Metafiction Books

The hall of literary echoes

Familiar faces: A painting by Francis Newton Souza

Familiar faces: A painting by Francis Newton Souza   | Photo Credit: Dhoomimal Gallery, Delhi

A novel about creating art and the misogyny of the Great Male Artist

Jeet Thayil’s second novel must have been an easy book to blurb, but it is difficult to justly summarise. Even by the standards of its length — 500 pages — it is teeming, with stories, characters (in every sense of the word), ideas and ambition. In search of summary it is probably best to turn to the text itself. The poet and journalist Dismas Bambai is the author of The Loathed, “a fictionalized memoir of the Bombay poets, part crime thriller and part gossip sheet”, which “begins with an account of meeting the celebrated painter and poet Xavier across two continents.”

Playful conversation

In the future, we learn, he plans to write a kind of sequel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, “an oral biography of the painter and defunct poet Newton Francis Xavier,” including “a representative sample of [Xavier’s] poems” (he originally intended to write the two books simultaneously). Thayil’s novel is The Loathed plus The Book of Chocolate Saints plus a great deal more.

There are two ways of interpreting this book that will, for most informed readers, be inescapable. The first is that it is a novel about artists and the creation of art — poetry above all — that aspires to the simultaneous status of art and literary history. The biographical arc of Newton Francis Xavier’s life and career are a composite of the poet Dom Moraes and the painter Francis Newton Souza (the ratio will be a matter of debate; I put it at 70:30).

His contemporary, the Marathi/ English bilingual Dalit poet Narayan Doss, reads like a fusion of Namdeo Dhasal and Arun Kolatkar. Dismas Bambai resembles, in many respects, the author himself. A number of other characters are lightly fictionalised analogues to recognisable real-world figures. Countless others, including Moraes, Souza, Dhasal and Kolatkar themselves, appear under their real names.


The hall of literary echoes

The second is the book’s connection to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (and, to a lesser extent, his 2666), which is comparable in intensity to that between Midnight’s Children and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In this case, however, it is less a matter of debt and homage than of playful conversation and appropriate appropriation. There are many other overt and subtle literary echoes here — The Golden Notebook is another powerful one — but Bolaño is everywhere, from the novel’s form, to its tone, milieux and concerns.

Three of the novel’s first six sections, the ones that comprise Bambai’s “oral biography” of Xavier (by extension, an oral history of the Bombay poets), are told in a multivocal style virtually identical to the central section of The Savage Detectives.

These alternate with the third-person narrative of Xavier’s last years with Goody Lol — his final romantic partner — and Bambai, moving from Bombay to post-9/11 New York to Bangalore and New Delhi. The seventh section, like Anna Wulf’s golden notebook, is an eponymous coda.

Occasionally, the resemblance to Bolaño can approach pastiche: “they found poets no one had ever heard of, or had heard of once and quickly forgotten, or had heard many times over a period and then never heard of again.”

But, in crucial ways, this is a very different book. Bolaño largely restricted himself to the “lost poets”, men and women of extreme talent and utter obscurity, devoted to literature as its own end. The Book of Chocolate Saints, by contrast, has at its heart an artist who, although financially unstable, is famous and distinguished, a renowned genius as both painter and poet.

Good company

And while written with great affection, it is also an unsparing indictment of the ego and misogyny of the male Great Artist. No previous Indian novel in English is so acute on the relationship between art and the sexual abuse of power.

At a time when many powerful men in the arts, in India and elsewhere, are — at long last — being exposed as sexual predators, The Book of Chocolate Saints is especially timely.

Not all the voices in the oral biography sections quite convince — Xavier’s university tutors sound less like Oxford dons than like the Bengali wogs of old caricature — and nor does the allusive wordplay: “Hung Realists” and the “Progressive Autists Group”.

One of Thayil’s major achievements is the extent to which he renders irrelevant distinctions between fact and fiction. But this is why metafictional games such as the following feel tired and half-hearted: “a poet whose name I can never remember, skeletal fellow, strung out or drunk, who put together an anthology some years later, The Bloodshot Book of Contemporary Poets, or something like that” (Thayil himself is thin, a former alcoholic and junkie, and the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Poets).

Some readers may be deterred by the book’s size and subject matter from picking it up in the first place. This would be a mistake, for it is an unexpected page-turner, unfailing good company and often riveting. This has something to do with the energy of the prose, but more with the quality of the stories — the sidetracks and digressions as much as Xavier’s own life.

As cultural history, The Book of Chocolate Saints is long-overdue; as fiction, it is full of both pleasure and insight. And, with any luck, it will lead some Indian readers in the direction of Roberto Bolaño.

The author is a writer based in Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 1:14:43 AM |

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