This is where Pariat first conceived Evelyn, the protagonist of the second layer of Anything the light touches, who travels from England to India, pretending to be looking for a husband, but in reality is looking for something far more elusive – something readers will discover was deeply rooted in her study of Goethian botany. “We know Goethe as a poet and playwright, and as a very big national figurehead in Germany,” says Pariat, “but we don’t know that he was this extraordinary botanist – a scientist with a difference.”
As an Indian writer, Pariat was understandably intimidated by the idea of writing about Karl Linnaeus and Goethe as semi-fictional characters, but she owes her motivation to go all the way to Milan Kundera. Immortality and Daniel Kehlmann measure the world. “It really helped me to read other fiction where Goethe is treated as a character,” she says. “Kundera writes Goethe as this really hilarious, really funny character, and Kehlmann includes Goethe in this very bold, almost cavalier way,” says Pariat. “Of course, these are male writers from Europe as well, but honestly, just reading this kind of fiction made me a bit more daring. I thought, ‘If they can do it, I too !’
At the heart of the book is Linnaeus, whom Pariat represents through an intriguing experiment in erasure poetry based on his memoir tour of Lapland. Pariat erased portions of the existing text, allowing the remnants to condense into prose that would serve as the book’s central fourth section. “In erasure poetry, the original text will always haunt the new text,” says Pariat. “In a way, that’s exactly how we inherited the Linnaean heritage of looking at the world in this very emphatic way. Linnaeus may have receded as a character, but his view stays with us. And just like the poetry that stands out on the page, it’s new, but it’s not entirely new either.