Holding a copy of Jeet Thayil’s ‘The Book of Chocolate Saints’ in your hands can be somewhat intimidating, mostly because it gives every indication of being a weighty tome in every sense of the word. Not surprisingly, it is not possible to classify this literary extravaganza which is many things without limiting itself to anything in particular. Mostly though it is chock full of the avant-garde even when it seeks to do as it declares which is to fictionalize the lives of “a lost tribe of brothers and sisters marked by ink and drink” or in other words chronicle the terrible cliché that is the tormented artist with their mommy issues, substance abuse troubles, solar – system sized egos and existential angst.
While it is something of a struggle to describe or summarize the sprawling expanse of this novel there is no denying that it is most compelling and an absolute pleasure to disappear into its delirious depths replete with compelling characters and colourful stories that are dizzying in terms of their sheer plenitude and the towering ambition that conceived them.
As the blurb says, it is the story of Newton Francis Xavier, a remarkably talented poet turned painter wrestling with protracted writers block and his personal demons, social misfit and the quintessential wild child slash dirty old man with a wandering eye for pretty young things and taste for potentially any intoxicant that could be the death of him. Based in New York and thoroughly disillusioned with the land of the free which revealed its ugly racist inclinations in the wake of the 9 /11 attacks he returns to India with his present paramour for one last blowout bash, only to the disquieting realization that the land of his birth is no better but merely “slathered with whore make – up to cover boils, moles, and warts at least for the night.”
The journey thither is of course filled with diverting detours and segues into an involved digression on the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, those tormented souls and ‘chocolate saints’ who engaged in the lonely struggle against obscurity and ignominy armed only with their pens which they had been misled into thinking was mightier than the sword only to eventually succumb to the all-pervasive wretchedness that had dogged them all their lives.
It is also among other things a searing examination of the terrible thing that is the artistic ego and temperament that with unstinting selfishness sees fit to use and discard all those who are hopelessly drawn like the proverbial moths to the irresistible creative flame. Thayil’s unflinching portrayal of the raw savagery art demands is comparable to the gut wrenching ferocity of blood sports leaving victims cruelly broken; reduced to ghosts of their former selves, carelessly strewn about by the artist who claimed them, with even the occasional twinge of remorse serving only as the laxative to blocked inspiration.
The protagonist’s callous treatment of the women in his life is particularly disquieting, bordering on the unspeakable. There is something to be said about the carelessly elegant predators out there who feed on the generosity and tender care gifted to them by the women who love them, with parasitic frenzy, before abandoning them, drained of vitality and will. Art, even great art cannot be used as an excuse for such senseless brutality.
This aspect grates on the nerves to the point, where you wonder at the tiresome notion that every author/poet/filmmaker/musician/etc. who wishes to stakes his claim to greatness must wallow in the cesspool of mostly self – inflicted misery. Surely throughout the extensive history of art there must have been a fair share of exceedingly gifted types whose personal life was relatively conflict free, sans obsessive emotional flagellation and did not culminate with heads being stuck into ovens or drowning in one’s own puke while under the influence of intoxicants?
Yet, minor grousing aside, Jeet Thayil’s remarkable book is not really meant to be analysed, rather the reader would do well to cast aside all reservation and be swept up in its surging currents, delighting in the sheer sensations it evokes. Revel in the inspired ideas, relish the asides that are funny as well as heart-breaking and ride on the wings of lyrical prose that transcends the limits of the medium while allowing your soul to soar towards the very height of great art powered by a superior mind at the very height of its prowess.
An edited version of this book review appeared in The New Indian Express