Now she knows why the Mother went on that pilgrimage, why anyone goes on a pilgrimage, and why she must go too.
Journey to Ithaca by Anita Desai is about poignant pilgrimages of the protagonists, painted with so much beauty and pathos, it takes you on one of your own. Desai does that. She is masterful in carrying a reader in her arms to surreal places, in unforgettable realms. I shall always remember the time I read my first Desai novel, The Artist of Disappearance. I shall always remember how she took my breath away with almost every sentence. She weaves similar her magic in Journey to Ithaca, but in certain places, in certain ways. It is not a sustained work of genius like The Artist... is. I remember wanting to cry sometimes, so overwhelmed I was with the beauty of her language.
Like here: Isabel is quiet, separating two ideas and then putting them together again: Grandmother does not want them to go to their parents, and grandmother does not want them here. 'Then where can we go?' she asks, not knowing a third place for themselves.
And here: ...and a jasmine that flowered and flowered as though it thought itself to be in paradise.
But I also remember being bored at times. Especially the last few pages. Perhaps I was tired of reading the the book, perhaps Desai of tired of writing it. The end of Matteo and Sophie's story and that of Laila or the Mother's and that of Giacomo and Isabel all come to a laboured end, but that's perhaps how it feels when one reaches Ithaca.
Journey to Ithaca takes us along on the arduous road to self discovery of Matteo, his antithetic wife, Sophie, and the spiritual journey of the Mother/Laila. As Mateo tires of his bourgeois Italian upbringing and heads to India with his newly-wedded wife, Sophie in search of life's true purpose, we fall and flail along the path with them. Sophie is disgruntled with the dirt, the disease and the poverty of India and wants to live the 'Goa' life, while Matteo suffers in his search for a guru, until at last he finds refuge in the Mother. Sophie does not understand Matteo's blind faith in the Mother and proceeds to uncover her past in the hope to open her husband's eyes. Sophie learns about the spiritual guru's past as Laila, a rebel, who dances her way to India, and finally meets her spiritual master and destiny.
Desai's portrayal of Matteo and Laila strike home particularly hard because their search for the Supreme is laced with a lot of pain, doubt and conflict. The author is brilliant when she deals with strong emotions such as these. You can feel it sometimes like a body blow, when Matteo lies on the cold hard ground in wait and Laila weeps in agony to be united with her divine lover. Sophie's bewilderment draws sympathy too, but not as much. The characters are stark and the plot sublime. Reading Desai needs you to be buoyant, to float, and to let it take you to Ithaca and beyond.