Book Review: Jeet Thayil’s ‘The Book of Chocolate Saints’
By Suranjana Choudhury
Title: The Book of Chocolate Saints
Author: Jeet Thayil
Publisher: Aleph, 2017
“To tell the truth, in art there are no problems – that are not sufficiently solved by the work of art itself” – Andre Gide, The Immoralist
Jeet Thayil’s latest novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, stands remarkable for many reasons. This is a book on extraordinary lives, real and imagined. In this interaction between the two, the imagined playfully reinterprets the real. The narrative absorbs an edgy clash between history, literature, and art and it does so beautifully. It is a complex big book. It is at once a story and a way of unravelling layers of an artist’s journey. An artist’s journey is essentially a journey defined through experiences of solitude and suffering. On various previous occasions we have read Thayil as an intense explorer of the complexity of human mind and behaviour. In his last novel, Narcopolis, Thayil had created an exciting trove of psychological intrigues. Here, too, his piercing understanding of human psyche leads us to unsettling discoveries. There is much one could say about the range of concerns that Thayil has woven organically. One would not expect anything less from a writer who has received so many great levels of critical acclaim over the last few years. It is a rich matrix of multiple points of view that witness interesting tussles. The novelist is decidedly multi-voiced. The voices discuss terrorism, art, poetry, and other subjects without really resolving them. We remember many books, many authors, and many stories, while reading this novel. We remember Gide, Baudelaire, Coetzee, Rushdie, DeLillo, and many more. Remembrance is important because it is the prime mover of the narrative. The remembered and the people who remember render periodically the revelation of different connected strands. Who remembers? Who is being remembered? The answers are elusive. The story is not one. Newton Xavier, Dismas Bambai, Goody Lol hold the stories together. Their relationships with each other, their encounters connect different fragments curiously together.
Dismas Bambai working with Indian Angle, a seedy news agency in New York, plays the interviewer, interlocutor, interrupter in Newton’s life. Newton Xavier is his subject. Through this venture, Dismas both creates and disrupts fictional illusions. He accumulates Newton’s childhood, his growth as an artist, his obsessive association with suicide, his whims, and his desires. Newton’s story is not a singular thread of narrative. We attempt to know him through the strands of interviews and other people’s voices. Newton Xavier is an ironic man; he believes in an existence of perpetual non-integration. He believes in a state of perpetual aimless detached motion and so he says, “The self-denying artist is a kind of saint and I allied myself to one I felt some affinity with.” His act of redrawing moral borders compels us to question the validity of such borders. He embraces sensuality to fulfil his artistic needs. The novel’s depiction of a world of disrupted relationships is not just subtle, it is a little bleak as well. Thayil lets Newton love transgression and in doing so he makes us reflect on the philosophy of such transgressions. His non-conformism does not let him create a neat pattern in his life. It is chaotic. That chaos is endemic to an artist’s life is reaffirmed through what Thayil tells us about the predicament of the other artists in the novel. An unease with fixity, a resistance to permanence shape their creative journey. Thayil delivers an insight into this through his representation of the poets, painters, novelists, who we have read, heard, and seen. He brings to his canvas the unusual lives of Bombay poets, visual artists, voices which challenged the established canonicity. He situates a collaborative terrain of historical figures and the fictional ones to produce an illuminating world of art and artists.
The novel is also a narrative in the form of variations. It has a discursive sweep, the narrative moves from one idea to another, one voice to other voices. In his complex execution of ideas, he adopts a writing style that embraces variety. In a published interview, Thayil had mentioned that he likes the inclusiveness of fiction. He commented, “Poetry, song lyrics, jokes, eccentric extemporaneous digressions, musical notations, photographs – anything can go into a novel. It is a capacious adaptive form, like the English language, and reports of its demise are always exaggerated.” The plasticity of this form is fully played out in this work. Thayil inserts poetry, interviews, overlapping memories, travel accounts to build this narrative lucidly. It is divided into seven books – each attempting to challenge the other. There is an interesting uniformity, though. Each book is introduced with a poem on a saint. The author curates a list of saints, some religious, some are characters from the novel itself. Why would not he? He reminds us in the novel that whatever could be the contemporary categories of classifying the poets, poets were originally looked upon as prophets. The poems are rich and intensely evocative. Book three opens with “Saint Arun”:
the Comeback Kid; of Colaba,
patron of pi-dogs, disaster,
kittens and ogresses; of gulab, a
scholar; economical with pages;
advertising man; joined no schools;
wrote in two languages,
bhakti & the blues; did not suffer fools.
It is rewarding to read Thayil’s engagement with various cities in the novel. His ability to capture symptomatic slices of cities, New York, Bombay, Delhi, Paris, London, Bangalore, Goa, Varanasi, his gift to produce strange urban rhythm, his ability to catalogue the sights and smells of places heighten the meaning of reading. His mapping of different cities is riveting. The cities are configured through their distinctive tropes, one is not found in the other. So Bangalore is “the suicide capital of the country” and “living in Goa even temporarily, even with your onward tickets booked, you thought about futility.” The chronology is also disrupted. Time marches in a quite erratic manner here. It is interesting to find the author’s resistance towards locating the narrative in a definite present. Though the major episodes take place in a post 9/11 time frame, the author constantly navigates between different temporal locations. He takes us back to the previous decades. In a certain sense it is also a commentary on the ruins of time and age. In the case of Xavier Newton, time is not really a healer, it is deceptively a destroyer. There is a sense of poignancy in this random flow of time. In the last segment, Thayil creates a beautiful elegy on Newton’s relationship with old age, his dwindling sexual desire, his sense of approaching death. Newton’s speculation on death is compelling, “We the living have this in common and only this, we are born to die. Everything else is speculation but speculate we must.” Newton, who has always guarded his seclusion, believes in communicating with the dead. He communicates not through words but through trails of smoke. “Smoke is a better method of communication than words because there is no question of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and inaccurate articulation.” This sense of communication produces a universe of possibilities. The book too is full of possibilities. One must read to find out.
The Book of Chocolate Saints is available here.
Suranjana Choudhury is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her areas of interest include Narratives on Partition and Displacement, Women Studies, Travel Writings and Translation Studies. Besides her academic writings, she has also contributed to Humanities Underground, The Statesman, Cafe Dissensus, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, Scroll.in. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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