You’re a critic. There’s no worse thing that can be said about a man.
As I was working my way through Jeet Thayil’s second novel, “The Book of Chocolate Saints”, I was wondering why the publicity and reviews have been a little thin on the ground. In fact, I have seen one short review in “The Guardian”. The quote above appears as the novel comes to a close, a slap in the face for critics.
When Jeet Thayil exploded onto the mainstream literary stage with his debut novel “Narcopolis” his reputation as a hard living former drug addict seemed to overshadow his achievements as a poet and novelist. “Narcopolis” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and subsequently won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2013 and most reflections, critiques of the book seemed to focus on the persona of the writer, the drug elements and less on the tale of Bombay. For example, does anybody mention the novel’s opening and closing word is “Bombay”?
“The Book of Chocolate Saints” is not going to change Jeet Thayil’s hard playing reputation, it is probably only going to enhance it, merely through the seedier elements. However this is a multi multi layered work, running at close to 500 large pages, it is a complex story of the fictional poet and painter Newton Francis Xavier, an alcoholic, womaniser, a character who is highly intelligent, famous but with no self-control. It is also the story of Dismas, the young admiring writer who is compiling a biography of Newton (or Xavier, or simply X), in fact two books “two hundred and fifty pages of heft”, are we reading those two books? Or maybe it is the story of Goody Lol, Newton’s latest partner, or possibly the “The Hung Realists” a group of Bombay poets, Newton being the co-editor of an anthology called “The Hung Realists: A Subaltern Manifesto”. Or possibly this is a tale of the “Chocolate Saints”, dark skinned Saints who throughout the ages have been redefined as fair skinned with blue eyes, this includes Jesus. Surely it is also an homage to Roberto Bolaño, the similarities to “The Savage Detectives” are too obvious to ignore, fragmentary, an alter-ego (Dismas is Thayill?), the multiple character narrations and simply the celebration of a literary movement, here we have the “Hung Realists”, Bolaño with the “visceral realists”.
Structurally the book is presented in alternating parts, the first, after a short Prologue, consisting of interviews with numerous characters conducted by Dismas and the next a narrative of Newton Francis Xavier’s life, alternating back to interviews and so forth. A novel presented in a series of fragments, it is not linear, although you can follow the exposes quite simply. But it is not simply the narrative plotline that is the attraction here.
Poets Man! They’re the same all over. Mendicants, martyrs, lapsed monks convinced the world owes them an explanation or an apology or a meal, wine included. But fuck the dumb shit. I tell you this, if you’re planning a revolution or founding a new religion go to the poets. Don’t waste your time with fucking scriveners. Go to the source, the bards. At least you can count on them to be true to their essential nature. And what is this nature? Ruthlessness, I say! Enlist the poets and expect blood. There will be a lot of it. Enlist the poets and stay away from the novelists because novelists are feckless. They have no feck at all. They are yes-men hungry for approval and patronage, always looking out for their own interests. As for playwrights, all they do is talk, talk, talk about the revolution and social justice, women’s empowerment, humanism, anarchism, but it never goes anywhere because that that’s all it is, big talk, back talk, chitchat, gossip. They’re good at it because that’s how they gather material. When it comes to putting words into action? They’ll be the first to disappear. You will also come across scriptwriters and screenplay doctors. Be warned. They live in their own reality and it rarely coincides with anyone else’s. I advise you to tread carefully with those bastards. Walk among them as if you’re in a den of goddamn vipers. Count on nothing and you’ll be okay. The only ones you can trust are the short-story writers because they’re like the poets in at least one respect. They shoot their shot in one go and this leads to an understanding of luck and discipline. They learn early that discipline lies in waiting and allowing the circumstances for luck to arise. The point I am trying to make is that poets are born with certain unenviable traits. For example, paranoia. For example, they admire self-sabotage and the perverse. And for a last example, they are born with a capacity for cruelty, followed by and infinite capacity for remorse. (pp23-24)
A work that every few pages throws a new revelation, or a quotable quote, right at you, for example Dismas, low class, low caste is in the USA, of course he is displaced, what does he do for acceptance? Consumerism?
Two weeks later, with his first paycheque in hand, Dismas went to the Macy’s flagship at Herald Square and bought a pair of premium wheat nubuck Tims for $189.99 and a Kangol Two-Tone 504 for $39.99. He wore the cap back to front so the logo would face the world. He packed his Converses in a Macy’s bad and wore the Tims out of the store. He picked up the new Alicia Keys and a portable CD player shaped like a frisbee. All the way home he noticed others like himself, recognisably set apart by the bags they caried from various retail giants. The young father in baggy jeans and white T-shirt who proudly carried purchases from The Gap, Urban Outfitters, and Calvin Klein; the elegant older lady with the distinctive Barney’s bag; the couple with matching sets of Bed, Bath & Beyond. He was one among them, an extended family on a weekend outing, people from all kinds of ethnic and economic backgrounds bound together by the same great yearning. With his first substantial act of shopping since arriving in New York he felt American at last. Nothing else mattered, not his past, not his caste, not the weight of his degraded history. In this great country the only caste marks were the brand names you accessorised. (pp82-83)
It is these moments of clarity that keep drawing you back into the work. The controversy of 9/11 also presents itself in a rumbling distorted presentation, the impact on Indians, Sikh’s mistaken for Muslims, is one of racist payback and revenge killings, the fear of those marginalised groups in the USA at that time being masterfully captured, and although this is fiction, you feel the opinions of Newton will rile quite a few readers.
You are an American with a job on Wall Street and an apartment in Park Slope. People give you their money and you knead it like dough: you supersize it. You run in the park in a warm-up jacket with headphones strapped to your arm. You don’t take sugar in your coffee. You don’t eat white bread or potatoes. You don’t drink beer. You have a body mass index calculator on your computer and it tells you your weight, real and ideal, in relation to your height. You take your coffee black. In your office there is a leather couch and two leather armchairs and a framed lithograph of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed and numbered by the artist. You are an American: a New Yorker: a Brooklynite. Then the towers come down and you find yourself on a plane headed west. It is 2003, wartime in American. You have to be wearing a turban and sitting on a place to Arizona via Texas to understand the meaning of this. (p127)
This is a confronting work, poverty, sodomy, rape, drug abuse, flow in and out of the storyline. In one beautifully constructed section Goody Lol tries heroin for the first time and the text becomes more garbled and slowly disintegrates in front of your eyes.
However it is not all horror, there are some wonderfully humorous lines, for example;
The year I’m talking about is 1996. I remember because of the music, angst-in-my-pants from North America. Bands named after food items, pumpkins and honey and jam, suicidal white boys trying on grime like a flannel shirt. (p224)
This book is an inadvertent lesson in how not to write.
Full of digressions, this homage is full of tortured souls, poets, painters, writers, the fictional blending with the factual, there is a large powerful section where Jeet Thayil lists writers who have committed suicide. Where was Eduardo Leve? However you could spend a lifetime just reading the works of the writers Jeet Thayil has referenced here, let alone all the other authors and poets chronicled throughout.
In certain ways the lives of the poets and the lives of the saints are similar: the solitary travails, the epiphanic awakening and early actualisation, the thwarting and the mercy, the small rewards, the false starts, the workaday miracles, the joyous visions and fearful hallucinations, the flagellation of the flesh and the lonely difficult deaths. (p355)
It is the “Chocolate Saints” always hovering in the background, the wrongly treated, originally dark skinned these “Saints” are now known as fair skinned, and it is Newton Francis Xavier who is going to bring their true heritage and tales to our attention, through his artwork and his poetry. Is his name Francis Xavier a co-incidence? Francis Xavier was “the patron saint of wanderers without destination”… “a small exhausted dark-skinned man”.
This novel charts the “unmapped world of Indian poetry, a world known only unto itself.” The listing of numerous real Indian poets is phenomenal, for example there is a passing reference to Lawrence Bantleman, a young poet who gave up his art and died young. If you Google him you will find no information about his life, but you will find his poems.
Covering displacement, artistic creation, political motivation, caste politics, race, skin colour, the fringes of society, perversion and so much more, Jeet Thayil has created a vibrant homage to Indian poetry and forgotten Eastern Saints. The similarities to Bolaño are obvious, however I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’d wager the author couldn’t care less either, that persona preceding him!!
If the Man Booker Prize judges show some fortitude and reward writing that challenges you, that tries new things, then we will be hearing a lot more about this book when the long and shortlists are announced later this year. If they go with their standard safe, non-disruptive fare then maybe this book will become one of those obscure works rarely referenced, rarely read, and that would be upsetting.
A revelation, with disruptive and thought provoking exposés throughout, you can’t go many pages without something gripping you and tossing you out of your daily slumber. Great to see poets, by trade, shaking up the literary world.
…he would make his subject a window from which to view a broken society and a vanquished literature.