“All of the Above”: On Srikanth Reddy’s “Underworld Lit”
By Rachel CarrollAugust 27, 2020
Underworld Lit by Srikanth Reddy
These source texts imagine that we continue to have a relationship with the dead after they have passed on, a relationship organized by a cosmic justice system. Underworld Lit thus asks: What is the underworld literature that can guide us now? What is the justice system that could address the sheer scale of death in our modern era, achieved by colonialism and racial capitalism? I don’t think that Underworld Lit aspires to be that text, perhaps ultimately suggesting through its intertextuality that any one book would be inadequate to that immense task. However, it does school readers on the fragility of innocence in a world where violence is epistemic and our sense of accountability is conveniently circumscribed.
This journey through the realms of the dead is held by a leaky frame narrative in which the unnamed narrator — a university professor with dim tenure prospects — attempts to rehabilitate his teaching after some poor student evaluations “Made me question things, including the value of higher learning.” Ouch. Fueled by the willed optimism of someone with few options, the narrator rethinks his approach to teaching HUM 101 Introduction to the Underworld. Artifacts from his endeavor to breathe life into the course are scattered throughout the volume in the form of quizzes from the class. Of course, when the living enter the underworld they must expect to be tested — and to be judged. In these tests, those who have benefited from Western colonialism and US imperialism are especially called to report:
1) The entrance to the Mayan underworld is located in _________.
A. An underwater cave system in Bolivia
B. The dark rift in the Milky Way
C. A locked vault in the back office of the United Fruit Company
D. All of the above
The United Fruit Company, whose successor is Chiquita Brands International, was a US-based multinational corporation responsible for decades of regime change, instability, and violence in Latin America executed in the interest of their own profits, especially from bananas (hence the term “banana republic”). In a notorious example, UFC successfully convinced the US government to engineer a coup against Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, after Árbenz attempted to redistribute unused lands owned by UFC to landless farmers. The coup resulted in 30 years of military dictatorship, brutal civil war, and hundreds of thousands of deaths. How are those of us who materially benefit from the legacies of colonialism to properly understand our complicity in these deaths? How are we to bring ourselves into just relations with the dead? These are some of the ethical, political, and metaphysical questions that animate Underworld Lit.
We meet the narrator as he embarks upon an inadvisable research project: translating Léon Wieger’s Folk-lore Chinois Moderne (1909), a French translation of an obscure work of Chinese folklore as told by a French Jesuit monk. Much of Underworld Lit is the narrator’s translation of the story which follows the adventures of Chen, a magistrate’s assistant in the district of Hóu-tcheou-fou during the Qing dynasty, who is called to the underworld to answer for war crimes committed in a previous life. 
On his way to the trial, Chen’s journey through the underworld is full of misadventure, as tends to be the case on such visits. Chen encounters characters and situations drawn from ancient and contemporary sources, including Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the hero twins of the Popol Vuh, and a pregnant war refugee who may be Nephthys, the mother of the funereal deity Anubis in some ancient Egyptian myths. In the narrator’s hands, the translation of Wieger’s translation takes on absurd and anachronistic components. The “ornate sedan chair” that carries Chen through the underworld in the original becomes a talking motorized airport staircase in the narrator’s version. While in Xibalba, Chen encounters the Mayan gods of death, who in this translation are death-metal-loving black ops agents who wear “wraparound Ray-Bans, battered flip-flops, and matching ‘United Fruit Company’ baseball caps.” Once he finally makes it to his trial, located in a techno-dystopian Hóu-tcheou-fou in the year AD 2172, Chen is escorted by an abyssal Pinkie Pie, a character from the My Little Pony franchise, which is genuinely terrifying to imagine.
Chen’s relationship to the crime bears similarity to another bureaucrat from Reddy’s previous work. In Voyager, Reddy uses the poetic method of erasure to surface dark truths from the sentimental humanism of The Eye of the Storm, former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s 1985 memoir. After his tenure as Secretary-General, but before being elected president of Austria, it came to light that Waldheim had lied about his wartime service during World War II and had been party to Nazi war crimes, including the execution of Yugoslav civilians and the deportation of thousands of Greeks to concentration camps. While Waldheim had not ordered these murders, he certainly facilitated them in his position as a lieutenant in army intelligence. Chen’s relationship to the execution of 500 rebels who had already surrendered is murky, but, like Waldheim, his complicity is clear. As in Voyager, we must grapple with the seemingly benign if we are to understand the violence that organizes our world.
Such unexpected malignancy is a theme throughout Underworld Lit. As the narrator is navigating his less than promising translation project, he is also struggling with reminders of his own mortality as a recent survivor of melanoma in an “old birthmark gone bad.” The narrator’s cancer is in its “catabasis” period, that is, in remission. However hopeful this news, the brush with death remains unresolved for him. In addition to its medical definition, “catabasis” is a term referring to a trip to the underworld. As the narrator glosses, “It means a trip to the coast, a military retreat, an endless windstorm over the Antarctic plateau, or the sadness experienced by some men at a certain point in their lives.” Elsewhere, in another etymological grand jeté, the narrator notes the linguistic connection between melanoma and Dantean darkness:
But I can’t refrain from wondering at how a description, black, becomes an action, to blacken, which in turn becomes a thing, melanoma, a darkening. There’s a whole grammar and metaphysics to this black traffic. The root may be traced to the Sanskrit mala-, dirt or filth, which flowers over time into our modern English melancholy.
This story of how chromatic blackness takes on connotations of impurity and depression carries racial meaning in a book that centers on colonial violence. The trajectory of the term “melanoma” from a description to a thing, as well as the heavy phrase “black traffic,” reflects Western colonialism’s dependency upon racial objectification. Language is rotten with this history. Like Chen, the narrator is also on a melancholic catabasis, a descent which requires a reckoning with the dead.
This accounting is often intertwined with Underworld Lit’s satirical portrait of contemporary liberal arts education and the contradictions at its heart. Reddy’s humor is biting as he compares the humanities classroom to a kind of purgatory. The increasing corporatization and financialization of the university, which imagines students as consumers and treats teaching labor as a disposable workforce, would seem at odds with the ostensible commitments to democracy, deep truth, and empathy in the humanities. Yet, in practical actuality, the ideologies are complementary.
We see this slippage in the narrator’s course description:
HUM 101. Introduction to the Underworld. [Cross-listed with Divinity and Comp Lit.] In this course, students will be ferried across the river of sorrow, subsist on a diet of clay, weigh their hearts against a feather on the infernal balance, and ascend a viewing pagoda in order to gaze upon their homelands until emptied of all emotion. Texts will include the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Mayan Book of the Dead, the Ethiopian Book of the Dead, and Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead. The goals of the seminar are to introduce students to the posthumous disciplinary regimes of various cultures, and to help them develop the communication skills that are crucial for success in today’s global marketplace.
Without taking a breath, Reddy shifts between the lyricism of funerary mythology to the administrative prose of the learning objective, mimicking how the rhetoric and genres of the university manage oppositions so that they appear to be in sympathy with each other. Spiritual enlightenment prepares students for a lifetime of gainful employment. After all, what company wouldn’t hire an employee capable of sending a professional email to a demonic client? Employers value workers who are sensitive to such cultural differences. Reddy marks the ways that the humanities are embedded in racial capitalism, in which the spirit is only worth its market value.
Reddy would ask us, what is it that we think we know? In this way, Underworld Lit should be of particular interest to readers with investments in humanities education. Reddy’s painfully accurate send-up of university management speaks to the competing objectives of monetizing learning and an ethical approach to knowledge. But the critique is not limited to the present. Underworld Lit reckons with our historical inheritance and complicity in systematized violence. This should prompt us to consider how the American university has always been a colonial project connected to settlement, death, and extraction. A recent increase in work by historians and journalists studying the American university gives us a clearer sense of the ways that early American universities were founded through profits from the slave trade and a plantation economy. Land-grant universities were funded by wealth stolen from indigenous people in the interest of maintaining white settler control over indigenous land. We should be thinking about how the humanities as we know it has always been the virtuous face of a bloody business.
The narrator’s course on Underworld Literature is obviously a play on “World Literature,” a course which frequently satisfies both humanities and diversity requirements in an undergraduate core curriculum. But who gets to say what the world is? In Underworld Lit, we are asked to consider: what is the literature that can teach us to live justly in a world so structured by violence? Reddy suggests that anyone of us could be called to answer for the crimes of history, also known as our previous life. As the narrator says of Chen’s journey, “It could happen to anyone I suppose.” Palpable in Underworld Lit is the desire for something that is bigger and wiser than the tools we have for justice and a conception of the human that is not based in domination and genocide. If there is hope to be found in Reddy’s powerful collection, it is in the possibility of a literature that might repair our relationship with the dead.
Rachel Carroll is a post-doctoral research associate in the English Department at Rutgers University. She is currently working on a book on race and experimentalism in American literature and visual culture.
 Reddy maintains the romanization from Wieger’s translation. This review will use the romanization used throughout Underworld Lit.
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