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Ive been meaning to read a bit of Tagore for a long time now – I am not hugely familiar with the Indian subcontinent, beyond reading some Coomaraswamy many years ago, but Tagore seemed very interesting, and probably not a bad place to start for an ignorant westerner. I was discussing where to start with some Bengali friends and they surprised me with this lovely little book, in French, to my surprise. I dont think the same stories have been printed together in English, unfortunately so as they work very well together. The fantastic short-story is a bit of an exercice de style – they usually follow a single, predictable but winding path to a tragic conclusion, and as such make for great comparisons across authors and culture: Tagore follows closely the model in the footsteps of Maupassant le Horla and other similar classics of the genre, with indirect narrations, a generous scoop of late-romantic set pieces peppered with more realistic and modern elements: the narrator meets a man who recalls a story carefully crafted to leave the reader -and frequently enough, the characters themselves- wondering whether the strange events are the fruit of supernatural forces or of creeping insanity. Thus here one story tells of the sleepless conversation of man with a skeleton, another of the return of a woman drowned by her greed, while a third one that of a poet haunted by his dead wife. The plots themselves are typical, and the supernatural elements, although sometimes alluding to the local folklore, could easily be transposed in another setting – yet one can only be struck, after a few stories, at the fact that most of those ghosts are female: that is indeed where the books strength is, for in Tagores stories as in many of his Western colleagues, the fantastic is primarily a tool to comment and dramatise the encounter with modernity. In particular, as with others around the fin-de-siecle, Tagore uses it to express and explore his male anxiety at the changing status of women in his society. Yet here, none of those vamps or nefarious femme fatales that inhabits the western imagination of the time, but rather a deep and thoughtful ambivalence, that often simultaneously acknowledges the impossible and demeaning nature of the womans position in traditional Indian society, while simultaneously bemoaning, frequently with a touch of humour, the modern male incapable to cope with those shifting gender roles. Romantic love inherited from ancient poetry seems to haunt the mind of those men, who fail, despite their best efforts, to live up to the impersonal standard of colonial modernity. From one story to another the register change drastically, and while in one, the author can comment on the fact that a kind hearted man too compliant with his wife ended up creating a selfish, materialistic and ultimately self-destructive monster (that eventually comes back to haunt him even after her demise) – leaving no room at all for agency or soul to the female character – in another, the narrators wife, always pragmatic but also profoundly dedicated to her husband, is revealed to be the deeper and the more admirable of the two when she reaches her death-bed. The husbands unspoken love, mixed with regrets and shame, hounds him in his new marriage as the new wife fails to live up to the standards of the deceased. That one is deeply moving and possibly one of the most striking depiction of married life I have encountered in such a short format.

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