Book review: The Book of Chocolate Saints: Jeet Thayil’s work depicts male artist’s authority, touches heights of inventiveness not seen in Indian novels

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Updated: December 17, 2017 12:38:05 PM

“You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can’t hold on to her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement.” So wrote Roberto Bolano in The Savage Detectives, which Jeet Thayil’s new novel The Book of Chocolate Saints resembles in more ways than a first glance can decipher.

Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives, Jeet ThayilA 1956 untitled painting (oil and mixed media on paper) by FN Souza. The protagonist in The Book of Chocolate Saints is an artist who is inspired by Souza and has a penchant for nude paintings.

“You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can’t hold on to her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement.” So wrote Roberto Bolano in The Savage Detectives, which Jeet Thayil’s new novel The Book of Chocolate Saints resembles in more ways than a first glance can decipher. Bolano’s novel is in search of an obscure poet, who was the founder of an elusive poetry movement named Visceral Realism. Thayil’s characters are attempting a biography of similarly freakish poets called the Hung Realists. In both novels, a myriad of real poets and writers appear as characters, protagonists are modelled on real persons, with the authors often appearing in disguise. A major portion of both is devoted to accounts of a variety of voices that also form an oral history of poetry and arts in respective societies. Cocktails of poetry and unencumbered libido; even the placement of graphic sex scenes often seem strangely similar in both works.

Yet, Thayil might have borrowed the form; his is an ambitious work of metafiction. At least three books or their idea run intertwined in his novel. The Hung Realists: A Subaltern Manifesto, The Loathed and The Book of Chocolate Saints. The first is a stupendous anthology of poets “who had never before been anthologized, outliers, rebels, hermits, dangerous faces unwelcome in polite society”. This ambitious anthology being prepared by a Christian painter-poet Newton Francis Xavier and a Dalit poet, Narayan Doss, obviously excludes the names “on which the upper-caste anthologists had always relied”. The Loathed is a fictionalised memoir of Bombay poets by journalist Dismas Bambai, who is also writing another book, The Book of Chocolate Saints, an oral biography of Xavier. Over one-third of the novel is devoted to the oral accounts of various persons Bambai meets through several years for Xavier’s biography. The novel mostly moves around Xavier, a quirky genius, whose gaze barely goes beyond the body in a female. “I only know it beautiful when I paint it nude,” is his first sentence to a woman. Xavier has a variety of women in his life, including three wives, but we never get to know whether he actually loved any of them.

Xavier, we are told, reflects the combined personality traits of painter Francis Newton Souza and poet Dom Moraes, to whom the novel is dedicated. Does the novel assert the often-repeated line that it is nearly impossible for a male artist to love anybody else other than his work, that for him women exist just as a mere prop? One can turn to some eminent names. Marina Picasso described the bond his famous grandfather had with women in these words: “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.” Women in Xavier’s life, and in the novel, also find themselves in an inevitable derogatory position. Faced with his artistic talent, male vanity and sexual prowess (it comes in ample display), they barely have a voice or choice and are mostly seen feeding his ego. In one such description, Xavier, now in his late 60s, is travelling in a train with his much younger companion Goody Lol, when a fellow passenger introduces her 21-year-old daughter to them. “Keep her away from this one,” Goody says, nodding at Xavier.

“He likes them young.” Soon this stranger girl follows him to the train’s bathroom where “he was surprised at the hunger in her kiss”. And then the girl mouths these words: “Keep going…don’t stop…I want you to do it.” In this episode, several women come together to sustain the glory of an old man, who by now has a “white beard and broken nose”. In another sequence, one of his earliest nude models, Glory Pande, recounts her past experiences to Goody: “He made my boobs much bigger than they are. Years later when I got married my husband was most upset. I thought, how sweet, retrospective husbandly jealousy.” The problem in this novel lies not in the depiction of the male sexual authority, but in making a variety of bright and successful women wait in awe for their turn. The former would have made it a powerful comment on male abuse, the latter takes it to the boundaries of misogyny. A novel does not merely represent the supposed reality, it also dissects and questions the prevailing notions. Bolano, as his words with which this article begins indicate, was more critical of the male dominance asserted through art and poetry.

But there is more to it. The book is also about ambition and imagination, as it unravels the dark corners of human existence. It touches the heights of inventiveness not often seen in Indian English novels. One of the “founding tenets of the Hung Realist movement” is a poem by Doss that assigns musical notes to stations on the western line of the Mumbai local train. Thus Churchgate is ‘Sa’, Marine Lines ‘Re’, Charni Road becomes ‘Ga’, Grant Road ‘Ma’, Bombay Central ‘Pa’ and, finally, Bandra ‘Sa’ on a higher octave. It also reads as a loose sequel to Thayil’s earlier novel, Narcopolis, as several threads of that work get developed here. Xavier figures in Narcopolis and stuns others with statements like “only the rich can afford surprise and or irony. The rich crave meaning…the poor don’t ask questions, or they don’t ask irrelevant questions”. Both have Xavier visit a red-light area, Shuklaji Street of Mumbai, and meet Dimple. The novel moves with unceasing digressions, introduces myriads of fascinating characters and becomes beautifully polyphonic. One such is an old man Xavier meets in Paris. He calls himself the great-grandson of Edgar Allan Poe, though the American writer is not known to have left behind any heir.

But the novel sometimes gets lost in digressions. Several passages and pages add little to the text and could have been easily edited. In its finest moments, it comes across as a passionate manifesto for poetry and a marvellous stab at literary history that does not spare top figures. Xavier finds Tagore “a professional mystic”. “It was his white beard and sadhu’s demeanor that had endeared him to Yeats, who was a sucker for all things mystical.” Doss notes that “Tagore’s true mastery was his public relations”. It’d be difficult to find similar sentences in Indian literature that discard the Nobel laureate with such impertinence. Precisely this nerve also yields many gems about poets and poetry. Some of my picks: “If it (a nation) does not care for its poets, it does not care for anything else.” “They (poets) are born with a capacity for cruelty, followed by an infinite capacity for remorse.”

“The attempt to impose order on chaos was the mark of a minor artist…the impulse to create tenderness or bliss in the midst of chaos was the project of the superior artist.” “Indian poets think all you need to write poetry is feelings…the purpose of poetry is to get away from your fucking feelings.” “I am the historian of the outcaste poets because I am a homosexual Indian man.” The blurb calls it a “masterpiece”. This might not be so, but it certainly, with immense passion and ambition, aspires to be one. This ambition in itself should place it on a high pedestal.

A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

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