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Book Review: The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil

Through this book the author tries to get into the commitment of revisiting the forgotten Bombay poets of 70s and 80s.

The novel explores the genius, yet psychotic, Goan-American poet-painter Newton Francis Xavier. The uncontrolled high-lows of Xavier's life have been narrated in two tones. First, as a series of interviews with his loony mom, neighbors, ex-wives, teachers, and a host of other characters by Dismas Bambai, a multifarious journalist who was recording an oral history of Xavier. Second, as a chronicle of Xavier's journey from New York to Mumbai and finally to Delhi where he’s travelling for one last hurrah, an exhibition before being consigned to oblivion.

Thayil is a brilliant writer. His flow, the language, his ability to summon up a vision or emotion at will, his masterful use of a misplaced word that shakes you up, his exceptional knowledge of poets, poetry, painters, art and superb research. The use of poetry in the novel is again, brilliant.

Different people's interviews to introduce the early life and the bohemian and reclusive character of Xavier have been done brilliantly. Dismas Bambai goes back and forth from people and at different times to slowly unveil the events involving Xavier and his nature. The entire Hung Realist poetry movement (akin to Souza's Progressive Artists Group) and the comic absurdities around various poets, their debaucheries and the politics of Indian poetry scene are put very well through these recordings.

Newton Francis Xavier is satirized very well. A cursory Google search on India's well known painter Francis Newton Souza and the well-known poet Dom Moraes will bring up the unmistakable similarities in the life stories of the three. Xavier is portrayed as an awarded genius, once-successful, irreverent & depraved non-soul, obsessing after booze and younger women who he uses and discards without being 'distracted by love', going down the abyss of personal and professional self-destruction. There seems to be a lot of Thayil in Dismas Bambai and Newton Xavier: that these characters running after heroin, booze, casual sex and that they are poets give that away. In that sense, the book seems to be very personal to Thayil.

The increasingly unhinged thinking and erratic behavior of Xavier, depicted in the book, maybe a plot device showing progressive disintegration of the character. If so, it is masterfully done. But unfortunately, from half-way point of the book, this comes across more as the author losing grip of his writing.


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