Saturday, March 8, 2008


By Al Raines
Undercover Utopia

Whoever had made the proverb ‘Don’t judge a book by the cover’ would have surely changed his mind if he came across a copy of Soul Search Engine by Al Raines. Honestly, this is the first book I have ever come across, which so crisply captures the whole essence of the novel with its cover page design. No, this book doesn’t have an expensive and glossy cover. Rather it is a sweet and simple cover.

Your foremost glance at the cover will give you the impression of the google homepage. However you will soon realize the title, hyper links and search button logos of this google page look-alike, actually read different. In bold colourful font this page is titled ‘Soul Search Engine’ which also happens to be the book title. The words keyed in this search box read ‘life times’. The indices or cross-sections of search offered are ‘time’ and ‘space’. You are given the options of an indepth infinite search or a simple nostalgic search on the whim. The web links indicate that you can savour your search through your five sense organs in terms of images, sounds, tastes, textures and fragrances. This book can’t be accessed with a mouse click as it is after all not an online book nor is its cover page a real web page. Just start turning the pages and read on- the novel will take you on a lovely trip down the ages.

Thematically Soul Search Engine is ‘a brief story of life, the universe and everything in ninety-nine pages: a story fourteen billion and thirty six years in the making’. The novel traces the history of the world from its inception till the modern times. It simultaneously unravels one of the greatest and touching tales of friendship through the story of two souls who strengthen their bond of friendship through the successive life times they share together. The front cover illustratively captures this very thematic concept.

Structurally the book is divided into three broad chapters: Disappearing Dinosaurs, Neanderthal Noon and Modern Men. The book opens with a prologue and is rounded off with an epilogue. A striking feature of the book is that the chapters are interspersed with diary entries by the protagonists of the book in cursive hand, lending an epistolary touch to the novel.

Those of you who think, “What’s the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” let me gladly inform you that Soul Search Engine has soft pencil shade sketches of dinosaurs, prehistoric men, cave sketches and artefacts symbolizing the modern age. The conversations between the protagonists are sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes highly philosophical and sometimes so naïve, sweet and simple.

The protagonists of the novel are the adorable Stegy and Rex, who despite being poles apart become best buddies, in fact soul mates. They meet for the very first time when both are dinosaurs. They are reborn as Neanderthal men and later as modern men. As they bump into one another over several births they renew and develop on their friendship every time they meet.

Historical fact and fiction are harmoniously blended in etching out the characters and developing the plot. Stegy in his dinosaur birth is the Stegosaurus, very correctly described as large, plant-eating dinosaur with triangular plates on his back and spikes on his tail. Whereas Rex is a Tyrannosaurus Rex very aptly described as a carnivore with a massive skull balanced by a long, heavy tail. Despite being the largest predator alive he is pint sized when compared to the Stegosaurus. Stegy and Rex are however not the blood-curdling dinosaurs as shown in Jurassic Park and the Godzilla movies. They are docile rather than destructive. The only destructive dinosaurs in the book are the wily raptors. They retain their birds of prey instincts even when they reincarnate themselves later as prehistoric tribes thirsting for vengeance and finally modern terrorist warriors.

Neanderthal Noon beautifully chronicles the impact of the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel. This chronicle may not however adhere exactly to factual truth- it reads more like a fictional chronicle. The wheel and fire rather have symbolic overtones in the novel and act as a medium to unravel the innate characteristic traits of the prehistoric protagonists Coznay (a reincarnation of Rex) and the Hider/ Finder (a reincarnation of Stegy). Coznay seems to have the vibrant energy and indomitable fiery spirit a fire seems to have. The Finder, the inventor of the wheel is the creative one. The way in which the Finder brings forth innovative changes to the world, he is indeed like the wheel of progress.

Prehistoric life is unraveled through sensuous imageries. There’s a lavish description of a feast in which ‘a veritable cornucopia of berries, nuts, roots, shoots and fruits’ are ‘all dressed up in myriad shades of leaves’. A prehistoric village in the shroud of the night sky is garlanded with small fires on tree tops and the paths between the huts. Rex in a latter life time while visiting New York City with all its dazzling lights fondly conjures up this rich visual memory.

In the last chapter of the novel Stegy and Rex come back to the world as Mikhail Gorky (who though an Army General wishes to save the defenseless) and Alex Baldwin (a self-made American millionaire who bets on the war). The concluding chapter is the most philosophical and nostalgic chapter of the novel with Stegy and Rex now with the analytical thinking capability of the contemporary man fondly reminiscence over the many lives they’ve spent together and how the world has changed over the years.

For a literary person Soul Search Engine may be a poetic and lyrical experience. For a historian the book may be a crisp synopsis of world history specifically the time frames of the Dinosaur Age, Prehistoric Age and Modern Age. For the philosopher the book brings forth a plethora of philosophical insights without promoting the teachings of any particular philosophers. For a person who believes in reincarnation it may be a delightful spiritual rendezvous.

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