The Book of Love: In Search of the Kamasutra by James McConnachie - review by David Smith

David Smith

729, By The Way

The Book of Love: In Search of the Kamasutra


Atlantic Books 272pp £16.99

Surely it is self-evident that woodworking’s primary appeal for the man about town, that is to say, for the Kamasutra‘s man about town, would be the fashioning of wooden dildoes? Yet James McConnachie, in his study of the history of Vatsyayana’s book on the art of love, finds this bizarre! 

Last year the University of Cambridge decided to stop the teaching of the Sanskrit tripos, begun in 1831. It is to a travel writer that we are indebted for this lively account of the most famous Sanskrit book in the modern world, indeed the only Sanskrit book known to the world at large  – the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, written probably around AD 300. This Rough Guide to an item of intellectual history is not without faults, but the idea in itself, to trace the life of the Kamasutra from ‘palm-leaf manuscript to coffee-table book’, is fine. McConnachie makes the important point that the Kamasutra is a book whose title alone can stand for the very thing it represents, putting it in a highly select group, joined by little more than the Bible and the Odyssey; and perhaps the Arabian Nights

He shows chutzpah in attempting to sum up the Sanskrit erotic tradition without knowing any Sanskrit. Inevitably the nineteenth-century translator, the notorious Sir Richard Burton, steals the show. It was Burton who thought up the Kama Shastra (Ars Amoris) Society, and recast the translation in lithe attractive prose.

A cursory treatment of Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex features in the last part, which quickly brings the coverage up to date. But although the author pays tribute to modern scholars Lee Siegel and Wendy Doniger, these two, along with the psychologist and novelist Sudhir Kakar, deserved a whole chapter to themselves. Siegel, with his witty work on street magicians and snake-charmers in India, his studies of erotic poetry, and his novel about a translator of the Kamasutra, is no less than a Californian latter-day Burton. Wendy Doniger has inspired two or three generations of graduate students (‘Wendy’s children’, as Hindu fundamentalists who oppose her call them) with her joyous acclamation of erotic myth – a lifetime’s work that began over forty years ago with her masterpiece on the mythology of Shiva in the Puranas, and continues as richly as ever, making her a major contributor to modernity’s understanding of India. Both she and Siegel are brilliant translators of Sanskrit poetry for the new ‘Loeb’, the Clay Sanskrit Library.

McConnachie is clearly intelligent, but his publisher has done him harm by denying him the framework and discipline of annotation. Books about books, about bibliography, need scholarly apparatus. Without references it is usually impossible to check McConnachie’s statements. Doniger and Kakar’s annotated translation of the Kamasutra (Oxford University Press, 2002) is a major source, and easy to check. As noted above, McConnachie criticises Yashodhara, the thirteenth-century commentator, for his explanation of Vatsyayana’s mention of woodworking; but when he rebukes him for ‘staggering pedantry’ in working out the maximum possible number of sexual conjunctions (729) – after all, a sum of more than geekish interest – he is merely rehashing Doniger’s remark that the commentator was in this arithmetic ‘being somewhat flatfooted’. Moreover, if McConnachie calls Yashodhara’s level of pedantry ‘staggering’ he plainly hasn’t seen much pedantry. 

McConnachie’s eager style, pulling you along by the arm, stumbles more than once. ‘Sexing up’ belongs to Alistair Campbell, not to Burton’s editorial role. Along with not knowing Sanskrit, McConnachie has another fault – he is too young! Burton and Doniger were in their sixties when they published their translations of the Kamasutra, Alain Daniélou in his seventies. In the 1984 film Utsav, a recreation of the famous Sanskrit play The Little Clay Cart, we are shown the author of the Kamasutra as a heavily bearded figure in late middle age who peeps into brothel chambers to note down varieties of posture. Nevertheless, the zest and enthusiasm of James McConnachie’s study will lead many to look further at the riches of South Asian civilisation.

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