
Italian author and publisher Roberto Calasso has had a lifelong love affair with books--no matter how long or in what language. Growing up in his native Florence he read all of Proust, in French, at the age of 13. Some stories, possibly apocryphal, have it that he read all of Goethe in German at the age of 14. After earning a degree in English literature at the University of Rome--he wrote his dissertation on the hermetic theory of hieroglyphs in the work of Sir Thomas Browne, the 17th-century English physician and author--Calasso joined Adelphi Edizione, a highbrow publishing house based in Milan. He is the firm's editorial director and CEO. Calasso emerged as an international literary celebrity after the publication in 1988 of his novel-like book, "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony," a retelling of Greek mythology that became a best seller in Italy and was subsequently translated into 15 languages. His most recent work is "Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India," a narrative based on Indian mythology as preserved in the Vedas and other texts. Typically, he prepared for this undertaking by teaching himself Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. Calasso, 58, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Vibhuti Patel by telephone from Milan. Excerpts:
PATEL: What sparked your interest in India's myths?
CALASSO: I became interested in ancient Indian texts in the late 1950s, when I was 18, long before it became fashionable. That interest has stayed with me all my life.
How and why did you learn Sanskrit?
I taught myself Sanskrit in the last 10 years. I needed it because one can't rely on translations. I'd done the same with Greek for "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony," my previous book. I'd learned Greek in school, but I needed to know enough to read the texts. Now my Greek and Sanskrit are on about the same level.
Why did you focus on the highly esoteric Vedas rather than on an Indian literary work?
The greatness and scope of Indian thought comes through most effectively in the most ancient texts. I first read the Upanishads, the spiritual revelation at the core of the Vedas. They are so different from any Western text that they hit me like a bolt and aroused my curiosity. The sections of the Vedas called the Brahmanas, the liturgical commentaries on rites, are especially fascinating. Ritual has much meaning in India, more than in Greece or Rome.
Like the Rig Veda, "Ka" focuses on sacrifice. What is its relevance in our time?
All the great ancient …