WHEN All About H. Hatterr was first published in 1948, it received almost universally favorable critical notices. It was immediately successful, and seemed likely to establish its author as a first-rank novelist. But because of the strange interactions of whimsical public tastes and the mechanics of the modern publishing world, it slipped into literary limbo, becoming another in the long list of "underground classics."
With its republication it has returned above ground. Whether it will remain there, like the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Malcolm Lowry, similarly once-lost-but-now-redeemed, is still to be seen. It deserves to stay with us; our stock of important literature will be diminished if this book goes under for the second time.
The glory of the book is its language. H. Hatterr, the hero and narrator, is the son of a European merchant and a Malayan lady. Orphaned in India, he ran away from his mission orphanage, taking with him the mission funds and three books-an English dictionary, a Latin primer, and a French primer. With this start he educated himself, taught himself English, but an English far superior to any he could have learned in school, a wild soaring English free of the dullness of grammatical conventions and "standard" usage. His is an English precise and exact, but exuberantly alive.
The plot of the book, H. Hatterr's adventures in his search among the Sages of India for the Truth about Life, is a sturdy and effective vehicle for the mad exalting joy of the language of the book. The book is a verbal equivalent of a Cellini chalice.
THE RIOT of words is given meaning and support by the careful structure of the book. Each section opens with a visit to one of the six Sages that Hatterr consults. Testing the teaching of each Sage, attempting to find an order to life, he is driven into some ludicrous situations-in one segment, for example, he winds up as a human serving dish for the meals of a circus tiger. After each adventure, though, he returns to his friend Banerrji, a staid and stable clerk, who provides Hatterr with an anchor in reality.
The Truth that Hatterr finally discovers is one of Contrasts-everything will, sooner or later, become its opposite.
What a Show! Let a god or a human deliberately court hell, commit Evil, yet the laws of Contrast! as binding as death-and birth, contrast'll come to him and deliverance from whatever state he happens to be in! Let a feller act Evil, and, on the top, enjoy himself, and deliverance will come to him, in contrast to his acting and feeling!
Hell, can you imagine the depth of red on Lucifer's face when he finds Himself in Heaven? Yet, that's where the fellow is heading for! Free board and lodge! That's Law. That's Contrast. That Compulsion. No escape!
G. V. Desani, the author of All About H. Hatterr, has led a life nearly as interesting as the one he created for his protagonist. He lived for nearly two decades in monastaries throughout the Orient; he was for a time a journalist in India, and he recently served as Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas. If he hadn't stopped writing, he might have given us some masterful examples of a difficult genre, the comic novel. Whether or not he ever writes again, though, All About H. Hatterr will guarantee him a loyal group of readers.