Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz - one of the greatest expressions ever of the tortured intersection of political and personal destinies in Eastern Europe. Futuristic, experimental, and remarkably prophetic


Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Narcotics: Nicotine, Alcohol, Cocaine, Peyote, Morphine, Ether + Appendices (Image to Word), Trans. by Soren gauger, Twisted Spoon Press, 2018.


For his “portrait painting firm,” Witkiewicz established rules and types for his portrait work, marking the paintings and pastels with corresponding symbols and abbreviations of the substances he had either taken or, in the case of alcohol and nicotine, not taken at the time. Type C were created under the influence of alcohol and “narcotics of a superior grade” to produce abstract compositions he called “Pure Form.” A variety of drugs and their combinations were taken to produce a variety of distortions and effects, and often this would be the portrait subject’s choice. And in some instances a given portrait might be marked with symbols denoting how many days he had gone without smoking or without drinking (and type D were executed to achieve the same results without any artificial means). Different substances resulted in different color combinations or brought out different aspects of the subject’s features or psyche. One stunning series of self-portraits, for example, was executed while on a combination of moderate amounts of beer and cocaine.
In the vein of the well-known drug writings of De Quincey and Baudelaire from a century earlier and those of his contemporaries Walter Benjamin and Jean Cocteau – and foreshadowing the later writings of Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda on psychoactive drugs – Witkacy composed Narcotics in 1930 to discuss and document not only his own experimentation with different substances but the nature of addiction itself and the prevailing social attitude toward drugs, particularly those that were considered “acceptable.” As life became increasingly mechanized, Witkacy felt that a sense of the metaphysical could only be achieved by artificial means, and like Henri Michaux, he produced an extensive oeuvre of singular visual art while under the influence of a variety of substances.
Meandering, acerbic, and burlesque, rife with neologisms and expressions from German, French, English, and Russian, Witkacy dissects Polish society and the art world as well as himself via the hypocrisy surrounding drug use. Since it was first published in the 1930s, Narcotics has achieved a cult status in Poland where it is considered both a modernist classic and a paragon of Witkiewiczian madness. This edition, the first complete translation in English, includes a second appendix written later, passages from the novel Farewell to Autumn, and 34 color reproductions of a cross section of portraits to show how various substances impacted Witkacy’s art.

Narcotics was written and published in Poland in the 1930s, and was apparently quite a big hit. [...] In its strange moralizing, the foreword—an apologia really–reminded me a bit of Henri Michaux’s similar exercise, Miserable Miracle, which also strikes a defensive tone at the outset.         

In Narcotics Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (also known as Witkacy) talks and takes drugs. His stance is firmly anti -- save a soft spot he has for peyote (the real stuff, not mere mescaline), despite the accompanying nausea he describes -- and he counsels strongly, even militantly against drug use -- while also acknowledging extensive (and sometimes excessive) personal use (though never to the extent the gossipmongers claim, he repeatedly insists). While not exactly scientific, he has firm opinions about each of the narcotics he discusses -- and often speaks from personal experience, offering (what he hopes to be): "some instructive personal truths in a digestible form".
       Witkacy devotes a chapter each to six drugs: nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, peyote, morphine, and ether. His first experiences were with ether, as a teen -- noting amusingly that it just made him more teen-ish: "Ether never made me euphoric, only strange and morose" -- but that's left for last, and he begins with the habit he is most addicted to and arguably finds most insidious, smoking. He manages periods of non-smoking, but it's a struggle -- especially that initial withdrawal, when: "The sense of meaningless is so profound that lighting that cig seems the very height of logic".
       For the most part, he claims smoking was his only real addiction, but he admits to weakness with other substances as well, and even about some he is almost entirely negative about -- "Cocaine -- hideous filth" -- he admits: "I don't suppose I'll ever experiment with that crap again, though I wouldn't absolutely swear to it". It should also be noted that his conception of dabbling in these substances -- his understanding of what limited use amounts to -- might differ from most people's. So, for example, he helpfully insists:
    Vodka is filth and should only be drunk to combat raging influenzal head colds, and only on the first day: half a liter with lunch and half a liter with supper at most.
       If the medical advice is dubious (if not downright dangerous), he's good on the allure of the drug-high, with its sense of wider vistas, and the otherwise unseeable and unknowable -- and he's especially good on the coming/crashing-back-down to reality when the effects wear off (and the after-effects make themselves felt):
Reality opens its gelatinous and reeking maw, its derisive eyes goggling with wild abandon -- a monstrous caricature affected by the general degradation and inner flaccidity that comes with post-alcoholic crapulence. But by increasing the dosage of the intoxicant you can always occasionally return to the old ecstasy and gain at least a wan simulation of life.
       Witkacy remains suspicious of the high, and of the (ir)reality found there. Even when the altered states have been inspiring, he qualifies the successes:
I have created a small number of portraits I would never have been able to accomplish otherwise. Yet I should note that I do not regard these pieces as finished works of art but as an entirely different species.
       The longest chapter is on peyote, complete with a detailed timeline of his experience with a dose of the authentic stuff (lamenting that: "It's too bad relations with Mexico make it incredibly difficult to obtain the genuine article"). He tries to relate what he saw -- even as he admits he can only describe: "about 1/2000 (one two-thousandth) of all the visions I experienced on that unforgettable night".
       Still, here's a drug he can really get on board with:
a drug that provides remarkable visions and profound glimpses into buried layers of the psyche and discourages the use of any other drug, above all alcohol. I consider its sporadic use utterly harmless
       Of particular interest to Witkacy is the effect of narcotic use on art, even as he maintains it interferes more than it helps: Witkacy was also painter, and this volume includes 34 color plates of portraits he painted under the influence, each one with a notation as to what narcotics were involved. There are some remarkable contrasts, depending on the substances involved, and it's a shame that he doesn't explore this particular aspect of his drug-experimentation more closely (though there is quite a bit of at least general discussion of it).
       Part of the fun of Narcotics is how Witkacy is led to spirited criticism that extends beyond the narrowly narcotic -- a symptom of society's ills, but only part of a larger, troubling picture. And so he rages enjoyably -- about how: "appalling what is happening to our literature and theater" is, for example, and he gets in quite a few personal digs as well.
       The volume also includes welcome relevant (i.e. drug-related) excerpts from his novel Farewell to Autumn, as well as two appendices; the first is: 'On washing, shaving, aristocratomania, hemorrhoids, and the ilk', and includes helpful observations such as:
Whatever a person's underwear/clothing situation, it will invariably be improved by proper and regular washing.
       Yes, Witkacy clearly saw a lot in the world and society around him that he felt people needed help (or at least helpful reminders) with.
       As far as drugs go -- well, early on, Witkacy writes:
I believe we are approaching a time when getting stoned will lose its appeal, which will spell the end f narcotics. The currently disastrous state of drug addiction marks their final death throes amid this temporal blurring.
       It's presumably more wishful thinking than something he was convinced of, but it reflects his general attitude throughout the book -- more what he wanted to convince himself of than an accurate analysis of narcotics and their effects.
       For better and worse, Narcotics is something of a rambling -- and very opinionated -- discourse rather than sober analysis. It's certainly an engaging read, and, as a very personal document, offers interesting insight into the character (and, to some extent) his art -- and his struggles with narcotics.
       The Twisted Spoon edition is also an attractive volume, and the many color plates a fascinating complement to the text (though one wishes there were more discussion of this art by the artist). - M.A.Orthofer

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, The Witkiewicz Reader, Northwestern University Press, 1992.

read it at Google Books

Forgotten during the Stalin years, Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939) was rediscovered in his native Poland only after the liberalization of 1956, when his works came to play a major role in freeing the arts from socialist realism. This collection, the first anthology in English, presents Witkiewicz in the full range of his creative and intellectual activities. The Witkiewicz Reader includes excerpts from three novels; four complete plays; letters to Malinowski; and selections from aesthetic, social, and philosophical essays detailing Witkiewicz's theory of Pure Form, his metaphysical system, and his apocalyptic view of the fate of civilization.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Insatiability: A Novel in Two Parts, Quartet Books, 1985., Northwestern University Press, 2012.

This novel, the author's masterpiece, is one of the greatest expressions ever of the tortured intersection of political and personal destinies in Eastern Europe. Futuristic, experimental, and remarkably prophetic, Insatiability traces the adventures of a young Pole whose fate parallels the collapse of Western civilization following a Chinese communist invasion from the east. Written in 1927, Witkiewicz's anti-Utopian novel proved to be a horribly prescient vision of what would become reality for Eastern Europe in the late 1930s.

It seems like the punch line to a joke: a 500-page futurist novel written in 1927 by a Polish borderline schizophrenic. And for long stretches, Insatiability reads like some kind of joke. ("Fat was a seedy gent wearing a jockey's cap and a crimson scarf barely covering a bland and sinewy Adam's apple with huge welts along the throat glands.") Sometime in the late 20th century, while neo-Bolshevist Western Europe and "fascist-Fordian" America decay, a "yellow wall" of Communist Chinese threatens to overrun Europe. Only Poland?lone bastion of syndicalism and aristocracy?stands in their way. Baron Genezip Kapen de Vahaz, or "Zip," comes of age in this tremulous, dangerous time. Those around him?a deformed musical genius; a coldhearted logician; a devout recluse; a politicized writer; the enigmatic commander-in-chief of Poland and his jejune mistress; and the sexually rapacious Princess di Ticonderoga?try to impress their own philosophies on him. He joins the Army, and his military indoctrination along with the not-so-subtle ministrations of the women in his life help shatter Zip's self-identity. By the time the Chinese begin preparations to invade Poland, he displays various different personalities, each more terrifying than the previous. Witkiewicz was a photographer, artist and playwright, as well as a novelist; in each field, his work was greeted by unflagging disinterest. In the case of his writing, this was by no means because he lacked talent?Insatiability is filled with clever (often multilingual) wordplay, febrile humor and rollicking sex scenes. (The translation is brilliant, smoothly finding perfect phrases and puns.) But Witkiewicz has a deadly tendency to refine his metaphors within an inch of their lives. Insatiability is an extreme novel, coupling a thorough knowledge of philosophy with a monumental lack of perspective (the principal character stands in for no less than all of Western Civilization). For any but the staunchest of readers, it will prove tough slogging, indeed. (May) FYI: An ardent nationalist, Witkiewicz killed himself in 1939 upon hearing that the Soviet Army had invaded Poland. In a twist sure to have appealed to his bizarre sense of humor, in 1994 it was discovered that a woman's body occupied his coffin. - Publishers Weekly

A complete revision of Iribarne's lively 1977 translation of one of the key works of European literary modernism. Witkiewicz (18851939) was a gifted painter, poet, philosopher, dramatist, novelist, and iconoclastic wit--a kind of latter-day Polish William Blake or Wyndham Lewis. In this, his greatest--and weirdest--novel (first published in 1927), Witkiewicz created a unique and fascinating hybrid: a novel of education grafted onto a stinging sociopolitical satire that mushrooms into nightmarish dystopian prophecy. The inchoate protagonist, Genezip Kapen, moves from youthful innocence and promise through the formative and transformative crucibles of sexual initiation (and confusion), drug addiction, madness, and murder. His own psychic and moral fragmentation evinces what his author perceived as the larger decline of his country (summed up in its surrender to an invading Chinese communist army) and a culture too effete to survive the pressures of the new century. Witkiewicz's surpassingly strange book is an exhilarating amalgam of Swiftian satire, Dostoyevskian intensity, and (an acknowledged influence) Rabelaisian digressiveness. And one of the most exciting novels of its time. - Kirkus Reviews

Insatiability is one funky novel. The time between the wars was an interesting one in Central Europe, and a great deal of truly great literature, largely in the form of large tomes, appeared or was conceived then. Broch and Musil reigned in Austria (well, they did not reign, but they created the greatest works of the period), Döblin experimented in Germany (though it was the dull man Mann that pleased the public), and Poland had both Witkiewicz and Gombrowicz fashioning their fascinating work. Insatiability is, like Gombrowicz' Ferdydurke, Musil's Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities), and Broch's towering Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers), and, yes, Mann's big books, a philosophical novel of enormous dimensions and proportions.
It is a fantastical novel, darkly utopian, in which Europe is under a fascistic regime while a Russian revolution dominates that country, and everyone is faced with a Chinese invasion. The leaders in a seemingly invincible Poland succumb to an unusual new drug-religion, Murti Bing, and in the end surrender to the Chinese.
The hero of the novel is Genezip Kapen. His adventures are in the main sexual and philosophical. Witkiewicz uses him to expound his own theories -- serious and not so serious -- and he goes far afield in doing so. Peopled with a vast assortment of unusual characters, the novel is always ... interesting, and generally engaging.
Witkiewicz does not seem to take himself or his ideas all too seriously, and so in some senses this book is a tonic compared to the general run of Bildungsroman from the time. He paints ... nay, splatters a broad canvas in this novel that could as easily be termed dystopian science fiction as a Bildungsroman. The philosophy is unusual but certainly interesting (if only for its bizarreness). Witkiewicz, a talented painter who gave up painting, also argues about the impotence of language, the inadequacy of fiction, rejecting his undertaking while creating such a huge work.
It is thoroughly entertaining, but it is an unusual novel, from a different time and context (though the commentary on Communism, for example, is strikingly modern). A true intellectual, Witkiewicz' thoughts on the many hundreds of subjects he raises are interesting and interestingly expressed. It is a bit of a mess, and certainly will not be to everyone's taste, but we do recommend it. It is an important novel, and a fun one. Worth the considerable effort required. - The Complete Review

In early September, 1939, a few days after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, like thousands of other refugees, fled from Warsaw towards the east. On September 17, he learned that the Soviet Union had attacked from the east. Feeling that his darkest apprehensions about the triumph of totalitarianism were coming true and that there was no escape, the 54-year-old author committed suicide the next day by slitting his wrists with a razor.
Painter, playwright, novelist, aesthetician, and philosopher, Witkiewicz -- or Witkacy as he called himself -- belongs to the writers and thinkers known in Poland as catastrophists, who sprang up in the period framed by two world wars, the first of which brought the Polish state back into existence after nearly 150 years of dismemberment, and the second of which threatened the nation with total annihilation. Poised between cataclysms, Witkacy forecast an apocalyptic close to Western civilization and wrote with sardonic humor about the approaching end of the world.
The major theme in all of Witkacy's works is the growing mechanization of life, understood not as dehumanizing technology, but rather as social and psychic regimentation. In dozens of plays and two large novels, Witkacy portrays the threatened extinction of a decadent individualism. The degenerate remnants of a once creative mankind will be replaced by a new race of invading levelers who will establish the reign of mass conformity, modeled on the beehive and anthill -- by what Orwell calls "insect-men."
Thoroughly -- although ironically -- Euro-centric, the author of Insatiability most often presents the invading forces as coming from the outside, representing a different culture that will subvert moribund old world values. In his first literary work, the one-act comedy Cockroaches, which at the age of 7 Witkacy printed on his own hand-press, a menacing gray object in the sky drawing closer and closer is revealed to be a cloud of cockroaches from America. Undoubtedly the precocious child, hearing his father discuss the mechanization of work in the United States according to the assembly line principles of F. W. Taylor, associated modern mass production with notions of collectivity, alien and deeply inimical to the individuality so highly prized by the Witkiewicz family. Brought up in the picturesque mountain resort of Zakopane and educated entirely at home according to this father's elite system, young Witkacy was nurtured on contempt for the mob (whatever its class origins) and trained to revere art, although the boy had doubts about his own vocation and longed to be part of a school world forbidden to him.
Four years as a tsarist officer in Russia, where he witnessed the last days of St. Petersburg and lived through the February 1917 Revolution, even being elected political commissar by his regiment, gave Witkacy an entirely new perspective on the collectivist threat and caused him to revise drastically his ideas about the supreme importance of art and artists in the 20th century. In a long series of plays, which the painter-playwright began immediately after his return to Poland in 1918, Witkacy showed, in vivid but disintegrating images, the collapse of an ancien régime composed of obsolete individualists -- decadent artists, demonic women, Nietzschean supermen -- which is overrun by "the uniform, gray, sticky, stinking, monstrous mass."
Although seen largely from the point of view of the doomed social class of "pseudo-Hamlets" who have lost faith in their own reason for existence and been rendered grotesquely impotent, Witkacy's dramas also include in the dramatis personae the amoral adventurers who take over revolution and exploit it for their own advantage. In times of violent social upheaval, those who come out on top are not the ideologically pure but the ruthlessly opportunistic. In They (1920), a prophetic play dealing in thought control, confession to uncommitted crimes, the destruction of modern art, and government by informers and secret organizations, Witkacy explores the real, as opposed to the apparent, sources of power. THEY, ubiquitous and protean, have assumed control of the institutions of public life and, in the guise of the League of Absolute Automationism, enforce the tyranny of society over the individual.
Unlike Capek in R.U.R. and Kaiser in the Gas trilogy, the Polish playwright was little concerned with the enslavement of man to the machine or the dangers inherent in advanced industrialization. For Witkacy, modern science and modern art are allies in the struggle against the anthill; both are subversive of stability and uniformity and must be rigidly controlled by the new tyrants. Well versed in the theories of Einstein, Whitehead, Bohr, Mach, Cantor, and Heisenberg, Witkacy recognized that the conventions of realistic drama are based on mechanistic Newtonian physics. In his own plays he attempted to create a new dramatic model (which he called Pure Form) derived as much from the discoveries of the new mathematics as from Picasso's breakthrough in non-representational painting. In his most farsighted antiutopian play of the 1920's, Gyubal Wahazar, the automated political realm of the future is portrayed as "a sixth-dimensional continuum," in which human nature has become something infinitely malleable and subject to endless transmutation. Subtitled "Along the Cliffs of the Absurd, a Non-Euclidean Drama in Four Acts," Gyubal Wahazar abandons old-fashioned psychology and techniques of story-telling in order to portray future totalitarianism as a world of indeterminacy and relativity; this anticipates by a few years Evgeny Zamyatin's thesis in "On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Things," that modern art forms must abandon fixed plane co-ordinates and project reality onto fast-moving, curved surfaces. Known as "His Onlyness," the insane dictator Wahazar -- a super-individualist who wishes to liberate mankind from metaphysical longings and return the human community to the primal harmony of the beehive -- becomes a martyr to his own cult of the leader, but upon his death, the frightening Dr. Rypmann is able to fabricate new tyrants by "the fission of the psychic atom," and the nightmare continues.*
During his lifetime, Witkacy was better known as a novelist than as a playwright, since his two major works of fiction were brought out by established publishing houses whereas most of his dramas went unpublished and unperformed. Because of their politically sensitive character, Farewell to Autumn (1927) and Insatiability (Nienasycenie, 1930) cannot be reprinted in Poland at the present time, although there was a limited re-issue of the latter work in 1957, after the "thaw." Louis Iribarne has performed an important service for English-speaking readers with a dynamic translation of Insatiability that captures the vigor and grotesque humor of the original. Of all Witkacy's works the most complex linguistically and stylistically, Insatiability is a bizarre potpourri of erotic adventures, philosophical speculations, and predictions of coming disaster; to have rendered this idiosyncratic monster of a novel into vivid, juicy English is an outstanding accomplishment testifying to Iribarne's extraordinary skill as a translator. In addition, Iribarne provides an exemplary 40-page introduction to the life and work of the author as well as an incisive commentary on the novel.
There are those who argue that Insatiability is the author's masterpiece, and it is certainly the most Witkacian in the virtuoso narrative digressions and inexhaustible comic inventions. At the same time this wild, lunatic, and phantasmagoric book has proved to be one of the most prophetic works of 20th-century fiction, not so much in its particular predictions (although some of these are quite uncanny) as in its capturing of the age's sensibility through brief composite portraits of the "psychosocial" environment. The fractured picture that results is that of an incoherent ersatz world which resembles our own. In the Witkacian era of insatiability, everything from genius to revolution, from food to mystical experience, from art to patriotic heroics, is an inauthentic manifestation of pseudo-culture. Change has accelerated so strongly that "the distances between generations had diminished to the point of being ridiculous: people just a few years younger than others were apt to refer to the latter as their 'elders' " (II:288). Throughout all the media there is systematic falsification of the news, while the government is perceived by all as an organized mafia behind a mafia, causing such a loss of belief in politics that the state becomes regarded as a sport. Meanwhile, in the background, the superbly disciplined Chinese communists, after subduing counter-revolutionary Russia, are poised to take over the blandly bolshevized states of Western Europe.
In one way a traditional "education novel," Insatiability presents the initiation into life of the young hero, Genezip Kapen, who, faced with frightening impulses within his psyche and vast impersonal threats in the society around him, sinks slowly into mechanized mindlessness, unable to retain his human individuality; at the same time, Poland is likewise losing her battle to hold back the onrushing Chinese. As schizophrenic as the bewildered young hero is the divided temporal perspective, situating the novel at the point "where the opposing forces of past and future intersect" (II:246). Although the action of Insatiability is situated in the post-revolutionary world of the 21st century, the new age is seen refracted in an obsolete pre-revolutionary mirror, Poland -- a limbo and refuge for decadent aristocrats, deranged artists, posturing titans, and philosophical sensualists.
Set against this crumbling stronghold of individualists and ready to crush it is the "mobile Chinese Wall" (1:36), a collective human automaton, drawing closer and closer. This "flawless, fearless machine," with its countless invisible feet marching in unison like a huge organism, is Witkacy's ironic version of the old "yellow peril" cliché and the ultimate embodiment of social mechanization. It is this sinister drift of Orient to Occident that brings about the Spenglerian decline of the West in Insatiability. In the second half of the novel, a shadowy and enigmatic Malay appears in the West, spreading his mystical religion of universal contentment by means of the "Murti-Bing pill," sold by street vendors, which relieves the anguish of individual personality. Quickly lulled into ecstatic happiness, the pill-takers no longer fear the coming extermination of their egos through social regimentation. Witkacy seems strangely prescient in his identification of drugs and mysticism as the preferred escape mechanisms of our own age, and his Murti-Bing pill anticipates the comparable social use of chemistry in two later antiutopian novels: soma in Huxley's Brave New World and psychem in Lem's Futurological Congress.
Thus, European metaphysical quests -- the essential expression of insatiability -- are replaced by two instant ideologies, both from the East: mystic Murti-Bingism and materialistic Chinese communism. Opposed as these two at first may seem, in Witkacy's view both are designed to eliminate the conscious thinking mind and the inevitable suffering which it brings. The pill softens up the already demented and debilitated Europeans so that they can painlessly adjust to the political control which will definitively liberate them from their own madness and despair and turn them into smoothly functioning members of the state machinery.
[*Other plays by Witkiewicz which might be considered as at least borderline SF are Tumor Mozgowicz (Tumor Brainiowicz), about a mathematical genius who creates a revolutionary new scientific system that threatens the bases of civilization; and Szewcy (The Shoemakers), "A Scientific Play with Songs," which presents a series of revolutions culminating in an era beyond ideology presided over by technocrats.] - Daniel Gerould

Essay on Masochism and Catastrophe in Insatiability, from The Polish Review

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Vahazar: or On the Uplands of Absurdity, Trans. by Celina Wieniewska, Black Scat Books, 2015.           

“Witkiewicz takes up and continues the vein of dream and grotesque fantasy exemplified by the late Strindberg or by Wedekind; his ideas are closely paralleled by those of the surrealists and Antonin Artaud which culminated in the masterpieces of the dramatists of the absurd—Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Arrabal—of the late nineteen forties and the nineteen fifties.” -Martin Esslin Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (pen name: Witkacy) was desperate to get out of revolutionary St. Petersburg after the Bolsheviks seized power. Back in Poland, eager to make money and a name for himself, Witkacy began to write plays in a style that he called “Pure Form,” which foreshadowed the Theatre of the Absurd. By the time that he wrote VAHAZAR (1921), Witkacy had achieved a dreamlike dramaturgy: centered on the paranoid and crazed despot, Vahazar, and spiraling outwards through an anthill society of automatons, religious cults, and quack scientific and social theories, this play is about being trapped in nothingness. This translation of the play by Celina Wieniewska was commissioned by Stefan Themerson in 1967, and later announced as a forthcoming title by the legendary Gaberbocchus Press. Somehow the project was sidetracked and has never appeared until this Black Scat Books publication. Paul Rosheim, publisher of Obscure Publications and scholar of Themersonia, provides an introduction with biographical information about Witkacy and the story of this translation. The book also includes an appendix featuring Franciszka Themerson’s “Vahazar: A Few Suggestions for Design.”


Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, The Madman and the Nun and The Crazy Locomotive: Three Plays, Applause Books, 2000.

Startling discontinuities and surprises erupt throughout these avant-garde landscapes by Poland's outstanding modern dramatist where duchesses and policemen, gangsters and surrealist painters, psychiatrists and locomotive engineers wander in and out, kill one another, and carry on philosophical conversations at the same time.

The Mother and Other Unsavory Plays

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, The Mother and Other Unsavory Plays: Including The Shoemakers and They, Ed. and trans. by Daniel Gerould and C.S. Durer, foreword by Jan Kott.

Painter, playwrights, novelist, aesthetician, philosopher, and expert on drugs, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz - or Witkacy, as he called himself - remains Poland's outstanding figure in the arts between the two world wars. This volume brings together three of Witkiewicz's best works for the stage as well as a selection from his critical writing. The plays deal with the author's principal themes and obsessions: the dilemma of the artist in the twentieth century; the revolutions in science and politics; and the bankruptcy of all ideology, the decline of western civilization, and the coming of totalitarianism. Yet, far from being solemn or even serious in tone, these apocalyptic dramas are permeated with grotesque humor and characterized by a wild theatricality that particularly appeals to contemporary sensibility.

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Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Mr Price, or Tropical Madness and Metaphysics of a Two- Headed Calf, Routledge, 2001.

The Polish playwright and artist Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, known as Witkacy, is now recognized as Poland's leading theatrical innovator of the interwar years and one of the outstanding creative personalities of the European avant-garde. This volume contains two of Witkacy's "tropical" plays inspired by the playwright's trip to Ceylon and Australia in 1914 with his close friend, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.
Mr. Price, or Tropical Madness is a drama of heightened passion and greed among British colonists in Rangoon who seem to have stepped out of Joseph Conrad's tales of the South Seas.
Metaphysics of a Two headed Calf, set in New Guinea and Australia, pits savage European imperialists against a native tribal Australia and pits savage European imperialists against a native tribal chieftain whose fetish of a great golden frog offers greater insight into the mystery of existence than the Westerners' shallow rationalism.
Both plays puncture the white rulers' poses of superiority and parody their images of the tropical Other. Also included in the volume are Witkacy's Foreword to Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf in which the playwright defends his concept of theatre as an autonomous art with a scenic language of its own and an appendix containing a documentary itinerary of Witkacy's journey to Ceylon.


Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Seven Plays. Trans. by Daniel Charles Gerould. Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications, 2004.


Witkacy: Metaphysical Portraits, By Urszula Czaroryska & Stefan Okolowicz, Connewitzer Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1999.

Jesús Moncada - a fantastic compendium of Catalán history as seen through the eyes of one small town, the author’s birthplace.

Image result for Jesús Moncada, The Towpath,
Jesús Moncada, The Towpath, Trans. by Judith Willis, HarperCollins, 1995.             


During the Great War, the Spanish town at the centre of this novel turned into a boom-town, due to the demand for coal. After that, the downhill slide began, hastened on by Anarchists and left-wingers; then the Civil War and Franco's depression. Then came the March of Progress.
Read more at https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1028624/the-towpath/#viTTJyq5eAKQD9PL.99

Until 1971 the town at the centre of this story was a river port at the confluence of the Ebro and the Segre. In its heyday the lower orders - coalminers, bargees, small tradesmen, the clientele of the Quayside Cafe - contributed to the life, vigour and prosperity of the town, while according proper deference to the upper crust - the mine-owners, the fleet-builders and landed proprietors who patronised the Casino de la Roda, kept their favoured pews in church and provided for the maintenance of the luscious chorus girls down at the Eden. There were halcyon years, as during the Great War, when the embattled Powers' insatiable demand for coal turned the place into a boom-town, and the Armistice was greeted as bad news. After that, the downhill slide began, hastened on by Anarchists and left-wingers who fomented trouble in the pits; then the Civil War and its attendant repression, which filled Franco's jails with all too many citizens. But Franco's repression was as nothing compared with the March of Progress in the shape of a hydro-electric scheme that was to leave the town under several fathoms of water. One by one the houses were pulled down in clouds of dust, the families moved to a newly built town, and only the grandest of the grandes dames, Senyora Carlota, refused to leave her mansion until carried out in her coffin.

This haunting book won six Spanish literary prizes when it was published and deservedly so.  It is a fantastic compendium of Catalán history as seen through the eyes of one small town, the author’s birthplace. 
Until 1971, the town at the centre of this story was a river port at the confluence of the Ebro and the Segre.  In its heyday the working population – the coalminers, bargees, small tradesmen and customers of the Quayside Café contributed to the life, vigour and prosperity of the town, while according proper deference to the upper crust – the mine-owners, the fleet-builders and landed gentry who patronised the Casino de la Roda, kept their favoured pews in church and provided for the maintenance of the luscious chorus girls down at the Eden.  These were halcyon days, as during the Great War, when the embattled powers’ insatiable demand for coal turned the place into a boom town, and the Armistice was greeted as bad news. After that, the downhill slide began, hastened on by Anarchists and left-wingers who fermented trouble in the pits; then the Civil War and its attendant repression, which filled Franco’s jails with all too many citizens.  But Franco’s repression was as nothing compared with the March of Progress in the shape of a hydro-electric scheme that was to leave the town under several fathoms of water. One by one the houses were pulled down in clouds of dust, the families moved to a newly built town and only the grandest of the grand dames, Senyora Carlota, refused to leave her mansion until carried out in her coffin.
This is a wonderful book and captured the very essence of small town life in Catalunya.  It is highly recommended. - www.thinkspain.com/news-spain/884/the-towpath-jesus-moncada

Jesús Moncada was born in the town of Mequinenza (Mequinensa in Catalan), a Catalan town that was moved (i.e the old town was destroyed and a new one built) to make way for a large dam/reservoir for a hydroelectric project. This novel is a fictionalised version of those events and the history behind them. If you read the Wikipedia article (linked above) you will see a reference to an old Mequinenza family called Montcada. I assume that our author is descended from this family. Whether he is or not, he does (affectionately) mock the upper classes of the town.
The book starts with an anonymous chronicle written about the events and, specifically, when the first house was destroyed. The church clock stopped, the weather was stormy, a loud bang as the house fell was heard throughout the town and everyone stopped what they were doing and Llorenç de Veriu came back from the dead to see his old house. It turns out that this was untrue. The church clock often stopped though that day it did not, though it was fast. Few people noticed the first house being destroyed and the weather was nice. Llorenç de Veriu was not seen, alive or dead.
Much of the focus is on Carlota. She was the daughter of the late Senyor Torres. He had married into the Camps family, which owned the liquorice extraction factory. Torres took it over and soon had made much success out of it. He was not attracted to his wife – too skinny for his taste – though they did have three children, including Carlota. He preferred to get his pleasures elsewhere. However, he does have a ferocious mother-in-law. We meet him when he is having his portrait painted, watched by his adoring daughter and fairly adoring wife. During the painting, a shot is fired, the bullet goes right through his forehead (in the portrait, that is) and grazes the cheek of the real Senyor Torres. Was it an anarchist? That is the conclusion but, as with the anonymous chronicle, we learn a somewhat different story. Indeed, there are several such stories, where we initially get the received account and then, later, the real account. - The Modern Novel
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MLA Chernoff - a fun, volatile compilation of “pomes” inspired by internet culture, flarf, memes, puns, emojis & satire. You’ll find bewildered normies, Mark Zuckerberg, Super Soakers, Gogurt, philosophers driving giant anime robots & the name “Derrida” typed 77 times. Is it a trick? A trap? Is MLA laughing with you or at you? Are you sure? Who knows. Who cares. Delet this.

MLA Chernoff, Delet This, Hybrid Heaven, 2018.

MLA Chernoff's debut collection, delet this, is a fun, volatile and disarming exhibition of satire, internet culture, flarf, memes, and dreams. The collection balances lighthearted silliness with social criticism, putting emojis in close quarters with academic theory and giving tweets equal gravity to tomes. You’ll find bewildered normies, Mark Zuckerberg, Super Soakers, philosophers driving giant anime robots and the name “Derrida” typed 77 times.

Is it a trick? A trap? Is MLA laughing with you or at you? Are you sure? Who knows. Who cares. Delet this.

"delet this, poetry as death load, the lyric-cum-digital, flesh of our flesh, transubstantiated as any visual reference. Irreverent and it cuts even deeper. Look upon their work, ye Memed, and laugh, weep. MLA is pure and absolute brilliance."– Liz Howard

“Equal parts frenetic ode and fearless critique, delet this considers memes, CanLit, g-d and pop culture with the associative range of a Gogurt-fuelled fever dream.” – Cassidy McFadzean

MLA Chernoff (@citation_bb) thanks u for visiting their profile. A recovering flat-earther, MLA now lives a quiet LIEf in ““Toronto”” (stinky condotown) where they collect and care for rare fidget spinners, which isn’t just a fad. They are a PhD candidate at The Neoliberal University of York University; the velocity of this bio is their dissertation––a morose serendipity in the key of “aw heck lmao!!!” O ya... their pomes have been published before... elsewhere... idk Google it, im tired. Plz Enjo.y n stay hydrated!!!! xo xo


Joe Frank - Reading radio dramatist Frank's vivid collection of eight short works of fiction is like watching eight people take a wrong turn into a dark and threatening neighborhood

Joe Frank, The Queen of Puerto Rico: And Other Stories, William Morrow & Co., 1993.


A debut short fiction collection by the popular radio dramatist features a surrealistic world populated by characters with jobs, not careers, with no real purpose and only vague realizations.

The first collection of short fiction from the "dark knight of the airwaves with a captivating, completely original approach to story telling" (Los Angeles magazine). Radio dramatist Frank has achieved a cult following with his mesmerizing evening broadcasts from KCRW in Los Angeles and on NPR.

A teenage boy visits a Caribbean island with his parents. He watches the pink lady in a bar. He meets her on the beach. Brief monologue about driving through the countryside against the sounds of a racing car. He meets a man in a bar who invites him to a beach house. He gets stoned and drunk and winds up in bed with the man. A man in a hospital imagines he is in a resort. The man follows the boy to the airport, later calls him and sends him letters, invites him to visit and becomes the queen of Puerto Rico. He wears his grandmother's necklace, think s of the pink lady. He writes the man and asks for money. The man goes to the hospital. Later he drops out of school and returns to the island. More scenes of a confused man in the hospital. The boy gets a job on the island, begins wearing makeup, becomes the pink lady. Breakfast in the hospital. - wikipedia

Frank, best known for his evening radio dramas broadcast over NPR, presents seven short stories and a play--the radio origins of which lend a compelling voice to his portraits of modern urban loneliness, fear, and alienation. In ``Tell Me What to Do,'' a New York executive has a fleeting affair with a woman in his office, is later abandoned by his wife, then finds himself alone and unloved before he quite knows what hit him. The protagonist of ``Fat Man'' sidles through monotonous days and fantasy-filled nights, having somehow failed to make the transition from cynical college student to productive adult. In the title story, a young man's fate is unveiled while he's on vacation on St. Thomas, where he becomes infatuated with a local prostitute but falls unwittingly into bed with a homosexual seducer. Though hardly optimistic by any reckoning, Frank's tales nevertheless mesmerize the reader as they open doors to intensely private moments of self-contemplation, unacknowledged despair, and desperate, surreal fantasy. Wandering among strip joints, liquor stores, and anonymous hotels, watching TV, joining religious cults, and sometimes playing a little guitar, his characters play at picturing themselves as heroes in a novel or wondering about their shrinks' private lives while the seconds of their existence tick slowly away. ``A change has come over the world,'' states a character in ``The Decline of Spengler: A Radio Play,'' the most abstract and, in the end, the least affecting of the pieces presented here. ``Dark thoughts are born. Dark deeds ripen in the midst of their vapors. The eye of God no longer shines on us.'' Fortunately, as Frank proves here, we humans can console ourselves in these dark times with the magic of a story spellbindingly told. - Kirkus Reviews

Reading radio dramatist Frank's vivid collection of eight short works of fiction is like watching eight people take a wrong turn into a dark and threatening neighborhood. In this world, the consequences of an action or a chance encounter are always troubling and unsatisfying. ``Tell Me What to Do'' portrays an adulterous couple who cram an entire affair into one week, only to have their lives become empty and spiritless; in ``Fat Man,'' a kleptomaniac gains weight as insulation against his feelings; a couple's dinner conversation becomes more and more disturbing as the woman reveals herself in ``Date''; the title story chronicles a vacationing teenager's seduction by an older man in St. Thomas and the impact it has on the boy's life. Retreat and remembrance are key acts in these jarring, unsettling tales, most of which start with a wide-angle view of the world, then narrow everything down to unfeeling sex, mindless repetition of desultory actions,stet comma and death. Still, they provide little moments of recognition that make even the bleakest stories involving. Sharply observed and simply told, these are disquieting portraits of desire and unfulfillment. - PublishersWeekly

Joe Frank has been called "the apostle of radio noir." In this first collection of stories, he takes us on an obsessive, violent, and sexual odyssey in which individual lives become emblematic of a larger spiritual crisis. He also captures on paper the same eerie speculation and humor he delivers in his late-night monologues on National Public Radio. We meet characters who have jobs, not careers, who lead lives of half-steps, of rootlessness without cause. Frank's narratives result in a kaleidoscopic sense of time, wherein entire lives pass with a few brief moments of inchoate realization. Moments of comic lunacy blend with scenes of great poignancy and terror. In the novella "Night," the protagonist wanders through a series of odd jobs, through prison, to Vietnam, to become the right-hand man of a television evangelist, and without any more purpose approaches his own death. In "Fat Man," a college student travels across the country stealing brownies from roadside Howard Johnsons and then spends the next year returning them. "Date" encapsulates a woman's entire life in her boyfriend's suggestions for her personal ad. "The Decline of the Spengler" is a wildly inventive radio play in which the narrative of a funeral is melded with the dreams of a playwright slowly slipping into madness. In their desperation, the characters in Joe Frank's world, such as the "Fat Man," can only dream of meaningfulness: "You know, when I think about myself and the life I've led, I feel self-loathing, shame, and disgust. I'm a waste and a failure. But when I imagine myself as a character in a novel ... well, I think I'm pretty interesting, kind of off-beat, intriguing, entertaining." For years, Joe Frank's broadcasts have invited millions of listeners to the strange world of his mesmerizing stories. In this, his first book, Frank effortlessly segues to the printed page and imparts a new resonance to his narrative inventions.

Reading radio dramatist Frank's vivid collection of eight short works of fiction is like watching eight people take a wrong turn into a dark and threatening neighborhood. In this world, the consequences of an action or a chance encounter are always troubling and unsatisfying. "Tell Me What to Do" portrays an adulterous couple who cram an entire affair into one week, only to have their lives become empty and spiritless; in "Fat Man," a kleptomaniac gains weight as insulation against his feelings; a couple's dinner conversation becomes more and more disturbing as the woman reveals herself in "Date"; the title story chronicles a vacationing teenager's seduction by an older man in St. Thomas and the impact it has on the boy's life. Retreat and remembrance are key acts in these jarring, unsettling tales, most of which start with a wide-angle view of the world, then narrow everything down to unfeeling sex, mindless repetition of desultory actions,stet comma and death. Still, they provide little moments of recognition that make even the bleakest stories involving. Sharply observed and simply told, these are disquieting portraits of desire and unfulfillment. - Publishers Weekly

"You know, when I think about myself and the life I've led, I feel self-loathing, shame, disgust," says the grossly obese main character of the story "Fat Man." "But when I imagine myself as a character in a novel... well, I think I'm pretty interesting, kind of offbeat, intriguing, entertaining." This self-description of the title character in "Fat Man" might apply to many of radio dramatist Frank's characters. "Tell Me What To Do" traces the emotional dance of a couple in a continuing affair whose need for self-protection keeps them distant from each other. The parallel narratives of "Night" focus on Kevin, an ex-con Vietnam vet working for a New Age guru, and his mother, a stripper. When combined with Frank's surprising plot twists, the result is a collection that's "kind of offbeat, intriguing, entertaining." For larger public libraries. - Lawrence Rungren

One afternoon in 1987 I felt compelled to look at the radio that for years had been mumbling to itself at the periphery of my attention. The impulse had nothing to do with the sense of an "electronic hearth" that made families in old magazine illustrations stare dreamily at their consoles. There was nothing cozy about discovering National Public Radio's "Joe Frank: Work in Progress."
First, there was the voice. It had something in common with the standard announcerly voice of God-Orson Welles or James Earl Jones-but this is the voice of a rogue announcer: Smoky, inward, urgent, it seems to speak from deep within a self-induced trance. Hearing it is like coming into possession of the car radio in Jean Cocteau's film "Orpheus" that issues bulletins from the kingdom of the dead. Frank's voice can confer a sense of portent on anything.
Admirers of "Work in Progress" may have their reservations about a book based on the program, for language is just one of the show's resources. Experiencing it through a text, fans might argue, would be like curling up with the score of a symphony. A given episode might be a radio play, a short story, a sequence of narrative fragments or the improvisations of a panel of "critics" who "clarify" the meaning of it all. Aside from Frank's voice, the texts are enhanced by a repertory group of actors and an eclectic range of musical scores.
But Frank's first book, "The Queen of Puerto Rico"-a collection of seven stories and a play-should reassure anyone who wonders if his words can perform unaccompanied. In the opening story, "Just Tell Me What To Do"-a narrative of a woman scarred by incest and of the lover who finds her passivity irresistible-Frank attempts an understated rendering that ends up reading like a summary. Otherwise his style has the spareness of the oral tradition, an eye for the emblematic or oddball detail, and a narrative authority that invests freakish events and aimless lives with a sense of inevitability.
If there is a presiding spirit in these works, it is Poe's "Imp of the Perverse," the demon that makes us act against what we believe are our natures and intentions. In the title story a young man, on vacation with his parents in Puerto Rico, falls in love with an unapproachable woman dressed in pink. He dedicates his future to finding and winning her, but on his last night in Puerto Rico he gets stoned and ends up sleeping with an older man.
The incident, he thinks, is just an unpleasant detour from his quest, and he reconsecrates his memory of the Pink Lady by adorning himself with pink jewels. Later, after he has started to wear pink earrings to match the jewelry and has begun to notice the amorous stares of other men, he never quite renounces his search for the Pink Lady-his real and ideal pursuits advancing in perfect parallel.
The protagonist of "Fat Man" is the Imp embodied. In college he developed a reputation as a wit for periodically stealing brownies from every Howard Johnson's between the campus and his hometown and then, when his dorm room began to stink from trunkfuls of stale chocolate, driving back across the country and smuggling the brownies back onto counters. When Howard Johnson's went out of business, he liked to think "he had played his small part in the decline of a great American institution."
The brownie caper seems to have been a defining episode in his life; he can no longer bridge the gap between the world and his smirking aesthetic distance. Having never worked a full-time job, he tries to sleep away the morning hours with their sounds of people going to work. Learning that his mother has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt, he imagines the anecdotes he will tell about it. Obscenely fat, he maintains an aesthetic distance even from his own condition:
"You know, when I think about myself and the life I've led, I feel shame, loathing, disgust. . . . But when I imagine myself as a character in a novel . . . well, then I think I'm pretty interesting. . . ."
These stories can read like a Baby Boom take on film noir. The characters often seem to have lost their sense of direction in the '60s and, like the loners and petty criminals of noir, lead seedy lives at the margins of cities. They are prone to wearing sunglasses at night, and their laconic, hardboiled dialogue tends to be peppered with the jargon of therapy.
Like Edward Hopper and the directors of film noir, Frank can make urban loneliness and desolation compelling. There is a plangent moment, reminiscent of Hopper, in "Tell Me What To Do" when a man in a bar leaves the woman he is beginning to fall in love with and goes out to make a phone call; when he looks at her through the window, he sees her as "the kind of woman you see sitting alone at the end of a bar when it closes down."
The book concludes with "The Decline of Spengler," a radio play that describes one man's search for an idea of the sacred compatible with the modern world. But in this vision of the 20th Century, divinity and evil blur and fuse, and all discourse veers toward the trivial-as when a panel of monks, discussing the modern meaning of the Resurrection, gets sidetracked into a discussion of wash-and-wear cassocks. The deity of such a world is the Imp of the Perverse. - Barry Schechter

Joe Frank, "a radio artist" on KCRW, is better known for performing his stories than for writing them, and indeed these eight tales share the kind of confiding, expository tone that might be enhanced by inflection, dramatic pacing and voice.
Oral literature with an urban setting, they recount facts in staccato bursts, intercut narrative with asides, or juxtapose italicized subplots whose connections or relevance are not always at first clear.
Frank tells about his characters rather than attempting to submerge himself into their points of view. There's a distance, a cool, objective and observant eye at work, that, in the best parts of this collection, is most effective.
"Tell Me What to Do," the opening story, concerns the adulterous relationship of two co-workers, as viewed from the male point of view. Subtly, inexorably, the affair--and with it, the man's life--veers away from the control he initially assumes he exerts, and ultimately he finds himself alone, lost, without mooring.
"He took a deep breath and plunged into the street. Three blocks away, gasping, he stopped under the marquee of an X-rated movie house. His clothes were drenched. He watched the rain slanting in the wind. Traffic moved slowly along the avenue and he heard the distant siren of an ambulance. He thought: I do not want to go home and ducked into the theater."
In "The Queen of Puerto Rico," a young man on vacation with his family at a hotel in St. Thomas fantasizes about a mysterious woman with all pink accessories, a woman, he's told, who's "a washed-up hooker." Incrementally over the next few years, without ever consciously making a clear choice, he allows circumstances to act upon him until ultimately he assumes a role parallel to hers at another hotel on another island, becoming a painted, created character who attracts the stares of a man seated at a nearby table.
Frank's men and women tend to drift through their lives, surprised at where they find themselves. Rarely self-reflective, they deal on a surface level, navigating the turns of their fate without much reference to an eventual destination.
The narrator of "Fat Man" aborts one fairly promising career start after another until, almost by default, he's turned into an obese fast-food junkie without the energy or motivation to change direction.
Kevin, the itinerant pool man in "Night," experiences a long slide into dissolution and despair that seems to parallel his physical environment:
"You didn't need to be a religious zealot to believe in impending disaster. The world seemed poised on the edge of an abyss. Tremors were recorded every week and a major earthquake had been predicted. When fires started they spread quickly, fueled by the Santa Ana winds. The fires burned off the brush on the hillsides, and when the rains came, the rocks and mud, without roots to hold the earth in place, collapsed in avalanches. A few months ago, on the Pacific Coast Highway, Kevin had sped through a torrent of falling stones and had watched in his rearview mirror as a mountain of rubble rose behind him."
Finally, after a series of increasingly disastrous mistakes, "it occurred to him that he was slowly withdrawing, that the death he had wanted was in him, and he didn't care."
While Frank's fiction is not uniformly successful--"The Decline of Spengler," an exercise in surrealism, left this reader more confused than provoked--it is never uninteresting. He paints a human landscape that is bleak and isolated, but he does so with a vivid language that fairly shimmers with suppressed intensity. - MICHAEL DORRIS

It was the most awful, the most horrendous, the most punishing experience of our lives. And by virtue of that, we felt triumphant… We thought, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’ We felt as though we were on a euphoric drug: our hearts full, our souls, as though for the first time, alive.
—Joe Frank, from “Ascent to K2” (1996)

The artist and his medium were locked in a decades-long dance of death. While still in high school, having already weathered surgery for clubfoot, Joe Frank developed testicular cancer and had to undergo painful cobalt radiation treatments. He would spend the rest of his life in and out of treatment for various severe medical ailments, including bladder cancer. He also endured a kidney transplant. Long spells of medically and chemically induced quarantine provided Frank with ample time to ponder the alienation he felt from the world of the living, and ultimately translate much of that uncertainty into groundbreaking radio fictions—with topics including a very ill-prepared expedition to K2 and an imagined dinner conversation with Hitler, Pol Pot, and the other bigshots of evil. For Frank, illness was a kind of muse, giving him the raw material from which to sculpt something new in a venue that had never seen the likes of him before.
And radio obliged him, recognizing in Frank a fellow death-defier. The once-dominant AM/FM bands—pulsing technology that made a plurality of music and voices (and advertising) instantly available to anyone with an antenna—barely survived the takeover of television in the American home in the 1950s, and was squeezed dry by corporate consolidation of once-independent stations through the ’80s and ’90s. The freewheeling New York station WBAI, Frank’s first home for his surrealist aural delights in the late ’70s, remains on life support today: its workforce gutted, its broke noncom owner, Pacifica Foundation, having just lost a $1.8 million lawsuit brought by the Empire State Building over unpaid rent.
And yet when the Internet, and its endless possibilities for transmitter- and static-free idle distraction, came along to deliver the final blow, radio did not kneel at its feet but rather absorbed it into its very DNA. In podcasts and streaming audio, the medium has mutated into another, more economically viable and (in some ways) accessible form. The next generation may never know the thrill of turning the dial late at night to search for signs of life, bypassing the bleeps and yowls of static like aliens desperately trying to make contact from another world. But podcasting does ensure that all the weirdness of this world can be instantly summoned from the void of cyberspace, for those who want to hear it.
Podcasting began in earnest in the mid-2000s, shortly after Frank was fired from his longtime post at Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, where for two decades he had commandeered the airwaves at night with his weird and grandiose visions of comic nihilism. Although Frank would create a few bits for KCRW’s podcasts in the final decade of his life, his output had already slowed down considerably due to his health. Frank died this past January, at 79, after yet another protracted medical battle—this time with colon cancer. His decades of cutting-edge, surrealist pieces (he hated the term “radio drama,” and any other phrases that would have made his work easier to categorize) would have to live on via his website, and in the station presets of the memories of his fans.
Joe Frank: Somewhere Out There, a new documentary that premiered on March 22, 2018, at the Sonoma International Film Festival, aims to increase the signal of Frank’s afterlife. Its primary audience, though, is likely to remain those who were tuned in years ago. Made with Frank’s widow, Michal Story, as associate producer, and featuring several interviews with Frank himself, the film is a cycle of praise from the artist’s friends and admirers (the latter of which include Harry Shearer, David Cross, Alexander Payne, and Grace Zabriskie) interspersed with a generous selection of clips from his work.
Director D.P. Carlson, a Chicago-based filmmaker and audiophile whose previous films include documentaries about KISS guitarist Paul Stanley and the ’80s-era power-pop band The Bears, makes the talking-head portions overlong and somewhat rote. But the clips speak for themselves, the same way Frank did for all those years: conjuring a world of despair and grim humor, of horrors and deep, uncomfortable revelations. Carlson accentuates them with lo-fi digital scrapbook imagery, doodles of volume levels and other things for the eye to focus on while the mind wanders, hypnotized.
I had a peculiar, Frank-like experience with Somewhere Out There: hours before I settled in to view my screener, I had to give a presentation I desperately did not want to give. As I spoke, my desire to be anywhere but there manifested itself in a persistent, oddly violent fantasy. Gouge my eyes out with a spoon, I thought, over and over. Just scoop them right out and plop them on the floor.
Lo and behold, as I watched Carlson’s film later that night, Frank himself vocalized this exact nightmare. But he goes further, deeper into a vivid chasm of harmful thoughts that welcomed him like an old friend. He ponders what it would be like “to have a spoon dig deep into my eye sockets, severing arteries and veins, my eyes being gouged out of my head while I screamed in agony until they fell to the floor with a wet, plopping sound.”
In the piece, Frank (or a version of him) is recounting how, as a boy, he would torture himself with dark visions of being imprisoned by Nazis, who would give him a kind of Sophie’s choice: volunteer for the eye-gouging or consent to having his parents “beaten to death with rifle butts.” It seems like the sort of thing that would be too bizarre and unsettling to be accessible. But that’s the magic of Frank’s best work: they’re oddly abstract visions that somehow still communicate intimate shared thoughts and anxieties. And when you consider that Frank’s parents were Jews who had fled to the U.S. from Nazi-occupied Poland, only for his father to die when Joe was five and his mother to struggle with severe depression, it takes on the feeling of a man reckoning with his demons by giving them a voice—his own.
But by barely featuring Frank until close to the end, the film muddles both the timeline of his life and the chance to have its own subject lend that distinctive voice to his own story. Frank’s pathways become murky: he had dropped out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because he hated focus-grouping stories with classmates who had no life experience, yet once he found his career, he spent so much time and energy making radio that he admits he gathered little life experience himself. He refuses, in the film, to name any radio hosts who inspired him, determined to be an orbit of one, and some of the only influences he confesses to of any kind are Kafka and Dostoevsky. The film also paints a specific, somewhat unfortunate picture of Frank’s fans: white, middle-aged men in counterculture circles, and women who could apparently think only of bedding him and becoming fodder for some of his randier tapes.
The image of Frank that emerges strongest in Carlson’s film is that of a mercurial obsessive. He would park himself in KCRW’s studios long into the night, fine-tuning segments until a producer could yank the tape from him and stick it on the air. He frequently partnered with actors to improvise little scenes (again here, he hated the terms “script” and “line readings”), but would also secretly tape-record phone conversations with friends, collaborators, and lovers, then use them as part of new pieces. Every relationship in his life was potential radio fodder. And Frank topped all that off with a rather fierce sense of ownership. The film includes a clip of him spitting fire at fans who would mail him their short stories in the hopes of getting him to read them on the air, without revealing how much of his anger is an act:
I’m the author of the material here. It is my work, promulgated by me. It’s my show, it’s not your show. And I’m not here to read your stories. I am not a mirror; I am a source of light. I am not a reflecting surface; I am heat. My purpose is not to vibrate with your experience, but rather to resonate with my own.
To resonate with one’s own experience: such a simple desire, yet one that will always be corrupted somehow. In 2008, Frank superfan Andrew Hearst discovered that Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Joseph Minion plagiarized large portions of one of his stories for their 1985 comedy After Hours. (Frank allegedly settled for an undisclosed sum at the time.) Carlson doesn’t dig into the episode in Somewhere Out There, but it’s essential to understanding Frank’s strange legacy in the art world: the way he seemed to command all the ideas and none of the power. Frank’s “Lies,” broadcast in 1982 on NPR Playhouse, tells of a naive man lured across town by the promise of sex with a kooky woman he’s just met. As the evening progresses, the woman relates several outrageous stories from her life that may or may not be true, but the man, himself recently separated, comes to accept that the both of them are complicit in weaving together the shared fantasy of a one-night stand. “I’m not sure if you’re for real or not,” he says to his companion at the end. “Well, I’ll never tell,” she replies.
After Hours essentially steals this entire piece, including specific jokes, and uses it as the first act of a dream-logic narrative in which its hero (Griffin Dunne) inadvertently becomes the villain to an entire New York neighborhood over the course of one night. The film imagines the woman’s troubles as little more than the first warning bell for the man to flee from, just like all the other crazy, hormonal ladies he meets that night—a mindset later confirmed when the woman (played by Rosanna Arquette) commits suicide shortly after he runs out on her. Scorsese and Minion didn’t want to have to deal with too many depressive loners in their surreal New York odyssey, so they whacked the most compelling one. They did not understand, as Frank did, that surreal odysseys are almost always undertaken by depressive loners. It’s all the blank space in the mind, all that contemplation of otherworldly things, that allows the strangeness of our world to float to the level of conscious thought.
Frank may not have been much of a podcaster himself, but today’s grand buffet of sonic choices includes more than a few of his disciples. Ira Glass, who is interviewed in the film, had his first paid job in public radio as Frank’s production assistant during a short stint at NPR, and has often credited his former boss with expanding his concept of what radio could be. This American Life sometimes feels like a sanitized version of one of Frank’s programs. The variety-show format will often follow a deeply reported investigation with a spoken-word essay from a comedian, describing some absurd incident that may or may not have happened to them in exactly that way, and Glass will connect everything under the umbrella of a single theme, so no one story has to feel like it’s twirling in the void. And Frank’s heavy reliance on drone sounds in his mixing was undoubtedly an influence on Radiolab, whose creator, Jad Abumrad, had followed in Frank’s footsteps at WBAI and pushed his intricate editing and mood-conjuring to new, Pink Floyd-esque heights.
So it was that mere days after Frank’s passing, Radiolab and On the Media dropped lengthy remembrances of his life and work into their feeds. Appearing on Abumrad’s show, Glass marveled at a piece where Frank had once left the microphone to fix himself a cup of tea, while On the Media host Brooke Gladstone remembered how certain pieces of his (one that described trying to go to the bathroom while wearing a chicken suit, for example) had often felt too naughty for radio, when in fact there was nothing explicitly vulgar about them. And millions of listeners, in all likelihood more people than had ever before heard an original Frank broadcast simultaneously, could instantly eavesdrop on this Holy Trinity of public radio as they mourned their shared sensei.
The bard of the loners has an audience, somewhere out there. - Andrew Lapin

Joe Frank has a  30 year career of creating spellbinding radio story stories unlike anything you've ever heard. His work is dark, disorienting, often hilarious and has inspired people like Ira Glass, David Sedaris and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. On this episode, Joe Frank created his first work for KCRW in 10 years. Dreamers is a contemplation of time and mortality. It includes stories about a family's tragic visit to Palestine and a man who attends a dinner party after learning he might be dying.
Dreamers was written and produced by Joe Frank and features Joe Frank and Larry Block. It was mixed by Ray Guarna.
- www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/unfictional/joe-frank-dreamers

The Believer - Interview with Joe Frank

Joe Frank (1938 - 2018) began his radio career in 1976 at WBAI, Pacifica's New York station, and served as co-anchor of NPR's All Things Considered in the show's early days.
At WBAI, he hosted a Saturday night show called In the Dark , where he experimented with live free-form radio featuring his monologues and actor improvisations that evolved into his trademark sound and sensibility. Over the course of the next four decades Frank produced over two hundred radio programs for KCRW in Santa Monica, and NPR. Frank was also a performer, playwright and author of The Queen of Puerto Rico and Other Stories , based on his radio work.
Throughout his career, Frank was honored with many major industry awards including the 2003 Third Coast's Lifetime Achievement Award, a George Foster Peabody Award, and an Emmy. Over the years Joe’s distinctive approach to making radio has inspired producers around the country to experiment with and stretch the medium beyond traditional boundaries.


Jeet Thayil catapults you straight into the gloriously bacchanal universe of Newton Francis Xavier, “blocked poet, serial seducer of young women, reformed alcoholic (but only just), philosopher, recluse, all-round wild man and India’s greatest living painter.”

Jeet Thayil, The Book of Chocolate Saints, Faber & Faber, 2018.

The Book of Chocolate Saints follows the unforgettable character Francis Newton Xavier and his journey towards salvation - or damnation - or perhaps both. In the swooning, hypnotic prose for which his Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel was acclaimed, Jeet Thayil paints a hallucinatory portrait of an ambiguous soul: a self-destructive figure living a wild existence of excess in pursuit of his uncompromising aesthetic vision, and a charismatic contrarian battling with his conflicting instincts.
His paintings and poems embodying the decadent jeu d'esprit of his heroes like Baudelaire forged his reputation, which is celebrated at a show in Delhi. Approaching middle-age, Xavier leaves Manhattan following 9/11, and his journey home to India becomes a voyage into his past. From his formative years with an infamous school of Bombay poets - documented by his biographer, Diswas - to an uncertain future, Xavier's story shows how the artist's life itself can become the final monument.
The Book of Chocolate Saints explores our deepest urges in a novel that is sexy, dangerous, and entirely uncompromising. It is intoxicating, blazingly intelligent literary fiction - a strange, beautiful hymn to the artistic life lived fearlessly - that consolidates Thayil's reputation as one of the most exciting writers of his generation.

If this is a story about art then it is  a story about God and the gifts he gives us. Also the gifts he takes away. God has it in for poets, that’s obvious, but the Bombaywallahs hold a special place in his dispensation. Or so I believe, with good reason. Much has been taken from the poets of Bombay. Bhagwan kuch deyta hai toh wapas bhi leyta hai. 

Let me ask you a question. Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two and vanished without a trace? It had never happened before, poets writing Marathi, Hindi, English, and combinations thereof, writing to and against each other, such ferment and not a word of documentation. Why not?
The fiction has been done to death, features and interviews and critical studies and textbooks and not one of the novelists is worth a little finger of the poets. They were the great ones and they died. All of them died. If you want a moral, here it is: what god giveth, he taketh away. In this story art is god. And if god is art, then what is the devil? Bad art of course. But we’ll talk about that in a minute or we won’t. Kuch bhi ho, yaar. 
Award-winning writer and poet Jeet Thayil’s second novel The Book of Chocolate Saints  is about the fictional character Newton Francis Xavier  ( perhaps loosely modelled on Dom Moraes to whom the book is dedicated). It is also a commentary by an insider on the Bombay poets — Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla and Arun Kolatkar. The novel is a witness’s testimony as much as that of a practising poet’s acknowledgement to the rich literary tradition he belongs to. Recently one of the surviving members of this group, Ashok Shahane, in an interview while referring to the medieval Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar, spoke of him
…regarding the relationship between the word and the world. Dnyaneshwar said that when we look for the sliver of the moon, the branch of a tree becomes useful as a guide to our eyes. Words are that branch, not the sliver of the moon itself.
“What is literature? Literature has nothing to do with the real world. I mean, at the same time it has everything to do with the real world,” he said. “You need readers who can maintain this balance. Literary matters will stay in literature, and the interpretation will stay in your mind. You won’t come out and fight in the street. At least this much I expect. But I don’t think I can expect that. Someone will take offence, and then, things will unravel.”
Likewise with The Book of Chocolate Saints which has taken the art form of a novel to new heights and yet is undeniably grounded in reality. There are very real people such as the poet Philip Nikolayev, and Jeet Thayil’s father, the author and journalist, T.J.S.George, or seemingly fiction which are thinly veiled references to actual incidents and people. It is a novel that marks a milestone in modern Indian literature particularly the Indian novel in English. This form of writing had begun to make its presence felt in 1980s with the publication of novels by I, Allen Seally, Shashi Tharoor, Rukun Advani and Mukul Kesavan; but it was with the publication of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy that truly cemented the arrival of the Indian novel in English worldwide. No longer did it seem out of place to have a smattering of Hindi words in English prose— it was considered as acceptable as reading the French phrases in a Wodehouse story, the story itself about an ordinary person selling shoes for a living and looking for the ideal marriage partner was familiar to readers as someone like them and not fiction set in some faraway land. More than two decades later The Book of Chocolate Saints bursts upon the scene with its detailed literary landscape taking the Indian novel in English to another level — of high culture. It focuses on a literary group that is known for its unique style of literature, influenced by international culture, and writers like Baudelaire, James Joyce, the Beat poets including Allen Ginsberg who came and spent time with them, Auden and the Hungryalists instead of navel gazing as much of local literature was tending to become — each form has its relevance but by breaking the traditional shackles of “Indian literature” and bringing different strands together to create something new was revolutionary. The Bombay poets were producing literature well before the Internet happened  so accessing different cultural elements and learning from them was a far more challenging process than it is now. They travelled, they conversed, they learned from each other, they had weekly addas, disagreed and yet remained steadfast companions whose influence upon literature is going to tell for generations to come. Jeet Thayil exemplifies this in his novel by paying homage to the Bombay poets by experimenting happily with the art form to create unique piece of literature that can only give the reader joy by engaging fully with it. At times the prose seems like poetry, there are portions that are like investigative journalism, at times it flows beautifully like straightforward classical prose and at other times seems broken — yet all the while masterfully controlled by the genius of a storyteller.  Coincidentally the same editor and eminent publisher, David Davidar, published both the novels — A Suitable Boy and The Book of Chocolate Saints.
This cross-pollination of art and reality is what literary craftsman Jeet Thayil attempts in The Book of Chocolate Saints while chronicling a significant time in contemporary Indian literature and history. It is a magnificent pastiche! - Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

Just 50 pages into Jeet Thayil’s absorbing, determined The Book of Chocolate Saints, one of the recurring voices in the novel (part of which is depicted as a series of interviews), the poet and professor Rama Roer humblebrags, “Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two, and vanished without a trace? It had never happened before, poets writing Marathi, Hindi, English, and combinations thereof, writing to and against each other, such ferment and not a word of documentation. Why not? The fiction has been done to death, features and interviews and critical studies and textbooks and not one of the novelists is worth a little finger of the poets. They were the great ones and they died. All of them died. If you want a moral, here it is: what god giveth he taketh away.”
That grouse obviously provides recurring motivation for Thayil, whose landmark Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008) was a pioneering effort to vindicate what he called “undeservedly little-known literature”. Now this winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry in English (for These Errors Are Correct in 2012) has taken his mission to another level altogether. The prismatic, compendious new novel is crammed with all the ingredients, characters and experiences that came together to create the landscape of modernist Indian poetry in English. Everyone is there, including multiple versions of Jeet himself (though only one is directly acknowledged, “skeletal fellow, strung out, or drunk, who put together an anthology some years later, The Bloodshot Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, or something like that)”.
Real, imagined, and both
In this way, the fictional world of The Book of Chocolate Saints regularly overlaps with straightforward cultural history, as barely disguised characters interact with real life names you can pick out from the shelves of any bookstore. However, the compelling central figures are appreciably more complicated. Newton Francis Xavier bears more than fleeting resemblance to the great Goan modernist artist, Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), but he’s actually markedly more like the (also Goan) superb poet Dom Moraes (1938-2004). Similarly, Goody Lol is only superficially similar to Srimati Lal, the daughter of publishing icon P Lal of the Calcutta-based Writers’ Workshop, who was Souza’s on-and-off companion in the last years of his life.
It’s tempting to see more unambiguous autobiography in Dismas Bambai, the heroin-using journalist who first encounters the other two in New York, where he works for a paper called Indian Angle (the heroin-using Thayil met Souza in New York while working at India Abroad), but in fact there is a great deal of Jeet in Xavier and Lol as well, plus his voice pouring out sharp commentary from every other available mouthpiece. For instance, flying the standard high for poets yet again, the journalist Subir Sonalkar tells Dismas Bambai (in the all-time classic old Bombay drinking den, Gokul Permit Room) “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.”
The Book of Chocolate Saints is skilfully paced, telescoping in and out of the lives of Xavier, Lol, Bambai and others in a dizzying variety of settings and time periods, from pre-independence India to America in the twenty-first century. For the most part, the incessant gear-shifting works out, mainly because of the poet’s rare capacity to create precisely suited microclimates in just a few words. Thus, “Living in Goa, even with your onward tickets booked, you thought about futility.” Or, “He smelled chicken masala and fried fish and the indelible smell of methi and asafoetida, smells that had seeped into the walls from years of lunch and dinner heated in microwaves and eaten off newspapers on the desks. It was no microcosm of America.”
Some readers would have doubtlessly preferred that Thayil had slimmed this novel down, even wholly taken out some characters, such as Amrik, the American Sikh who nigh-inexplicably parachutes into the narrative at odd junctures. One clue to why he refrained from doing this might be in the preface to last year’s publication of his Collected Poems, which the critic and scholar Bruce King called “a classic of Indian prose”, and wrote that it “offers an impression of someone ageing rapidly and expecting to die.”
Certainly, it does read very much like a farewell note, promising that These Errors Are Correct “is the last full-length collection of poems I intend to publish. For various reasons, I am unable to equal the poems in that book and it seems to me that if you cannot equal or improve on your last book, it is better not to publish at all. I am fifty-five years old. Time, once a friend, is now the enemy. Each day is a gift that must be returned.”
Acknowledgement due
Anyone who has seen Thayil in recent years knows that he’s rudely alive and kicking, the exact opposite of decrepitude. But it is also true much of The Book of Chocolate Saints is preoccupied with death, remorse and revenge, and slyly expands the narrative in parts so that the author can get in all manner of last licks. “…the Bombay poets had a knack for cruelty. And if they didn’t they developed it pretty fucking fast. They were masters of the number two trades: petit bourgeois petty criminals, habitual drunkards and fornicators, lone wolfs and seers, desperados to a man, and they were all men except for the formidable Ms De Souza who had a kind of honorary status in the boy’s club. It was a club, no question about it, women not welcome, nobody welcome except the six or seven founder members who appointed themselves dictators for life and locked the door behind them.”
The last testament thematic usefully extends to making amends. Here, it is rather marvellous to see every single Indian poet of significance get a respectful shout-out in The Book of Chocolate Saints, most notably in an extraordinary catalogue that runs on for pages in the voice of yet another character, the Russian poet and editor, Philip Nikolayev. Everyone gets meticulously name-checked, from Srinivas Rayaprol and Gopal Honnalgere (“poets who had been forgotten by everyone except the odd scholar or barkeep to whom they owed money”) to “the future trouble-maker Bhalachandra Nemade”, and the usually overlooked exemplars from the North East, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Desmond Kharmawphlang and Robin Ngangom. This is Thayil’s direct and rather winning attempt to address his necessarily unpopular and controversial work as canon-maker. At least four of the poets named have previously bitterly complained to me about the author’s selection bias illustrated by his exclusion of them from his anthologies.
These digressions are necessary
In his outstanding review essay about Thayil’s Collected Poems, Palash Krishna Mehrotra writes that Dom Moraes said the younger poet “does not believe in leaving himself out, and this marks a departure from tradition. One trouble about much Indian poetry is that it is difficult to detect a personality behind the words, perhaps because in many cases the personality is hardly present to be detected.” This is conspicuously not the case with Thayil, whom Mehrotra met for the first time at the age of 16 in the bathroom of a Christmas party, where the author of The Book of Chocolate Saints was kissing “a tall, striking young woman” in the tub, and the two failed to rejoin the company all afternoon.
The sheer digressive expansiveness of The Book of Chocolate Saints is one main reason the novel is so utterly satisfying. On the one hand, it is definitely the passionate annals of Bombay poetry that Thayil always wanted to write. But it is also a moving and sensitive elegy for his friend and mentor, Dom Moraes, as well as the later acquaintance Souza. Not unrelated is the additional fact there is very little in Indian writing that has ever been quite so hair-raisingly visceral, relatable and moving about addiction and alcoholism. Then, amongst many other things, there is also the vividly rendered experience of being brown in New York in the defining moment of our age, during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre towers on 9/11/2001.
 “This is the way the future arrives, flying low and fast, on silver wings that set the sign of the cross flickering over the business district. On a day like any other, a day like no other. You are one of the hundreds, one of the thousands hurrying to your place of employment. Above you the tower warms its skin in the falling sun, its steel core braced, the tower and its parallel twin built a segment at a time to withstand history. So when the plane appears the mind perceives it first as art. There is no other way to understand the images that follow: the clear blue sky, the clean line of flight, the way the plane tilts in the final seconds, the inevitability of impact. Later he will mark it as a premonition, the starting bell of the twenty-first century. And he will talk about eyewitnessing two kinds of terror, Islamic and white American.”
The poet’s redemption
Thayil is arguably the last of the meaningful bridge figures in Indian letters (Vijay Nambisan, his one-time inseparable friend, who also qualified, died earlier this year). This simply means he is sufficiently old, and, crucially, was intemperate enough, to participate full-bore in the Bombay Poets scene of the 1980s (he became friends with Moraes at 26). Those were days of struggle and self-loathing, a distant universe far removed from today’s age of splashy poetry book launches by major publishers, and celebrity status at literature festivals.
No one who was there would sanely hanker to return to that desperate, unhappy past world, where artists were treated like dirt. But it’s also inescapable that something truly precious has been irrevocably lost. Thus, for us, and for Indian literature itself, The Book of Chocolate Saints is a noble and endearing exercise in redemption. In the novel’s final and most impressive third, we get to inhabit the fullness of Newton Francis Xavier as he falls off the wagon, grapples stubbornly with ageing, and slouches unwillingly towards his death. It is an immensely memorable and powerful portrait of the artist’s fiery end.
“You die. You get old and die. Your anger curled, your grief dries, your talent fades on the page. Your cells metastasize into an army dedicated to the overthrow of you. You become dependent on paid strangers for the maintenance of your blood and your brittle bones. You understand that thought is the enemy, the source of all lesions, tumours and sarcomas; then thought becomes flesh becomes the emblem of your shame.”
This is unquestionably brilliant and empathetic writing of the highest standard, as The Book of Chocolate Saints belongs in any short list of the finest literary contributions in recent years. What is more, it is a tour de force that goes a long way to make good for the entire milieu of Indian poets and artists who survived the rock bottom doldrums of the 1970s and 80s, when Moraes relied on quick-fix journalism to pay the bills, and Francis Newton Souza would gladly sell you a small masterpiece for less than a hundred dollars (and Thayil perforce kissed girls in bathrooms because other, more congenial, venues were unavailable).
There was no money, and little respect other than what they allowed each other, but these trailblazers still hewed out the foundations for Indian modernism, with an unerring diligence that is almost invisible in our twenty-first century corporate-sponsored culture.
“The writers of today are as conservative as novelists or bankers. Terminable affability. Addiction to approval. What will Auntie think? What will the neighbours think? This is the neurosis of the middle-class Indian. But for a moment there we cared less about the relatives and the neighbours. We were devotees of anarchy and marijuana…Why has no one made a movie about that time, or a play, or a book? We live in that moment. We have no talent for history and we are unable to adapt to modernity. This is the true reason. And I’ll tell you one last thing. If a nation does not care for its past it does not care for its future; and if it does not care for its poets it does not care for anything at all.”

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray there is a moment when Dorian sets eyes upon a volume that is described as “the strangest book that he had ever read… the heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain”. Although it is not named, the book Wilde refers to is JK Huysmans’s À Rebours. Its English title, Against Nature, would serve perfectly as an alternative description of Jeet Thayil’s beguiling second novel, which also seems to be imbued with the heavy odour of incense. Its evocation of numerous worlds, ranging from 50s Soho to modern Delhi, makes for a rich, languorous and seductive saga. Like Thayil’s first novel (the Man Booker-shortlisted Narcopolis), it will appeal to many a discerning reader.
Thayil’s protagonist is a dissolute, once brilliant man, Francis Newton Xavier, an octogenarian painter and poet who has lost sight of his Indian roots and become more English than the denizens of Oxford and London with whom he rubbed shoulders, Francis Bacon and Muriel Belcher among them. Comparisons are invited between Xavier and other noted Anglo-Indian authors, such as VS Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, at times mischievously so. Nonetheless, this is no literary roman à clef, though Thayil has candidly discussed the book’s autobiographical elements, and the dedication to the Indian poet Dom Moraes suggests that he, too, has been an influence.
Instead, it is Xavier’s unconventional odyssey that dominates the narrative, as he, wrecked through years of hard living and harder thought, flees a fearful post-9/11 Manhattan with his lover and occasional muse, the excellently named Goody Lol, to return to India, pursued by his biographer, Dismas Bambai. Whether he is heading there for artistic inspiration or in search of absolution is left tantalisingly unclear; in any case, Thayil skilfully draws parallels between his protagonist’s fading health and declining artistic achievements. As Xavier says, “your anger curled, your grief dies, your talent fades on the page… you understand that thought is the enemy, the source of all lesions, tumours and sarcomas; then thought becomes flesh becomes the emblem of your shame”.
Readers with a knowledge of the so-called Bombay poets of the 70s and 80s, who appear in fictionalised form here, are likely to appreciate Thayil’s pastiches and allusions the most. He may have described them as “assholes” in an interview, but he lauds them here as “outliers, rebels, hermits, dangerous faces unwelcome in polite society”. They have an authenticity that is lacking in the whitewashed, westernised attitudes towards literature and life that Thayil satirises, whether or not they merit the description “chocolate saints”.
This is an ambitious and often thrilling addition to contemporary Indian literature. Just as “the strangest book” enthralled Dorian Gray, the rich, heady poetry here leaves readers little choice but to surrender. -

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 A certain kind of writer — courageous, foolhardy, ambitious — cannot resist fictionalising the writing life in novels, or more recently in the case of authors such as Nell Zink and Karl Ove Knausgaard, in autofiction.It’s rich territory, despite the high risks. If writers get the life of a spelunker or a cheese-sculptor wrong, their own community might not catch on, but to fail at writing about writing is to crash and burn as their tribe watches. Perhaps those who are successful at capturing the travails of a writer — Stephen King (Misery), Penelope Lively (The Blue Flower), Michael Cunningham (The Hours), Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook) — pull it off because the reader knows in her bones that this terrain is true, the maps of self-doubt, creativity, fame and writer’s block all thoroughly explored.Having been shortlisted for 2012’s Man Booker for his debut Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil has written a second novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints (currently published in India, and published in the UK next year), that fictionalises a set of Indian writers who were famous in Mumbai in the 1970s and 1980s for their poetry, but also for their swagger and anarchic style. Thayil had already made his bones as a flamboyant poet, younger than the other Bombay poets — Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar, Eunice de Souza, Adil Jussawalla and Namdeo Dhasal — but accepted as one of them, as a participant in assorted acts of writerly mayhem. “Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties,” an Indian professor in The Book of Chocolate Saints asks in an interview, “poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two and vanished without a trace?” When Thayil came back to India from New York in the mid-2000s, he interviewed poets, writers and editors about that time for an anthology of Indian poetry in English. Much of their history was in danger of disappearing, unrecorded. Some years ago, I myself visited Mumbai poet Adil Jussawalla. His apartment was perched high above the city, in an old Art Deco building. The stacks of papers, magazines, first editions and packets of letters that burst from the open shelves were a living history of the city’s English-language and Marathi poets. In the absence of archivists, writers became their own guardian-librarians. Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints is fiction that draws deeply on reality. A journalist tries to reconstruct the life and times of Newton Francis Xavier, one of the Bombay poets who stopped writing poetry and became a legendary painter instead. Newton is closely modelled on Moraes and the artist FN Souza (Thayil knew them both), and their group of poets is drawn with unsparing, critical affection. “They were masters of the number two trades, petit bourgeois petty criminals, habitual drunkards and fornicators, lone wolves and seers, desperados to a man,” Thayil writes. One can easily rattle off a string of great novels about writers and writing in the US, UK and Europe — Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, John Irving’s The World According To Garp, Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent, Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys, to name just a handful. But it can be surprisingly hard to find the equivalent in the subcontinent. There are exceptions — Vikram Seth’s descriptions of lively Urdu poetry mushairas and more earnest readings of Indian poetry in English in A Suitable Boy (1993), or the towering figure of the Urdu poet Nur in Anita Desai’s In Custody (1984), for example. Perhaps The Book of Chocolate Saints will spark more fiction about writers, not only from India but from other parts of the world.What is it that makes this fictional trope so compelling, though, both for the writer and the reader? In part, it’s the urge to tell readers what it’s really like when you’re unknown, and filled with secret doubts. In Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a timeless authorial fear surfaces, when Holly Golightly interrogates the narrator: “Tell me, are you a real writer?”“It depends on what you mean by real.”“Well, darling, does anyone buy what you write?”“Not yet.”And there’s the other challenge, the craft of pulling off a novel within a novel. Thayil creates real poems written by a fictional writer. Newton’s Book of Chocolate Saints is unpublished but it lends its title to the novel itself. Real writers inventing fictional-but-almost-real books for fictional writers: you can see the pleasure in that. -

“I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.” - Charles Baudelaire
There have been times when I have bought books simply for having fallen in love with their beautiful covers. But the cover is only the most minor arresting feature of “The Book of Chocolate Saints”. Jeet Thayil writes so deeply personal and morose a book that only on being prepared to fit yourself suitably in his pair of (socks and) shoes, standing attentively at the station of life he was in while writing it will you find it touching. I cannot, and yet when I fashion out a façade for this book (other than the fantastic one that graces its book cover), it is unquestionably male, impossibly and narcissistically proud of his cultural lineage, self-aware to a fault about the genius he possess and the effect that has on everyone he meets, and thus coolly prepared to use it as currency to get what he wants from them while being at the mercy of substances that he ‘uses’.
Early in the book, a minor character laments, “Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two, and vanished without a trace? It had never happened before, poets writing Marathi, Hindi, English, and combinations thereof, writing to and against each other, such ferment and not a word of documentation. Why not?” Well, now somebody has.
The author reminisces about this luminous slice of India’s cultural history and dresses it up as fiction and I suppose even builds on it, may be reinvents some bits. Alongside, he attempts to, as per the blurb, bring us “insights into love, madness, poetry, sex, painting, saints, death, God and the savagery that fuels all great art.”  And maybe that’s why it is difficult to place the book in either the fictionalised biography shelf, or travelogue or history, because it simply does not belong. At its emotional core, it is a love letter to a long absent mentor/s, one that cannot be written, leave alone posted, when he is alive. And it is a love that accepts and values them for all that they are, “blocked poet, serial seducer of young women, reformed alcoholic (but only just), philosopher, recluse, all-round wild man and India’s greatest living painter,” as the most helpful blurb introduces the main protagonist. At other levels, the style refuses to be classified by taking on a different form every once in a while, showing major expertise in the craft of writing and constructing the book, without losing the plot (in spite of million digressions) or faltering in pace. Watch out for sentences that run into paragraphs that run into pages; if you can keep up there is perverse pleasure in that too.
The novel follows a remarkable poet and artist Newton Francis Xavier through his time in Goa to Bombay, then on to New York and back to India, and all the people he encounters. The personality graph is drawn vaguely from the characteristics of poet Dom Moreas and renowned painter F.N. Souza, who share their hometown with Xavier. Just like them, Xavier is noted for his genius, in this case as a poet, and becomes the toast of the town at an early age.
But the promise of this talent remains unfulfilled as the words stop flowing and he has to turn to painting to stay on the creative bandwagon. Having swapped Goa and Bombay for New York, bid mother Beryl and three ex-wives adieu and found a young “partner and muse” in future artist Goody Lol, he is visited by the other protagonist, a young heroin-using poet called Dismas Bambai who earns his keep as a journalist with the newspaper Indian Angle. He has written The Loathed, “a fictionalized memoir of the Bombay poets, part crime thriller and part gossip sheet” and wants to write a sequel called The Book of Chocolate Saints that would be “an oral biography of the painter and defunct poet Newton Francis Xavier.” The tome you hold in your hands is a composite of these volumes and much more, divided into seven chapters that are either transcripts of Dismas’s interviews with people who knew Xavier or accounts of Xavier’s stay in a New York after 9/11, or following his return to India for his ultimate show right up to the end.
The novel carries its cloak of literariness lightly. References to the Hungryalist and Beat movements are sprinkled around, even as Dismas takes you through a roll call of (Bombay) poets, authors, painters, philosophers, journalists, critics, and mystics, or their work, who have many a common thread running through their lives, namely the call of poetry, the need to write despite the lack of required space or patronage, and the abuse of drugs and alcohol to bring on a speedy tragic end to their voices. The Chocolate Saints. And Jeet includes himself in the list. Sample the humblebrag, “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.”
The author has published four poetry collections and won a Sahitya Akademi award for the last one, and also edited two vital compilations of Indian poetry in English, one of them being The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Poets. His debut in prose with Narcopolis, the foundation for the second in many ways—primarily Xavier and his life in Bombay, featured in the Booker prize shortlist but sounded the death knell for his poetic fervor.
Given that he is an insider to the poetic/political scene whose tradition he is dedicating the book to, is it acceptable to ask 1) if there ever were any female voices worthy enough to be acknowledged or paid homage to? With only strong male voices resounding in the book, the lack smacks very sharply of a history we forgot or chose to. 2)This book will no doubt be hailed as a milestone in the quest for the Great Indian Novel but it makes me wonder, did the poetic ink have to dry up for the prose to shine? As summed up well by the writer himself, “They were the great ones and they died. All of them died. If you want a moral, here it is: what god giveth, he taketh away. In this story art is god.”
Not a happy thought to end on, is it? Especially when Charles Baudelaire cautioned us that “Always be a poet, even in prose.” - Anupama Chandra 

Francis Newton Xavier is the doomed, debauched genius at the centre of this elegiac novel. A brilliant visual artist who spent his early youth in 1940s Goa, he can not only turn out a fine landscape one moment and a provocative conceptual work the next, but also happens to be one of the mid century’s finest English-language poets. As such, he will be regarded as a typical postmodern canard by many readers. Yet, having learned from Borges and Nabokov that the preposterous is hugely more entertaining than mere absurdity, Jeet Thayil delights not just in pushing the bounds of possibility, but in smashing them to smithereens. The bizarre trajectory of this improbable creature is gradually revealed via a Citizen Kane-style inquiry, during which his biographer interviews many of the people who knew, or claimed to know, him at the height of his success with the Bombay poets (a real-life group formed around celebrated figures such as Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes in the 1950s).
The resulting portrait is unreliable, to say the least. But then, how could any account render a true likeness of someone whose very name combines the creaturely compassion of St Francis with the mathematical precision of Isaac Newton, the family name recalling Goa’s Jesuit inquisitor himself, the fanatical St Francis Xavier? Like Citizen Kane, this is much more than the biography of a single legend, however Rabelaisian. Thayil, a poet himself, is engaged with the shifting cultural and social values of an age, and with the absurd, self-serving and often unconsciously bigoted individuals who, though they are forgotten now, made that age, for better or worse.
These include the colonial schoolmaster whose disdain for stupidity and ugliness of spirit is matched only by his fear of great talent; the hangers-on who dine out on anecdotes about the gifted, the decadent and the diabolical; the bystanders who are never innocent and the friends who are only occasionally immune to resentment or the temptation to undermine. This is a world in which the closest place to heaven might be Berlin, where the weather is “so terrible that you could stay home and never feel like you were missing out on life”.
Absurdity, deceit and self-aggrandisement are the norms for a changing group of artist émigrés, who divide their time between London, Paris and New York, but are continually drawn back to India for reasons they do not fully understand. They are as embarrassed as they are proud to be writing and speaking in what is, or should have been, the enemy’s language. Thayil’s portrayal of the colonial and postcolonial world’s apparent escapees as would-be citizens of everywhere, for whom “return is not inevitable”, is most poignant. But it is always compromised, deliberately adulterated with the toxic powers of a ruling class that, if it cannot dismiss them outright, must absorb and so negate these wanderers. In the end, those who survive are doomed to live out their final years in dismal apartments with “an army of ghosts”; but then, most do not survive.
“What is the mark that distinguishes the good from the bad, in works as in men?” asks Eric Gill, in Thayil’s rather risky epigraph. Gill’s conclusion – that “holiness is the only word for it” – is highly unfashionable, and might be taken as purely ironic, but I cannot help feeling that this is exactly the question that The Book of Chocolate Saints unashamedly proposes. Naturally, Thayil keeps his emotions in check. Yet we also see glimpses of genuine anger and sadness that, in a time of “performance poets and spoken word poets and jazz poets and beat poets and street poets and stand-up poets and sit-down poets”, any honest practitioner of poetry for its own sake might end up as underappreciated and misunderstood as the genuine poètes maudits of 1950s Bombay. Several flit through the novel under pseudonyms and the book itself is dedicated to Moraes, whose parents’ names, like Xavier’s, were Beryl and Frank. There is, in short, a daringly poetic agenda to this novel, whose appreciation of the undertow of everyday life easily matches that of its brilliant predecessor, Narcopolis, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. What marks The Book of Chocolate Saints out as an unmissable read, however, is its concern not just with the more entertaining aspects of human behaviour – the sinful, the grotesque and the preposterous – but also with what is, or could be, holy in our works. - John Burnside

Jeet Thayil emerged from a specific moment in the Indian English poetry scene. In his second novel The Book of Chocolate Saints, one of his characters reminds the reader of that: “Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two, and vanished without a trace?”
Chocolate Saints is thinly veiled fiction. It barely hides that the author borrows everything in its pages from his life and from the lives of those he hung around with in the 1970s and 1980s. This is a book about India’s cultural history, and in that sense, it is a good one.
It is also a novel about male poets written by a male poet, and the reaction it elicits will probably depend on the gender of the reader.
There is no faulting Thayil’s style, his particular penchant for sentences longer than Gigi Hadid’s legs, or his imitation of the voices of yesteryear poets, including, possibly, himself. The previous sentence is a bow to the author’s ability to seamlessly write 1000 facts into one para-tence (paragraph + sentence.)
The Chocolate Saints presents itself as a work of fiction. But for those who are familiar with Thayil and the Indian English poetry scene in those decades, it’s difficult not to recognize nearly every character as a real person or escape the novel’s use of inter-textuality. It doesn’t try and hide cheeky references either. In the first chapter, Reggie Ashton talks about Newton’s favourite haunt The York Minster, also known as the French. I remember the French House from my days in university. It still sits in Soho, London, and was previously known as the York Minster.
The many voices and narratives in the book are skillfully stitched together. But I remember poet Dom Moraes, who died in 2004, and there definitely is a resemblance between his life and that of Thayil’s protagonist Newton Francis Xavier.
It is also tempting to say that Francis Newton Souza, a Goan artist who died in 2002, has inspired part of Newton, the fictional character. The similarity between the fictional Newton’s muse Goody and Souza’s partner Srimati Lal, an artist from Kolkata, supports this theory. Of course, more obviously, the protagonist Dismas Bambai, meets the these two in New York. Bambai is a heroin-abusing journalist who works for a publication called Indian Angle. Thayil met Souza, the Goan artist, in New York around the same period when he was working for India Abroad. We know from his first novel that Thayil, at that time, was also a heroin user.
Goody, Newton’s muse, is an unbearably flat character — especially for an author who writes round, full-bodied male characters so, so very well. It’d be interesting to know Lal’s reaction to this book, mainly because she was and continues to be a fascinating woman. In real life, like Goody, Lal is an artist and curator. The real life version of Goody has had over 20 international exhibitions of her work. The fictional version of Goody is barely relevant to most of the novel’s major events and plot turns. Still, the book ends, in a manner of speaking, with her.
It is at this point that the male and female gaze may differ when laid upon The Book of Chocolate Saints. If you’re a woman exhausted from reading about over-inflated egos and the accompanying misogyny of male artists, this is not a book for you. Or perhaps it is. One everyday dichotomy of being a female creative is the ability to love the efforts of men who have very little admiration for women. From Bukowski to Naipaul, Thayil is in good company. Women consistently read the works of misogynists. We expend energy to admire their handiwork, even as we dislike their apparent antipathy towards our gender.
There is an argument to be made that writing is separated from the writer. Another way to look at Chocolate Saints is that Thayil has captured the prevailing misogyny of the era or that of male poets. These are both truths. But how much of the author drips from every word in the book, and in anything he has ever written? Right from his first publication of poems in 1992 to his first award-winning novel Nacropolis, Thayil, the writer, is a muse for himself and often seems disdainful of the line between fiction and fact. In this, his second novel, Thayil casts aside all lines of control between the two.
But the reader cannot help but wonder: were there no women poets in that era? Did they not exist at all? Or did they never emerge from their homes? They make barely any appearances in these pages, among these Chocolate Saints.
Then there’s the narcissism evident in the book’s many monologues. They will inspire some but could be tiresome for others. I include myself in the latter category.
Take this scene - in Gokul, Bombay’s favourite dingy bar, a journalist tells Bambai: “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.”
You know who does not make these presumptuous statements about poetry?
Female writers, poets, authors.
They, mostly, don’t consider themselves revolutionaries because they are aware of the importance of the written word and also of how easily it can be ignored or forgotten. They know these sad truths because they live them — ignored more often than celebrated; hit on by male editors more often than published.
Towards the end of the book, a former professor of English Literature tells Bambai of a publisher who knew no Indian poets writing in English: “I thanked the man who dismissed my history and my milieu with a single sentence.” This reviewer feels the same way about male authors who appear to find it impossible to look beyond their own selves.
This is a book about India’s cultural history. Its importance, in that sense, overshadows how casually it overlooks the women who could have added and aided the story. Thayil has never allowed his readers to forget the forgotten: the poets of an earlier era. Sometimes, he appears to forget that some of those contributors to our lithographic history were women. But we’re used to that. As I said, he’s in good company. The Book of Chocolate Saints is a moving, amusing, and superbly written book that celebrates a part of our country’s past that might otherwise be forgotten. - Avantika Mehta

“You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can’t hold on to her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement.” So wrote Roberto Bolano in The Savage Detectives, which Jeet Thayil’s new novel The Book of Chocolate Saints resembles in more ways than a first glance can decipher. Bolano’s novel is in search of an obscure poet, who was the founder of an elusive poetry movement named Visceral Realism. Thayil’s characters are attempting a biography of similarly freakish poets called the Hung Realists. In both novels, a myriad of real poets and writers appear as characters, protagonists are modelled on real persons, with the authors often appearing in disguise. A major portion of both is devoted to accounts of a variety of voices that also form an oral history of poetry and arts in respective societies. Cocktails of poetry and unencumbered libido; even the placement of graphic sex scenes often seem strangely similar in both works.
Yet, Thayil might have borrowed the form; his is an ambitious work of metafiction. At least three books or their idea run intertwined in his novel. The Hung Realists: A Subaltern Manifesto, The Loathed and The Book of Chocolate Saints. The first is a stupendous anthology of poets “who had never before been anthologized, outliers, rebels, hermits, dangerous faces unwelcome in polite society”. This ambitious anthology being prepared by a Christian painter-poet Newton Francis Xavier and a Dalit poet, Narayan Doss, obviously excludes the names “on which the upper-caste anthologists had always relied”. The Loathed is a fictionalised memoir of Bombay poets by journalist Dismas Bambai, who is also writing another book, The Book of Chocolate Saints, an oral biography of Xavier. Over one-third of the novel is devoted to the oral accounts of various persons Bambai meets through several years for Xavier’s biography. The novel mostly moves around Xavier, a quirky genius, whose gaze barely goes beyond the body in a female. “I only know it beautiful when I paint it nude,” is his first sentence to a woman. Xavier has a variety of women in his life, including three wives, but we never get to know whether he actually loved any of them.
Xavier, we are told, reflects the combined personality traits of painter Francis Newton Souza and poet Dom Moraes, to whom the novel is dedicated. Does the novel assert the often-repeated line that it is nearly impossible for a male artist to love anybody else other than his work, that for him women exist just as a mere prop? One can turn to some eminent names. Marina Picasso described the bond his famous grandfather had with women in these words: “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.” Women in Xavier’s life, and in the novel, also find themselves in an inevitable derogatory position. Faced with his artistic talent, male vanity and sexual prowess (it comes in ample display), they barely have a voice or choice and are mostly seen feeding his ego. In one such description, Xavier, now in his late 60s, is travelling in a train with his much younger companion Goody Lol, when a fellow passenger introduces her 21-year-old daughter to them. “Keep her away from this one,” Goody says, nodding at Xavier.
“He likes them young.” Soon this stranger girl follows him to the train’s bathroom where “he was surprised at the hunger in her kiss”. And then the girl mouths these words: “Keep going…don’t stop…I want you to do it.” In this episode, several women come together to sustain the glory of an old man, who by now has a “white beard and broken nose”. In another sequence, one of his earliest nude models, Glory Pande, recounts her past experiences to Goody: “He made my boobs much bigger than they are. Years later when I got married my husband was most upset. I thought, how sweet, retrospective husbandly jealousy.” The problem in this novel lies not in the depiction of the male sexual authority, but in making a variety of bright and successful women wait in awe for their turn. The former would have made it a powerful comment on male abuse, the latter takes it to the boundaries of misogyny. A novel does not merely represent the supposed reality, it also dissects and questions the prevailing notions. Bolano, as his words with which this article begins indicate, was more critical of the male dominance asserted through art and poetry.
But there is more to it. The book is also about ambition and imagination, as it unravels the dark corners of human existence. It touches the heights of inventiveness not often seen in Indian English novels. One of the “founding tenets of the Hung Realist movement” is a poem by Doss that assigns musical notes to stations on the western line of the Mumbai local train. Thus Churchgate is ‘Sa’, Marine Lines ‘Re’, Charni Road becomes ‘Ga’, Grant Road ‘Ma’, Bombay Central ‘Pa’ and, finally, Bandra ‘Sa’ on a higher octave. It also reads as a loose sequel to Thayil’s earlier novel, Narcopolis, as several threads of that work get developed here. Xavier figures in Narcopolis and stuns others with statements like “only the rich can afford surprise and or irony. The rich crave meaning…the poor don’t ask questions, or they don’t ask irrelevant questions”. Both have Xavier visit a red-light area, Shuklaji Street of Mumbai, and meet Dimple. The novel moves with unceasing digressions, introduces myriads of fascinating characters and becomes beautifully polyphonic. One such is an old man Xavier meets in Paris. He calls himself the great-grandson of Edgar Allan Poe, though the American writer is not known to have left behind any heir.
But the novel sometimes gets lost in digressions. Several passages and pages add little to the text and could have been easily edited. In its finest moments, it comes across as a passionate manifesto for poetry and a marvellous stab at literary history that does not spare top figures. Xavier finds Tagore “a professional mystic”. “It was his white beard and sadhu’s demeanor that had endeared him to Yeats, who was a sucker for all things mystical.” Doss notes that “Tagore’s true mastery was his public relations”. It’d be difficult to find similar sentences in Indian literature that discard the Nobel laureate with such impertinence. Precisely this nerve also yields many gems about poets and poetry. Some of my picks: “If it (a nation) does not care for its poets, it does not care for anything else.” “They (poets) are born with a capacity for cruelty, followed by an infinite capacity for remorse.”
“The attempt to impose order on chaos was the mark of a minor artist…the impulse to create tenderness or bliss in the midst of chaos was the project of the superior artist.” “Indian poets think all you need to write poetry is feelings…the purpose of poetry is to get away from your fucking feelings.” “I am the historian of the outcaste poets because I am a homosexual Indian man.” The blurb calls it a “masterpiece”. This might not be so, but it certainly, with immense passion and ambition, aspires to be one. This ambition in itself should place it on a high pedestal. - Ashutosh Bhardwaj

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.  - messybooker.wordpress.com/2018/03/22/the-book-of-chocolate-saints-jeet-thayil/

The “Chocolate Saints” of the title are famous works of art by Francis Newton Xavier, a fictional painter and poet at the centre of this big, exuberant, explosive novel. “Newton” is a legend, and a clamour of voices compete to tell the story of his life, yet each new revelation only makes him more mysterious.
Newton is interested in excess and decadence (one of his heroes is Baudelaire), and he remains stubbornly uncompromising while the world convulses around him. Born in Goa between the wars, he lives through Indian partition and independence. He arrives in England in the late 1950s, wins a big prize “at the jaded age of twenty”, and is ideally placed to enjoy the wonderfully seedy art scene in Soho, where he… - Kate Saunders

The Indian poet Jeet Thayil’s first novel, Narcopolis, charted a two-decade-long descent into the underworlds of Mumbai and addiction. One part de Quincey, one part Burroughs, it was distinguished not just by the sustained beauty and brilliance of its prose but by what must surely rank as a strong contender for the funniest scene in a Theosophy Hall ever written. It was also highly autobiographical and, perhaps just as importantly, deliberately subversive, rejecting the questions of national identity and family that preoccupy most Indian novels that find favour in the West.
Something similar might be said about Thayil’s new novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints. At once a metafictional history of Mumbai’s literary scene, a furious satire of Western attitudes to Indian writing and an exploration of the complexity of the diasporic experience, it is also a rich and densely realised work of the imagination that simultaneously draws closely on Thayil’s own experience.
At the novel’s centre is the poet and painter Francis Newton Xavier. Born in Goa, and displaced first to Mumbai and then to New York, he is modelled in part on Dom Moraes (to whom the book is dedicated). Xavier is famous for his appetite for alcohol and women, tastes that have, as the years have passed, begun to catch up with him. Around Xavier move numerous other characters, perhaps most significantly his lover and carer, the photographer Goody Lol, his manager, Amrik Singh, an American-born Sikh and former bonds trader, and the rather more enigmatic figure of Dismas Bambai, a writer and poet, all based, to a greater or lesser degree, on real-life figures.
Presumably this appropriation of real people lends the novel a layer of meaning that is largely lost on non-Indian readers, a fact Thayil anticipates and bends back on itself. ‘Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the 1970s and 1980s’, wonders one character early on, a question that finds at least part of an answer in a subsequent story about Allen Ginsberg’s celebration of Urdu poetry he could not understand over the poetry of Indian poets writing in English. As the person relating the story declares: ‘Inside the scruffy, lazy, bullshit bohemianism [the Beat poets] were blatant orientalists.’
This interplay between fact and fiction is given added energy by the novel’s polyphonic structure, which interleaves interviews with those who knew Xavier with extended reimaginings of his life and the lives of Dismas, Amrik and Goody. These in turn form part of a book within the book, a biography of Xavier by Dismas, a character whose biography strongly resembles Thayil’s own.
With its cast of dissolute, feuding poets and metafictional gameplay, The Book of Chocolate Saints inevitably recalls Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Yet there is nothing secondary or derivative about Thayil’s novel. On the contrary, it is dense, dazzling and ferociously intelligent. As in Narcopolis, the author’s command of language is frequently virtuosic in both its range and versatility, able to vault from character to character and shift seamlessly from carefully observed realism to the high-octane rush of words and images that dominate its latter half. And while it is not perfect — it sags in the final third, and its critique of the misogyny of Indian society and the myths of male genius is blunted by its focus on the male characters — it is nonetheless a remarkable achievement, bursting with energy, ideas and an appetite for risk-taking that is too rare in contemporary fiction. -

Jeet Thayil interviews Jeet Thayil about his new book
Jeet Thayil was born in 1959 in Kerala at his mother’s ancestral tharavad on the banks of the Muhattupuzha River. He was educated at Jesuit schools in Bombay, Hongkong, and New York, and worked as a journalist for twenty-three years before writing his first novel, Narcopolis. This interview was recorded over the course of two afternoons at the writer’s family home in Bangalore. Getting Thayil to speak was, in this interviewer’s opinion, akin to pulling teeth without anesthesia. The writer left the room several times, for long stretches, to make coffee, to answer the door, and for other mysterious and unexplained reasons. The only time he expressed any enthusiasm was when he was told that the interview was at an end.
INTERVIEWER: I’d like to start by asking whether living in India, in the midst of a multi-religious society, has had an affect on the way you look at faith. For instance, a writer brought up in Bombay will have a very different set of responses toward Islamophobia than a writer brought up in Brooklyn. I find there is a calibrated awareness of religious difference in your poetry and fiction, a response that appears to be democratic in its belligerence. Do you agree that this kind of syncretic allusiveness is a result of having been brought up in India?
THAYIL: I have no idea.
The author’s bio in your book states that you were a journalist for twenty-three years. In that case wouldn’t your style be profoundly affected by the practice and discipline of writing on deadline? What I mean to ask is: Has your background in non-fiction been a vital resource in the writing of this novel? The chapters set in New York following Sept. 11 seem to be ripped from the headlines, and there are set pieces of pure non-fiction, for instance the trial scene of Frank Roque in the courtroom in Mesa, Arizona. Would it be accurate to say that you have mixed fiction and non-fiction in a way that makes it difficult to know where one ends and the other begins?
What do you mean by “vengeful or bewildered or helpless nostalgia”? Is it similar to the feeling you get when you realize you had the lyrics of a song wrong all along? For example, I always thought the words of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ were how wonderful life is alone in the world. When I realized it was in fact how wonderful life is when you’re in the world the discovery filled me with, I suppose, a kind of bewildered nostalgia. Is that what the phrase means?
Not really.
I notice also that some of the characters in your novel are real-life personalities, for instance, the poet Philip Nikolayev, and your father, the author and journalist, T.J.S.George, who are both quoted at length. How true to life are those passages? Is it a kind of fictionalized journalism, or a kind of true fiction?
I’m not sure.
Also, much of the book seems to be a thinly disguised version of the life of the poet Dom Moraes, with allusions to the painter FN Souza. I notice that you have retained the first names of Moraes’s parents, Beryl and Frank. Does this make the novel a kind of roman à cléf?
It’s certainly a possibility.
Part oral history, part road movie and travel journal, part 9/11 memoir, part discovery of India, The Book of Chocolate Saints seems like an unclassifiable beast of a novel. The oral history, in particular, in which you have named the Bombay poets of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, with particular emphasis to Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, and so on—is it an attempt to present actual slices of history under the rubric of ‘A Novel’?
Yes, thank you.
Would you agree that this is an extremely literary novel? I mean there is a monologue by Goody Lol during the act of sex that ends with the words yes I said yes I will yes and of course those are the seven words with which Joyce ends Nora Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses. There are allusions to Baudelaire, Allen Ginsberg, the Hungryalists and Auden. At one point V.S. Naipaul makes a kind of cameo appearance as God, and Indira Gandhi makes a cameo, not to mention Van Gogh and Rothko and a parade of real and made-up saints. It all seems terribly literary, and art-obsessive. Didn’t you worry this would make the novel hard to sell?
Of course I did.
Could you describe the book for us?
The Book of Chocolate Saints is the story of Newton Francis Xavier, blocked poet, serial seducer of young women, reformed alcoholic (but only just), philosopher, recluse, all-round wild man and India’s greatest living painter. At the age of sixty-six, Xavier, who has been living in New York, is getting ready to return to the land of his birth to stage one final show of his work (accompanied by a mad bacchanal). As we accompany Xavier and his partner and muse Goody on their unsteady and frequently sidetracked journey from New York to New Delhi, the venue of the final show, we meet a host of memorable characters—the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, ‘poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two and vanished without a trace’, journalists, conmen, murderers, alcoholics, addicts, artists, whores, society ladies, thugs—and are also given unforgettable (and sometimes unbearable) insights into love, madness, poetry, sex, painting, saints, death, God and the savagery that fuels all great art. Narrated in a huge variety of voices and styles, all of which blend seamlessly into a novel of remarkable accomplishment, The Book of Chocolate Saints is the sort of literary masterpiece that only comes along once in a very long time.
But isn’t that your publisher’s blurb?
Yes. I doubt if I could do better. Besides, I feel I’ve said everything there is to say. It’s all in the book; I’m talked out.
Fair enough. Anything you’d like to add?

Poet and writer Jeet Thayil’s second novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, catapults you straight into the gloriously bacchanal universe of Newton Francis Xavier, “blocked poet, serial seducer of young women, reformed alcoholic (but only just), philosopher, recluse, all-round wild man and India’s greatest living painter.” Thayil talks about his latest novel and the characters who inhabit it in this email interview. Excerpts:
Newton Francis Xavier, your central character, is an amalgamation of the lives of two artists of Goan origin — Francis Newton Souza and Dom Moraes. Could you tell us a little about the genesis of this composite character?
I think it’s an unfortunate, reductive way to read fiction — as if it is fact. One reviewer went to the extent of monetising or quantifying Xavier as 70% Souza and 30% Moraes, or maybe it was the other way around. Another said that Goody Lol’s character is based on an artist who has had ‘x’ number of exhibitions, a number the novel got wrong.
To clarify: Goody is a fully realised fictional individual who has nothing to do with a real-life counterpart. (I should know, I wrote the book.) Nobody who writes fiction would make this kind of comment. I’ve got two words for that kind of reviewer, “A Novel”.
The cover says so. This is a work of the imagination; any other reading is a mistake at best and misinformed or deliberately misleading at worst. When readers in other countries read this book, nobody will connect the characters to supposed real-life counterparts.
Readers who do so deny themselves an important part of the reading experience, which is to look at a novel in a wider, more rewarding perspective. This is a story about art and artists, and about the glory and misery of the life artistic.
The Book of Chocolate Saints was carved out of your first book, Narcopolis — Newton is a fleeting presence there.
The original manuscript of Narcopolis was about a thousand pages. At one point, after a year or two of work, I had the good sense to extricate Dimple and make her the focus of the book. The part that remained became, after much subsequent work, The Book of Chocolate Saints. I am working on something new at the moment and I’m happy to say it has nothing to do with Newton or Dimple.
It’s a huge universe that the book captures: multiple worlds that revolve around the Bombay poets, of course. But also the experience of negotiating New York as a brown man, the chronicling of vagrancy, the excavation of specific tracts of history and the price of art, love, obsession and identity. How did research, witness and autobiography come together to create this universe?
Thanks for this question: it means you read the book. With some reviewers it’s clear they read only the oral history section concerning the Bombay poets. I don’t blame them. I know how badly reviewers in this country are paid and how quickly they are expected to produce a review. It’s probably too much to expect them to read an entire book when it’s so much easier to google previous reviews and produce something similar. And to answer your question: research and witness, yes, autobiography, not really.
Women are pivotal in many ways to Newton’s existence, both as an artist and as a human being, yet he isn’t particularly nice to them. In fact, the depiction of your female character is something a lot of reviewers seemed to have seen as a little problematic...
He isn’t nice to women but he is worse to men. In fact, he is far nicer to women than he is to men. I believe it is a sign of the Indian times. When one reviewer uses the word ‘misogyny’ others must use it too, because they haven’t read the whole book, and because they want to show that they know the meaning of the trending word.
The correct word in this case is ‘misandry’, which is a constant subtext, though no reviewer has picked up on it, perhaps because it is not as trendy a word as ‘misogyny’?
Goody Lol is one of the book’s three major female characters (for much of the novel, we see events and personalities only through her eyes), and she is a misandrist, which can be defined as a person who has a strong dislike of, or prejudice against, men; with good reason, in her case.
I don’t know how much clearer I can be than to quote the following sections:
“At night the city belonged to the men. You sensed them out there wild-eyed, sniffing the air with their intoxicated nostrils, using their meaty hands to break and gouge and caress, the men who swaggered out of the cradle and into the fields, drunk and defecating, whose default mode was sudden rage. They were all out there, the fathers and husbands and brothers and uncles, the guardians and feeders, the predator-protectors, the men.”
And this exchange between three women, after Goody has been assaulted (by a man):
‘‘‘Imagine a city, a state, a nation without women, the unrelieved ugliness of it. They’ll be stuck with each other, men on men on men. It is exactly what they deserve.’
‘A society of men without women,’ said Goody, imagining. ‘A definition of hell. And the punishment? That the men, the gross men will have to fuck each other and fantasize about women while they’re doing it.’
‘Serve them right,’ said Dharini, cupping her hands to her mouth to laugh.”
And this:
“Xavier imagined the men dying horribly in cramped spaces. He imagined them tortured with spoon excavators and a pair of pliers in the back of a windowless van, garroted at a urinal, buried alive in a basement closet, electrocuted in elevators or on staircases. He fantasized crimes in which he would cut their femoral arteries and watch entranced as they were lifted up in great waves of blood. He invented murder scenarios in which knives played a larger part than guns. The only firearms he allowed were shotguns that took away half his victims’ faces and left sucking wounds in the chest and unpluggable excavations in gut and groin. He preferred hunting knives because he wanted to be intimate with his murders. And now he was imagining the castration and killing of the sullen Army man who did nothing but stare at the women in the compartment. Openly he stared with his hand in his lap.”
If you can read these passages and still talk of misogyny I have to suspect that you have an agenda. Of course, these passages occur towards the end of the novel, so perhaps those readers didn’t get so far. The book ends with Goody, who emerges as the pivotal point of the story, because she is the one who will take it forward.
You’ve used multiple story-telling devices — poetry, memoir, journalism techniques, third-person narrative — to fictionalise a rich cultural history. Can you talk a little about the form of the “novel” and I’m using the term a little loosely here?
There is no looseness. A novel is called a novel exactly because the form is inexhaustible, is endlessly renewable, is sustainable, is always ‘novel’.
The drawing on the book cover is derived from Manu Parekh’s ‘The Last Supper’, based on the Da Vinci painting by the same name... could you talk about the significance of that painting?
Manu’s painting depicts Jesus and his disciples painted in the style of Souza. The cover focuses on a detail, on half of Christ’s face. Jesus here is not the blond, blue-eyed Caucasian depicted by the artists of the West, but a dark-skinned, black-haired Jew, in short, a chocolate saint. - Preeti Zachariah

Interview (The Guardian)

Image result for Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis:
Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis: A Novel, Penguin Books, 2012.

Written in poetic and affecting prose, Jeet Thayil's luminous debut novel charts the evolution of a great and broken metropolis across three decades. A rich, hallucinatory dream that captures Bombay in all its compelling squalor, Narcopolis completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated.

Notable passage: “Only the rich can afford surprise and/or irony. The rich crave meaning. The first thing they ask when faced with eternity, and in fact the last thing, is: excuse me, what does this mean? The poor don’t ask questions, or they don’t ask irrelevant questions. They can’t afford to. All they can afford is laughter and ghosts. Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts and rage addicts and poverty addicts and power addicts, and the pure addicts who addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and tenderness that substances engender. An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.”

Narcotic drugs have inspired much storytelling and literary dreaming, if rather less actual writing. Of those few novels that slide out of the smoke on to paper, we assume addiction is a requisite for authenticity and yet an enormous hindrance to productivity. After all, it is hardly playing by the rules of decadence and dereliction to find the willpower and tenacity to finish a manuscript. But a tiny number do convince the public that theirs is a genuine account of an addiction whose clutches the writer escaped for long enough to scribble down a compelling narrative: think William Burroughs's Junky, or Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Does Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis, a tale of opium dens and heroin addiction in Mumbai, join that select club? It is not an easy task. And there's another challenge: many books by foreign-educated Indians read as though they were written in a New York penthouse suite, the author having spent a couple of weeks researching a multi-generational, sprawling saga of Mumbai lowlife by chatting to the house servants of their relatives on the phone.
The story opens in Rashid's opium house on Shuklaji Street sometime in the 1970s. We meet the owner himself, his regular clients and Dimple, the eunuch, who prepares his pipes. Very gently, we are drawn in to their languorous world. Thayil is an accomplished poet and that sensibility serves him well. We slide in and out of characters' lives, emerging occasionally inside a vivid drug-induced recollection: like that of Mr Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and gives us as sharp a portrait of that country in the late 1940s as one could wish for.
We move onward with the years. Hippies arrive and begin to appreciate the quality of Rashid's opium, the attention to detail in pipe preparation, the warm cocooning charm of it all. This is an India that itself was dreaming, wrapped up in Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and simplicity, ignoring the tsunami of change that would not strike until the 1991 economic liberalisation. I was in Mumbai in those days, on my first trip to India, sleeping in shoddy dives and living on cheap street food. He pins down that world perfectly; he even pins down us shabby western travellers with a few painfully precise words: "interloper[s] from the future come to gawk at the poor and unfortunate who lived in a time before antibiotics and television and aeroplanes".
For Rashid and Dimple that change arrives in the form of heroin, a drug that seems to herald a new world order, one more savage and hopeless than anything that went before. All the regulars switch. As the city disintegrates into communal riots, murder and mayhem, their own lives are in freefall too, and the story of that fall becomes an epic tragedy written with grace, passion and empathy. Thayil unpicks the complexities, contradictions and hypocrisies of Indian life with surgical elegance: the good Muslim selling heroin while complaining about brazen women, the queenly beggarwoman who makes the street her living room, and the Hindu praying in church, an action that saves her from the mob but not her fate.
There is a subplot about a murderer that doesn't add much to the story, and a dud note is struck when Dimple starts to opine on Baudelaire and Cocteau. However, I wished that this book, like some long and delicious opium-induced daydream, would go on and on. The end, sadly, does eventually come. India has been reincarnating behind the blue smoke of the last pipes. We catch its reflection in the gleam of the heroin user's silver foil and then there it is: the new country, standing hard and metallic and just as crazily conflicted and mired in melancholy as the last version of itself. In a shiny nightclub full of plastic and aluminium, Rashid's son stares at the scantily clad women. He sells cocaine. He dances. He is a good Muslim in his own eyes. He might consider becoming a suicide bomber when the time is right.
Narcopolis is a blistering debut that can indeed stand proudly on the shelf next to Burroughs and De Quincey. Thayil is quoted as saying that he lost almost 20 years of his life to addiction, but on this showing the experience did not go to waste. We can celebrate that he emerged intact and gave us this book. - Kevin Rushby

If you were to write a story set in Bombay, as the poet Jeet Thayil prefers to call the city now known as Mumbai in his outstanding debut novel, you don't have to work too hard. Much of it can write itself if you connect the dots of history: a city made of islands reclaimed by the British, a polyglot culture where all of India's languages, faiths and castes mingle, where the prevailing currency is money and its dreams are told, nay, sung, in those schmaltzy, kitschy Bollywood movies, and which lives on an edge, periodically blown up when terrorists set explosives, but returning to life the next day, resilient and resigned.
The ingenuity of Thayil's novel lies in how he has squeezed this entire universe into an opium pipe. And when the narrative dissipates into smoke, it leaves a deceptively addictive odour, with memorable characters at the margins of society. There is Dimple, the eunuch keen to read and learn; the Bengali who pretends to know more than he does (or maybe he does); and Rashid himself, who runs the opium den with disdain that's at once sardonic and laconic. There are others too, given peculiar names drawn from Bombay slang, but most try to do no harm, and often show heartwarming humanity. The unobtrusive narrator is Dom, whose soul-killing job is as a proof-reader of publicity material in a pharmaceutical company (with easy access to chemical substances). Just alongside the den are other vices - prostitution and crime.
Thayil is a gifted poet and a man of courage - he was among the four authors who read from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, whose import is banned in India, at the Jaipur Festival, and who now may face charges. He tells this story through the city's microcosm – an opium den in Sukhlaji Street, whose existence was known only to those who needed to know. Disparate characters meet at the den, leaving behind the complications the world outside presents.
Broader events, like the 1993 bomb blasts that rocked the city, sound like a faint thud. We experience the attacks through the closed shops, the climate of fear, the single shoe discarded on the street. Thayil presents a credible portrayal of the emerging divisiveness in the city. The addicted, sadistic businessman Rumi's rage against Muslims builds up slowly; Rashid tries maintaining the old decency, and yet his own son Jamal gets politicised by the images of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In between are exceptionally funny sections, such as a long rant against various communities, and caricatures of well-meaning Dutch tourists. The most striking section is in the middle, when Thayil introduces us to Lee, the elderly Chinese man who gives his pipes to Dimple. Lee has come to India escaping Mao's cultural revolution. Thayil provides an engrossing account of the trance propaganda can produce, as he shows how the party destroys the lives of Lee's parents, his girlfriend, and many, many more.
India's opium links with China are old. Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy, of which the first two novels, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, are already published, traces those links. British traders got China addicted to opium grown in India, and transported it on ships owned by Indian merchants.
As historian Amar Farooqui has shown in Opium City, Bombay's prosperity owed much to that trade. Narcopolis is set at a time when the popularity of opium is waning, and more dangerous drugs are about to invade the city. It makes the opium den look like a piece of innocent nostalgia. Thayil completes the story that began in the 19th century through Lee's pipe, as it becomes the instrument of escape for the city's tormented souls. - Salil Tripathi

The pacazo – a seven-foot iguana that hides in the trees of Piura, north-west Peru – rarely appears in the book that shares its name. On the opening page it is described as “an imp of history” and “a bitter god” by narrator John Segovia; but then remains mostly in the shadows until the end. Its seeming importance, followed by its extended absence, is indicative of Roy Kesey’s debut novel Pacazo: surprising, demanding and determined to wrong-foot.
Segovia, a pale, hulking, expat historian, stalks Piura in a quest to avenge the murder of his wife. By the close of the first chapter, he has assaulted the wrong man, and a friend has warned him that his thirst for vengeance has to end.
Ahead is 500 pages, an exotic locale, a tortured hero, and to solve a murder mystery; Kesey immediately follows it with a conversation about subalterns, Pizarro and Barthes. Fifty pages on, and the narrative drive promised is almost forgotten.
What follows is a collision of history and memory, of the quotidian and the epic. Sentences flow through centuries, describe conquistadors and World Cup football, the taste of Inca Cola and the devastation of rainstorms on deserts. Like the pacazo, the plot itself waits in the wings, appearing, then disappearing behind the true subject of the novel: how best to deal with daily life when it has been rendered trivial.
Segovia is a messy, inconsistent narrator, but through his eyes, Kesey draws intense, beautifully rendered characters and relationships. The grief, the guilt and the rage may lurk, but so do simple pleasures of nonsensical games with his daughter, conversations with his workmates, the awkwardness of unrequited love. It makes for an expansive, occasionally patience-trying, but wholly immersive reading experience – both heart-rending and complex.
Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis treads a neater narrative line, but is no less adventurous in its exploration of story and place. This is Old Bombay as seen from the slums and the gutter, the city illuminated in all its sweat and temper, stories lifting from the streets like the smoke from an opium pipe. Centred on Rashid’s squalid drug shack, this portmanteau novel picks up strands, weaves them with others, journeys to Mao’s China, only to drop us back, mesmerised, right where we began.
The literature of drugs can be both wearisome and curiously smug: low-life glamour exulted with florid prose and cod-spiritual awakenings. And while ghosts, visions and trash-can decadence occasionally cloud the atmosphere, Thayil’s sympathy, range and clear-eyed, yet fluid style finds something other in the addict’s cycle of relief and relapse.
Ultimately this is a novel of escape. And while this is hardly a groundbreaking interpretation of narcotic abuse, Thayil subtly inhabits lives destined to forever end back to the pipe: Dimple, a transsexual prostitute; Mr Lee, a Chinese soldier, son of a dissident writer and a communist zealot mother; Rashid, a drug dealer still in thrall to the old ways, wilfully ignorant to the changing society around him. Their sadness, their shattered lives, are depicted with empathy and a sharp eye for the dark comedy that resides there.
In ambition, Narcopolis is reminiscent of Roberto Bolano; but it is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son – the best junkie book of the last quarter century – that is its closer kin. Thankfully, Thayil creates something original and vital from those blueprints. One yearns for the next hit. - Stuart Evers

Depictions of India in western pop culture seemed to change little throughout the 20th century. Going back at least to Forster’s A Passage to India, from a western point of view the inscrutability and mystical nature of the sub-continent are its defining traits. Often it is portrayed as a gateway to personal enlightenment, as its mystery is held up as a mirror in which Westerners can see the truth about themselves. The films Outsourced and Eat, Pray, Love are prime examples. Alternatively, many narratives told from an Indian perspective (yet still told to a western audience,) give romanticized views of the day to day life of the country (i.e., Slumdog Millionaire.) In contrast, Narcopolis gives us a story that is ringing with a genuineness lacking in many novels and films.
A graphic exploration of the drug scene in Bombay (later Mumbai,) Thayil’s novel delves painfully into the murk of poverty and opium dens with a host of characters, each visceral, shocking, and believable. Given depth through flashbacks, direct description or difficult rumors, the novel imbues each of its players with the [End Page 244] hopelessness and desperation of their individual addictions, whether to narcotics, money, sex, violence or self-destruction in general. As the characters descend into spirals of inevitable ruin, Thayil reveals to us which of them we are meant to connect with and which we are to feel are all too deserving of their tragic fates. However, the tone of the novel, that of a voice angered by its own impotence, makes it clear from the outset that all of the conclusions will be hopelessly similar.
In a particularly painful scene, a character describes a vision had while detoxing from heroin; that of a graphic rape of a child, which brings together filth, violence and evil. The narrator then vehemently declares “This is India.” (235.) It meshes into the national identity the defilement of the nation’s people, starting in childhood, as if to suggest that India itself is responsible for the horrific lives the characters find themselves trapped in. India itself, by way of expanding the opium and heroin industries, traded the lives of its citizens for profit. While never skirting the personal responsibility in addiction, Thayil manages to peel back a lot of the naive stereotypes concerning the sub-continent and makes a convincing narrative that India has left many of its people with escape into drugs and addiction as their best available life choice.
As a novel, Narcopolis is difficult. Its structure spreads across nearly thirty years of Bombay’s history, and while each character is vivid and alive, some, particularly Rumi (at first a seemingly unassuming character), are not apportioned time that accords with their impact on the story. All of them addicts, Rumi’s drug is violence, and his actions cause fearful nights for many in the Bombay drug world, yet his appearances are disproportionately few until the end of the novel. By its very nature, the sprawl of the text is intimidating and limiting in depth.
But perhaps that is instead a strength of the prose. Despite his limited actual presence, Rumi left an indelible impression on the narrative. Another, even smaller, character is one of the most telling of the structure of the country itself. Salim is a shop boy, and therefore much better off than many of the other faces we see, or so we are led to believe. He doesn’t have to sleep in the street, beg for food or drugs, or fight for any of his basic needs. Then we find out that the owner of the shop where he works rapes him regularly, and he is resigned to it for the most part. It harkens to the previously mentioned vision and underscores the thrust of the novel. India may seem mystical and exotic to us, but look a little closer and you will see what it does to its people. It exploits, defiles, destroys, and in the end leaves every one for dead. The narrative does not have much difficulty in giving us characters whose impact is lasting no... - Shane Gomes

Novels about narcotic substances are notoriously hard to pull off. The challenge is to make the induced events interesting and meaningful to the, presumably, non-induced reader. In Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil pulls this off surprisingly well for me, although it's fair to say that it won't be everyone's taste. It's not a book that the Bombay/Mumbai tourist office will be keen to promote. A cover quotation links the book to a similar vein (OK, that's a poor choice of words in the circumstances) to Trainspotting and that's not far from the mark.
Thayil opens the story in the 1970s in Rashid's opium house where his regulars, including the narrator, in Indian student named Dom, interact with Rashid and the memorable character of Dimple, a eunuch who expertly prepares the pipes. What, for me, makes this successful is that he slowly and gently takes the reader into the depths of the dream-like world they live in. On the surface of the book, it's very much about addiction, to narcotics but also to sex and alcohol, but at a deeper level it's also a using drugs as a huge metaphor for the changes in India over the period from the simplicity of opium, and the long-standing historical links between China and India, to the more damaging modern narcotics of heroin from Pakistan which has a more violent and damaging impact on its users. India remains a melting pot of religion, cultures and wealth throughout but Thayil is suggesting that it is the more modern influences that have made it more damaging and violent. When his narrator, Dom, returns in present day though, he is just as drawn in to the vice as he was in the 1970s, so perhaps little has changed.
Thayil does explore some of the inherent contradictions in Indian life - like the good Muslim who sells heroin while complaining about brazen women - but in many ways you get less of a flavour of India than with the older generation of Indian writers. There's more of a poetic style to the writing than the more traditional story-telling generation of the likes of say Rushdie and Mistry.
It's not perfect - there are some parts that work less well. There's a sub plot about a murderer that hangs around without really going anywhere and some elements are less easy to believe in that others. The hirja Dimple is keen to teach herself to read and by the time the book reaches the present day she does seem to have acquired an unbelievable depth of literary knowledge for example. Then there is Soporo, an ex-addict who ends up working in a rehab centre where he talks to recovering addicts about thirteenth century poetry which seems a little unlikely to me. But then unlikely things tend to happen in India whose strangeness and complexities are as compelling as any narcotic. By focussing on the metaphor of drugs, it's also too easy to ignore the economic and social challenges that have been part of developments in urban India.
Story lines and characters drift into each other with surprisingly good results. The whole thing is like a dream - or more accurately a nightmare - and it's often hard to know where one part stops and another begins. For me some of the best bits are the descriptions of Dimple's life and her friendship with the old Chinese refugee Mr Lee.
This is very much a cast of drug dealers, prostitutes, murderers, gangsters and pimps with the odd artist thrown in for good measure. For some it may lack a strong enough driving force but I think I just may be getting addicted to Thayil's poetic prose. - Robin Leggett

Author Jeet Thayil looks at today's Indian society and culture from an unusual perspective. He spent two decades of his life as an opium addict, immersed in the dark underbelly of Bombay — now known as Mumbai.
A celebrated poet and a journalist, Thayil has just published his first novel, Narcopolis. The novel begins in the 1970s, with its narrator mesmerized with a grimy opium den. Readers are introduced to a desperate set of characters — including an opium dealer named Rashid and one of his clients Dimple, a eunuch and prostitute who grew up in a brothel. As time passes, Thayil reveals how all of Bombay is transformed by the brutal underworld culture.
Thayil explains that he struggles to reconcile the Bombay of his painful past with the booming city it has become. "Anybody who knew Bombay in those years, there's no way you cannot [not] feel nostalgia for that city because it was a beautiful, laid back, liberated, liberal place," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "And these are all things that are impossible to find in the Bombay of today." - www.npr.org/2012/04/08/150003126/wesun-narcopolis-shell

It’s creepy … yet kind of cool … to think that Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis, once skulked the opium dens of Mumbai, India.
Thayil—an addict for 20 years—undoubtedly writes from close experience about that sordid world of pimps and prostitutes, drug addiction and sexual deviance, grotesque crime and heinous punishment. It fascinates as much as it shocks—even as you recoil in horror, knowing you’ll probably never set foot in Mumbai’s innards, you’re dying to know more about them.
Thayil, recipient of the 2013 South Asian Literature Prize and shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, doesn’t give us a shock-and-awe kind of story, nor an account of an addiction per se (though if you know little about drugs, you’ll learn a lot). In fact, ruthlessness, filth and depravity—the guts of Mumbai’s underworld, and what makes it turn—along with opium-dependent existence turn out to simply be smokescreens for a story about genuine love and deep friendship … and how they exist where you’d least expect them.
Narcopolis also tells a story about choices—those who have them and those who don’t. It takes place in India in the 1970s, when Mumbai was still called Bombay, and political and social turbulence reigned supreme. Thayil’s story, though, could have happened … and still can … in any metropolis where poverty, illiteracy and deep-set economic inequality dictate people’s lives, where many seem pre-destined for “the usual ending,” as he writes, due to a “fatherless childhood, an adolescence of petty crime, garad (smack) or alcohol… more crimes and illness.”
Witness the eunuch, Dimple, main character of Narcopolis. Abject poverty and other forces beyond her control drive Dimple’s mother into selling her eight-year-old child. That exchange leads to the crudest form of castration—its pain will torture Dimple in later life and leave her with no option but to seek the relief of opium.
Dimple naturally wonders why people with choices in life she did not have grovel on the floor in front of her, desperate for fixes. Why, Dimple asks … and we feel Thayil ask it too … do people who seemingly have it all—education, jobs, families, and prospects for the future—become addicts?
That impossible question never gets an answer, although it feels at times as if Thayil pushes readers to pass judgment on those for whom drugs become a deliberate choice. Why, for example, does an educated young man like Dom Ulisis (most likely a character based on Thayil himself) choose to while away the best years of his life in an opium den on Mumbai’s Shuklaji Street after a bust by cops in New York and deportation to India?
We want to love Salim, a petty black market scotch and cocaine peddler whose powerful boss regularly sodomizes him. Not so, the renowned artist Newton Xavier, a drunk and a junkie with fame and fortune and scores of admirers around the world. His choices? He gets wasted on opium simply because he has never tried it before. He has sex with Dimple the eunuch just for the heck of it. Then his wealth and standing allow him simply to walk away from it all. He cleans up and makes an appearance in front of adoring, unsuspecting fans … to “give them what they want.”
Thayil leaves the reader with a realization. The line between those born with choices and those not so lucky is very thin. The side of the divide you’re born on is purely random.
Narcopolis doesn’t seem to have a plot, which makes it a difficult read at times. Thayil offers a series of vignettes, at times gritty and raw, at times melodious and soft. Setting his narrative against the backdrop of a changing India seems overarching, and parts of the text feel long … and even unnecessary. Pages dedicated to books read by Dimple (who educates herself) serve little purpose, and the same could be said of chapters on Mr. Lee, a Chinese drug dealer who introduces Dimple to opium as an antidote for her pain. Mr. Lee’s tales of the horrors of a communist regime he fled do highlight his unusual friendship with Dimple, in whom he confides the story of his lost life and loves. Before he dies, Mr. Lee asks Dimple to bury him in China. She never succeeds in getting the ashes there and always reproaches herself for being unable to honor her friend’s wish.
Mr. Lee bequeaths Dimple his opium pipes—Chinese, the real deal—eventually taking her to an opium den run by a character called Rashid. The opium pipes bring widespread fame to the den—so much fame that that people from all over the world and all walks of life pass through it. Rashid’s competitors are hell bent on destroying it. In that den, Rashid and Dimple build a rock-solid friendship through the years.
In those years, Bombay becomes Mumbai. Drugs change from opium and garad to cocaine and harder stuff. Rashid gets clean, and other characters that flit in and out of this story disappear or die. Dimple too.
Still, Rashid cannot forget Dimple. Dimple, he tells Dom Ulisis, haunts him every day. She is always there, always will be. “Dead do not always become ghosts,” Dimple told Rashid. “We are like dreams that travel from one person to another. We return, but only if you love us.”
Early in Narcopolis, when Dom first arrives in Mumbai, a fellow opium smoker—an educated middle-class man—mockingly tells him all he has in common with “these people is smoke.” Indeed, the characters in this story find themselves separated by economics, education, religion, politics, circumstance. Opium links them … but more than opium binds them.
Enduring relationships prove that everyone, everywhere, high or low, is worthy of friendship and love.  - Savita Iyer-Ahrestani

With a first line like that, Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis was undoubtably going to draw comparisons with Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children. There are certainly some similarities: both are concerned with a newly emancipated India, both feature unreliable narrators and both favour a verbosity of language and a playful approach to form. However, whilst Midnight’s Children went some way to raising the reader to the stars with its use of magic realism, Narcopolis insists on keeping our eyes on the gutter, fixed on a Bombay that is rife with drugs and criminal activity.
This is not to say that Narcopolis is some kind of ultra-realist kitchen sink drama; ghosts, elements of mysticism and symbolic dreams ripe for Freudian analysis, infuse the entire novel with a persistence and an urgency. But every dream, every ghost, serves to underline the dark themes of the novel: the corruption and power of addiction, the problem of remaining undefined, whether eunuch or nation and a Bombay of squalor and deprivation. Drug addiction is portrayed with both unflinching honesty and philosophical power. One of the main characters, Dimple, describes addiction as a reciprocal relationship which will surely ring true for anyone who has ever been any kind of addict:
‘and the main thing nobody mentions is the comfort of it, how good it is to be a slave to something, the regularity and habit of addiction, the fact that it’s an antidote to loneliness and the way it becomes your family’
Narcopolis is fearless in expressing the love affair with drugs its characters enjoy, the way it gives their life shape and meaning. After all,very little else in the novel does.
Perhaps because of this, Thayil’s characters sometimes come across as elusive. Our unnamed narrator, for example, remains somewhat distant to us, instead acting as a conduit for ‘the lovely stories’ of the city and its murky underclass. He says as much in the stunningly  beautiful stream-of-conciousness opening chapter which brings to mind Penelope’s chapter in Ulysses : ‘I’m not human, I’m a pipe of O telling this story’.
Indeed, he is at his best and most interesting when he is speaking the words of others, especially when he enters the skin and mind of Dimple, who works in Rashid’s opium room. Dimple is also a eunuch and a prostitute and acts as a metaphor for Thayil’s India; she is ambiguous and undefined, both drug taker and drug enabler, both man and women, both sexual and sexless. But she is also far more than a metaphor, she is a compelling and fascinating character who articulates clearly the various power struggles which crisscross Bombay, whether between man and chemical or man and woman. Her liminal position affords her a perspective which reaches right into the depths of the novel itself. In the way, she becomes the heart and soul beating underneath the novel’s gritty subject matter. Thayil’s sense of compassion is certainly not limited to Dimple but for me, she is his most fully realised character.
With Narcopolis, Thayil has somehow managed to utilise his poetry background to create a work which avoids becoming overly stylised, too sentimental or cliched (let’s be honest, novels about drugs have been done to death). His evocative language brings a beauty to the darkness within the text and within his characters. Narcopolis is also a genuine page-turner, the kind of novel that you can get comfortably lost in. Hopefully, this means that Narcopolis will receive all the critical acclaim that it absolutely deserves.
Any Cop?: Comparisons to Midnight’s Children there may be, but Narcopolis is truly its own kind of unique experience. The pipe has told a story and what a story it is. - Emma Mould

Narcopolis is a novel of drugs and crime that follows a cast of characters over the course of 30-some years in their Bombay slum. The novel itself is told in both first and third-person, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness that is often suddenly interrupted by new events and new narrators. Beginning in the 1970s, the characters themselves all tend to revolve around Rashid’s, a combination opium den and brothel. Rashid himself is both an addict and a family man, brutal with his son, Jamal, and adheres to his Muslim faith only when convenient. Rashid spends his days counting his money and getting high.

One of the most popular workers at Rashid’s is a transgendered girl named Dimple. As a young boy, Dimple was forcibly surgically altered following the death of his mother. Now with very limited options, Dimple becomes an opium pipe tender for customers, where she becomes addicted to opium over time. Dimple also serves as a prostitute, looking for a better way of life but never finding the right chance or the right option.

Two of Dimple’s customers provide a contrast with how she is treated. Dom comes to see her to smoke opium, for her company, and to read books to her, for he recognizes that Dimple loves to read. Rumi, on the other hand, is a customer who has a decent job with his wife’s company, but relishes in what he considers adventures in the slums – such as having violent sex with Dimple.

Dimple comes to reflect on how she came to work at Rashid’s by way of Mr. Lee, a Chinese refugee who began his own opium den and who sheltered Dimple until his death. It was using Lee’s ancient opium pipes as leverage that Dimple secured her job at Rashid’s.

The years pass in a haze for the characters. The 1980s come on, and Rashid is approached by Khalid about transforming his opium den and brothel into a place for cocaine. Rashid refuses, and his place is shut down by corrupt government officials and corrupt police. Rashid then has Khalid’s son kidnapped, and returned safely once his den is reopened. As cocaine comes onto the scene in force, opium supplies, like Salim, begin lacing the opium with strychnine to give it a more potent kick and to beat out opium.

As the 1980s wear on, and the 1990s come on, drugs of every imaginable kind become available. But the hard-partying lifestyle of those in the slums finally begin to catch up to them. Dom decides he will leave Bombay to begin a new life. Dimple realizes she will die if she stays in the city, so she begs Dom to take her with him. Instead, Dom checks Dimple into a rehab place called Safer. Safer is also attended by Rumi who has since divorced his wife and lost everything. Rehab does not stick with Rumi, however. Rashid’s son takes over the business, transforming the den into a serious call center and hub of operations for drug sales. Rashid, fat and old, regrets only not having gone with cocaine at the den when he had the chance. In 2004, Rashid receives a visit from Dom, who asks how everyone is doing. Rashid explains everyone is now dead except for them.

Dom asks to bring home some old things from the den as souvenirs, including an opium pipe. He intends to turn them into a museum exhibit, or so he tells Rashid. Rashid says the exhibit should display their shame for the way their lives have been lived. At his apartment, Dom smokes the opium pipe, and it is revealed the entire book has been only one of his opium dreams. - http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-narcopolis/#gsc.tab=0

It seems unbecoming to admit it, but the prime reason for my initial interest in Jeet Thayil and his work stemmed from the man’s family relationships. Born in Kerala, Thayil is the son of TJS George – the columnist extraordinaire – who writes hard-hitting articles on politics and society for the New Indian Express. His sister too, is a well-known journalist. Thayil was married to Shakti Bhatt, a revered blogger and editor. Tragically, she passed away in 2007, at a very young age, of a brief illness. She was immensely popular amongst literary circles, and the government has even instituted an award in her honour.
It is easy to assume that writing would thus have come easily to Thayil. But he’s a performance poet and musician too, having picked these talents up during his early years growing up in Hong Kong, New York; and Bombay – the subject of his 2011 novel, Narcopolis. This beguiling work has been awarded with a Booker short list nomination, the DSC Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize for 2012. Variously described as ‘poetic’ and ‘surreal’, apart from ‘bleak’ and ‘meandering’, the novel has succeeded in drawing attention to contemporary Indian writing once again. Largely drawn from the author’s own experiences, the book centres on the goings-on in an opium den in Mumbai in the ‘70s. It showcases the rapidly evolving city vis-à-vis an enchanting tapestry of characters including peddlers, pimps, eunuchs and prostitutes. In fact these magnetic and utterly degenerate characters are what keep the otherwise lofty narrative grounded and make us empathise with the understated protagonist, as he recounts his experiences with them. The book is extremely well-written to that end. A case in point is the following line:
‘Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts, the rage addicts, the poverty addicts , and power addicts, and the pure addicts who are addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and the tenderness the substances engender. An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency.’
This hallucinatory, grimy gem of a debut novel constantly reminded me of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for its ability to make the audience see the world with its psychedelically distorted but earnest vision. It is nowhere close to a complete story, but an assortment of memories about a changing, yet eternally beautifully city.
Thayil had published a number of poetry-collections previously, such as These Errors are Correct, an anthology of musings on love and loss; and ‘English’, which contains these wonderfully evocative lines:
‘If tonight the mind is queasy,
drawing thoughts like flies, he
is fine too with every crazy
scheme you devise, none crazier
than this pilgrimage to a pier
that seems to have disappeared,
leaving you seaborne at last,
ahead of you the past,
and all its famous cities lost.’

In many of these poems, Thayil draws inspiration from history, literature and juxtaposes it with modern imagery to present fascinating articulations of his subconscious. Appropriately, he edited the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets in 2008. 
Jeet Thayil belongs to a brave new generation of Indian authors; a breed that challenges established norms of writing, and doesn’t fear controversy when furthering its opinion. While presenting Narcopolis at the Jaipur Literary Fest in 2012, he had this to say about Salman Rushdie’s ban in India: ‘It seems (that especially here) there is a contingent of people at every gathering looking at a sentence or a gesture to get offended. It is cheapening of the idea of rebellion’. This is a sentiment that the entire younger generation in India, including yours truly, finds agreeable. But it drew the ire of fundamentalist groups in the country, who chastised his nomination for the Booker Prize as a systematic attempt to undermine their community. Needless to say, Thayil – of the brave new Indian generation – wasn’t bogged down by these brickbats, and went about writing, gracefully. This sort of courage and conviction, largely unheard of for many years, is a great sign of changing times in the sub-continent. - Pratiek Samantara

Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroine of this story – these are the words with which Jeet Thayil begins his debut book Narcopolis and in my opinion, is one of the best opening lines. The book is about the lives of a few people, bound together by a common passion – Opium, and about Bombay, in a way we have never heard of before. Bombay is stripped off its glamour, riches, beaches, skylines and we are taken to Shuklaji Street, to Rashid’s opium den, and are impelled to see the other side of Bombay.
The narrator of this story is an opium pipe – a pipe older than life itself. The story is both simple and complex at the same time; simple because of its unfussy structure and complicated because of its knotty characters – the lives they lead, the dilemmas they face and the contexts that led them into being what they are now – opium addicts.
Narcopolis is a maze of human temperaments, which if grasped, will surely move your heart. It begins with Dimple, a hijra pipeman at Rashid’s, who is prettier than most women; about how she was castrated before the age of 10 and compelled to become a eunuch; how she was forced to sell her body in order to live; how she was drawn towards opium and the solace it gave her and how she came to become a pipeman at Rashid’s.
We are also told about Mr. Lee, the Chinaman, his childhood in China, his perils during the war, his journey to India and his addiction to opium; about Rashid, the owner of the chandukhana, his journey from being a small time peddler to becoming an entrepreneur, his addiction to opium and then to heroin; about Rumi, a regular at Rashid’s and his tryst with rehab. There are many more such characters figuring in the book and all of them share a common premise – they are addicted to opium.
Narcopolis is the journey of Bombay from 1970s to 2000s. Justifying the title, this voyage is detailed in terms of the addictions – first opium, then garad heroin and then cocaine; chandukhanas like Rashid’s then, and now the bars and nightclubs. The habits have changed, the addictions have changed, even the name has changed, but Bombay, at its heart, is still the same; its citizens are still the same.
This book is a must have on your bookshelves. The poetic beauty of Jeet’s writing style is splendid. The detail with which the characters are brought to life, in limited words, is praise worthy. I’ve never seen a stronger character build-up. If you need another reason to read this, it was nominated for the Man Booker prize in 2012. - www.bookgeeks.in/narcopolis-jeet-thayil-book-review/

Musician and poet Jeet Thayil drew on his own experiences as an addict in Bombay to write his first novel, Narcopolis, a flashy, chaotic look at a small-time drug dealer and his customers. Narcopolis imports the rhythms and emphasis of Charles Bukowski and William S. Burroughs to chronicle the sick thrill of drugs, but uses the structural eye of a journalist to depict with scary clarity how heroin takes down bodies and cities simultaneously.
In Thayil’s book, a drug shop in the slums of Shuklaji Street rises to the level of protagonist as its proceeds power the neighborhood. Shop owner Rashid, accustomed to gathering his regulars around a pipe, feels pressured to move from selling opium to heroin to stay competitive, in spite of the violence and illness it brings its users; at the same time, the shop’s warmth and camaraderie creates an aura around it in the eyes of one of those regulars, Dom Ullis, a part-time New Yorker whose path to addiction and out again frames the story. The place also serves as a haven for Rashid’s assistant, Dimple, a former temple orphan who sees the shop as a means to respectability.
Narcopolis traces how even curious visitors can become addicts, particularly those who, like Ullis and his famous author friend, feel their relative wealth grants them a kinship the locals don’t feel toward them. (As Rashid’s son says to Ullis, “He had many customers and they all thought they were his friends.”) Yet even the cab drivers and beggars see the shop as their anchor, and their loneliness without it is the last symptom of withdrawal. A few swoony trips accompany the narrator’s fall into addiction, but as he and his fellow customers move from smoking together to injecting alone, a series of vignettes captures them, adrift without the communal comforts of the store, each of them headed to prison or rehab. Without glamorizing the effects of heroin on Rashid’s market, Thayil locks his characters into their courses and stays with them through their lowest moments.
In spite of opium’s addictive qualities, its infusion into Shuklaji Street offered its residents a sense of community, as Thayil ironically establishes long after Rashid’s shop has been forced to close, a victim of the increasingly violent heroin trade. Narcopolis offers just one survivor, Dimple, whose triumphant, improbable path to Bombay fills the gaps between her enigmatic pronouncements to Ullis as she builds herself the life she wants to live. Her romanticized view of the shop provides a spellbinding counterpoint to the depravity leaching into the lives of those around her. Ullis responds to her self-determination, and projects onto her his dream, however hazy, of what life in her Bombay was like. - Ellen Wernecke

On October 16, the Man Booker Prize judges will announce a winner, and I can’t wait.
Recently there has been a lot of press about “readability,” and about the Booker judges and their intense literary snobbery (as if this is at all surprising), and so I am particularly interested in their decision this year. In this year’s Booker shortlist, the finalists are quite unlike the lists we have been seeing of late in the United States. This year’s shortlist of six authors includes three men and three women.  Four of the authors are British, one is Indian, and one is Malaysian.  The only previous winner on the list is also one of the women; I almost can’t conceive of that happening in American prizes, not least because there are so few women who win the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, or other prestigious prizes.
One of those debut novels is Jeet Thayil’s dazzling Narcopolis, which weaves together the stories of a handful of characters as they move through the recent history of India and Bombay (I have elected to use the city’s old name, in keeping with the author’s choice in the novel).  Peter Strothard, the Booker Chair, along with his various rather high-end comments about whether or not books should be readable or easy to absorb, said that the judges picked these titles because of the “shock of language” and “pure power of prose.”  If those are your criteria, then Narcopolis is an obvious choice.
Many critics have described the dizzying seven-page first sentence that opens the novel; this section appears to be behind many readers’ assertions that Narcopolis is too hard to read, or too confusing.  My suspicion is that many readers never went past the prologue, a fever dream in which we are introduced to most of the themes, and many of the characters, we will encounter in more depth later.  I also imagine that many readers were caught up in the narcotic spiral of the prose, and couldn’t maintain their pace when the narrative evened out.
Like the preparation of the opium pipes with which much of the novel concerns itself,  Narcopolis should not be rushed.  The novel is more cinematic than most; while reading, I was much more aware of the setting, with its noise and chaos, the scores of languages and dialects, than I often am, and sometimes that background pulled me away from the much more intimate writing in the forefront of each scene.  In fact, Thayil returns again and again to characters talking about movies, and whether they’re talking about Bollywood pictures or western films, these moments stitch together the stories with a peculiar delicacy that felt more like extremely deft film editing and cinematography than like seamless prose.
Then there are the comparisons between Narcopolis and its literary ancestors.  The jacket copy compares Thayil with Burroughs and Baudelaire, although I think it might be more apt to link him with Paul Bowles, or with other Commonwealth writers like J. M. Coetzee or Margaret Atwood; the prose is much more coherent, and less weighted, than Burroughs or Baudelaire. I also found the writing quite unlike that of India’s literary greats, especially Salman Rushdie, and it was in this difference that I found myself most affected by the characters I encountered in Narcopolis, and by the perilous, intricate stories Thayil told about them.
Starting with our very unreliable quasi-narrator, Dom Ullis, whose return to 1970s Bombay from New York, and his immediate descent into an opiatic languor, opens the novel, Thayil introduces us to a splendid cast of outsiders.  It is Dom whose voice we hear in that seven-page first sentence, in which he introduces us to the idea that there are two narrators to a given story, the I and the other I.  Having set the stage for the twisting narrative that follows, he abandons his reader for the drug.  Dom resurfaces periodically, although he is almost entirely absent from the whole middle of the novel.  In the first part, he leads us into the opium rhanda run by Rashid, a not-especially-devout Muslim businessman.  In this shop, we meet Dimple, the Hijra eunuch around whom the rest of the novel flows with great affection; Jamal, Rashid’s disaffected son, who grows up to be a conservative Muslim gangster; the tragically cosmopolitan Hindu addict Rumi; and Mr. Lee, a Chinese ex pat whose stories and medicine soothe and guide Dimple.
Here is another problem with complaints about “readability.”  Throughout Narcopolis, Thayil uses whatever strikes him as the best language for whatever he’s writing about, which means that we often encounter words in various Indian, Chinese, and Pakistani languages and dialects scattered through the mostly English prose.  He doesn’t bother italicizing these words, and does not provide a glossary.  Many American readers have learned to expect these cues in their international fiction, and may have tired of stumbling over all the languages.  Thayil also does not provide western characters (although several are westernized, which is not the same thing at all) to whom we can cling.  Narcopolis is in some ways rather post-post-colonial – Thayil seems to assume that either we will take responsibility for what we’re reading, and how we’re reading it, or we will just stop.  His setting is Bombay, for the most part, but it is not the glorified slum Bombay of Slumdog Millionaire (although sometimes the chaotic narrative reminded me of that film’s kinetic surges) or the Anglo-influenced post-colonial India of Vikram Seth’s novels or Satyajit Ray’s masterful films.  This Bombay of this novel is a city in which, although the address to which the story keeps returning is 007 Shuklaji Street, and the characters talk about movies all the time, I have no memory of even a single comment or joke about James Bond.
As stated earlier, Dom is not a reliable narrator, although it’s hard to tell, sometimes, when he’s narrating and when he’s not.  He is rarely present, and when he is there, he’s a mess.  As he puts it himself, “What was the point of being reliable, like a dog or an automobile or armchair?”  But the question of truth, and of reliability, is one that bleeds through the whole novel, setting up one of its many binary challenges.  We are asked to consider “hero” as the opposite of “heroine” as well as “heroin” on the first page, but heroin is also opposed by opium; Hindu by Muslim; clean by dirty but also by addicted; rich by poor; real by not real; I by not I.  And in Dimple, Thayil asks one of his largest questions – who is a man, and who is a woman, and how do we know?
Unlike Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, this sprawling novel is actually quite small, looking at the lives of small people in a small area, with the history of India and Bombay unspooling in the distant background.  There are riots, revolutions, and tragedies, but it is Dimple, Rashid, and Dom we care about most, the people of Shuklaji Street, not the city, not the government, and not the world. The novel takes years to happen, but in such a blur that it could happen over the course of a century, or a day, and feel much the same.
This is where Narcopolis is most triumphant – Jeet Thayil has created an indelible portrait of a cluster of people whose fates we believe in, and whose heartbreaks hurt us.  I don’t understand the questions about readability; I could no more have stopped turning pages than Dom can stop his visits to the pipewallah. So many details – they create a lethargy that makes you keep reading, a smoky entropy of language. Throughout the book, characters talk about the difference between the slow use of afeem and the fast use of garad heroin. The novel works the same way, relying on the same slow, rather ritualistic assembly and smoke of the pipe. The language makes you want to go slowly, to smoke it like opium and lie around with the thoughts and dreams it evokes, but the narrative accelerates and you have to keep reading to keep up.
In the end, Narcopolis is Dom’s story only as much My Antonia belongs to Jim, or The Great Gatsby to Nick.  His eyes let us see these other people, particularly Dimple, for the wholly realized people that they are. This is a story in which “dreams leak,” and in which we are compelled not just to entertain, but to embrace, the idea that “the addict [and, necessarily, this book’s reader] wants to think of time the way a tree does.” - Rafe Posey

Jeet Thayil‘s debut novel ‘Narcopolis‘ is as feverish and stirring as a midsummer night’s dream that leaves you wondering about the depth of nighttime and the insanity of poetry. Spanning the eyes of several characters all bridged together by uninterrupted music, the book paints the exploits of Bombay in the early years of 1970 in the light of drugs, sex and violent decay .
Bombay” the novel starts and then whirls into a 7 page long sentence that can only be described as panoramic painting, an establishing shot from a Hitchcock classic, an overture that tunes in and out and yet chimes throughout. The 285 pages that then follow can only be termed as a classic depiction of dangerous history occupying close lanes to that of an autobiography.
The book mainly chases the story of a ‘hijra’ named Dimple and through her into question of gender, religion, consciousness and the minds of other characters. However, the main narrator hides in the shadows for the most part of the book, speaking through hollows and 30 years of drug induced frenzy. Jeet Thayil has included plot diversions at one or two parts where the main plot gives birth to subplots branching beautifully in different direction, much like that of Dostoyevsky’s model.
Opium, or the ‘O’ and the smoke that it spews is another thread that binds the novel and so much so that it seems to whisper and whimper in your ears. Its rather impressive that despite probing the questions of death and dreams, drugs and life, the book manages to stay promptly away from pushing itself into a cell for the snobbish and the pretentious.
A nominee for the booker and the winner of The DSC prize for South Asian Literature, the book is a promising read. A recovering addict himself, a ghost of Mumbai’s Shuklaji Street- the capital of the book, Jeet Thayil has produced genuine passages with the beauty of fiction. -

Jeet Thayil on Courting Controversy, Challenging Convention in Narcopolis


 Jeet Thayil, Collected Poems, Aleph Book Company, 2015.
Six Poems by Jeet Thayil (from ​Collected Poems​) (pdf)

At his best [Thayil’s work] is splendidly structured, both skilful and forceful…’ —Dom Moraes

From his debut with Gemini in 1992 to his last volume These Errors Are Correct in 2008, Jeet Thayil has been a provocative and indelible presence in Indian poetry. Collected Poems represents more than three decades of work, starting with poems written in the early 1980s. It includes, for the first time, privately circulated, uncollected poems.

‘I revel in Jeet Thayil’s poetry. He seems to be one of the most contemporary writers I know, and contemporary precisely because he has such command of the poetic and historical past, and because his invented language has such depth, archeological richness, and reality.’—Vijay Seshadri

‘Most of Thayil’s poems chart paths to redemption, not necessarily his own; they could be the ways his various personae go. The result is a mapping that excites, exhilarates and disturbs.’—Adil Jussawalla

‘Thayil writes controlled verse, well-crafted, never obscure…’—Keki Daruwalla

‘Thayil’s poetry leaves the reader with a sense of danger, of language teetering wildly on the edge of some precipice, between centuries, between continents, between fleetingly improvised realms, suspended somewhere between history and invention, reality and nowhereness.’—Arundhathi Subramaniam

‘Thayil’s verse is eloquent, flowing, metrical, visceral. He walks on the wild side. His voice is that of the present generation.’—Arshia Sattar
‘Thayil’s poems refract his vibrant, unique and far-flung life experience through the prism of a tremendous lyric intellect.’—Philip Nikolayev

The first of Jeet Thayil’s collected poems, from his 1992 Gemini, begins: What demon stalks this arid land, how can you live here my poor soul? and concludes, even the sun steps like a thief. Twenty-three years later, in the first of recent uncollected poems, the first line is: Your lips go from sunnyside to suicide in a single click, concluding with, And no faith was left in the world.
Thayil is a powerful lyric poet of discontent and disillusionment. Whereas following A.K. Ramanujan’s translations, Indian poets have often modelled their verse upon the minimalist anonymity of the impersonal, well-wrought anthology piece handed down for centuries by an author of whom little is known or required beyond the conventions of the art, Thayil is revealing, grand and self-dramatic. His language, phrases, cadences sparkle but the themes are loss, pain, dissatisfaction, harmful obsessions; there are recurrent expressions of the need for love and purpose, followed by disappointment, self-mockery, the desire to lose oneself, especially to drugs, an addiction that has, he reports, damaged his liver and is likely to shorten his life.
There is a disturbing finality about this volume of Collected Poems by someone who normally would be thought ready for Selected Poems. But Thayil claims that he will not publish any more single volumes of new poetry, the excuse being that he cannot write better than he did in These Errors Are Correct (2008). However, the short “preface” in this book offers an impression of someone ageing rapidly and expecting to die. Errors was haunted by the death of Thayil’s young, talented wife, Shakti Bhatt, and some of its memorable confessional poems are characterized by guilt that he was not at home the night she died. She filled and gave purpose to what he felt was until then a boring, purposeless existence, which had consisted of the camaraderie, theatre and the nirvana of drug-taking. The volume seemed to combine the trauma of Shakti’s death with nostalgia for narcotics, and its attractions. So if Thayil feels he cannot improve on that volume, it may well be as much the topics as the technique that are the cause.
Errors showed his continuing obsession with the craft of poetry as well. There were sonnets, ghazals, a sestina, pastiches of other poets, a verse letter monologue, and a sequence of poems where the first lines were given by others. Thayil’s verse has always been that of someone deeply soaked in poetry and literary culture; poems and their titles incorporate echoes, allusions to, and fragments of, the poetry of others. Like Arun Kolatkar and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, he is tuned in to the world’s culture; poems and lines may have their origins in such disparate sources as a remark or title by painter Paul Klee or jazz musician Charles Mingus. His origins as a south Indian Christian and years of living outside India may explain the presence of Christian allusions, imagery, even the suggestion that salvation is possible, although one of the rules for giving up drugs, like curing alcohol dependency, is taking on a belief in something beyond oneself.
Among the 50-odd “new and uncollected poems” (2003-15) in this book, there are 16 from “The Book Of Chocolate Saints”, which mix Thayil’s usual irony, amusement, wordplay, easy rhymes, parody and miscellaneous knowledge with the Surreal (I wonder if chocolate might suggest non-white). Saint Gandhi “died with the name of God on his lips;/ shot by a man with God in his name.” Saint Nayantara was “crucified at dawn by municipal spears/cast by her own strong hands.” Saint Augustine, “driven by appetite & ambition”, prays: “let me be chaste, Lord, but not today, / for today there’s she & she & she; / in old age, restored to himself & to thee, / he wrote the Confessions, read to this day.” I especially like the “&s”.

There has always been more than a touch of Augustinian ambivalence about Thayil, whose poetry recognizes the contradictions between desiring rest and the attractions of the flesh, especially the unconsciousness offered by strong drugs. The actual influence was French poet Charles Baudelaire, who keeps being imitated or addressed in these poems. Apparently, an uncle translated Baudelaire into Malayalam. Baudelaire is as famous for his drug-taking as for his observations of modern urban life and Thayil’s verse has its claims to being his own flowers of evil.
There was a time, half a century ago, when Indian poetry written in English, unlike prose, was regarded as a poor joke. It was, and remains, difficult to find volumes and a “Collected Poems” was unthinkable except as self-promotion. A major cultural and political shift, however, was in progress when the centrality of the British literary tradition was being challenged and displaced by American writing and by those formerly colonized. But many Indians were unwilling to accept that some of their poets—notably Nissim Ezekiel and A.K. Ramanujan—could be found in anthologies of the best contemporary verse alongside Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka.
The success of Vikram Seth in England and the US was the breakthrough—after this it was no longer possible to claim that Indians could not write poetry to British and American standards.
Then volumes of collected poems by Dom Moraes, K.N. Daruwalla and Agha Shahid Ali appeared, and more recently, after he was nominated as the Oxford University professor of poetry, by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamala Das and others had large volumes of selected poems. Indian poetry in English had become accepted internationally as a major literary movement of the 20th century, part of post-colonialism, and it became recognized that the poets in English influenced the next wave of prose authors, such as Amit Chaudhuri and Pankaj Mishra, in showing that Indian life was a fit subject for literature and that their experiences could be written about in English without exoticism or sentimentality.
Thayil is usually thought of as the heir to the “Bombay poets”—he knew them, socialized with them, and at times worked on the same publications, such as Gentleman. He was a close friend of Dom Moraes, who arranged for Gemini, the two-poet volume that Penguin published. Moraes is recalled in The Sonneteer in Errors.
Thayil shares Moraes’ commitment to the literary life, to promoting others, the belief that writing poetry is what matters most, and to poetic form and technique. His poetry, like Moraes’, is about one’s life, and shares an assumption that the autobiographical is interesting and a proper subject for art. Both writers seem out of place in India, if only because their literary frame of reference is international—Thayil’s new poems include three versions of Rainer Maria Rilke, a reply to a famous W.H. Auden poem, a Wallace Stevens take-off; both Moraes and Thayil are lyric poets whose writings usually conclude with disillusionment.
Since these Collected Poems include some revised versions, I wish there was some indication of which ones have been changed; I wanted to compare but my copies of earlier volumes have disappeared due, I think, to friends who borrowed and did not return them. Thayil is known as a musician as well as a poet and some of his earlier volumes were accompanied by CDs in which his poems were set to music. Aleph should be congratulated for publishing this volume—earlier ones are out of print. He is clearly a major poet who should be read in bulk rather than for a few anthology pieces.
I have in recent years looked forward to Thayil’s new volumes of poetry, and enjoyed the large personality and emerging narrative of his life as he changed places and struggled to find meaning, joy and purpose. Here is a contemporary writer articulating what I and others feel. I am disappointed that I will not have further instalments from a life in progress. Thayil is a well-travelled citizen of the modern world and its cultures. He is also a writer who is a pleasure to read; he is interesting and serious without being solemn or inflated. Even the short “Preface” to his Collected Poems is a classic of Indian prose and deserves eventual republication. - Bruce King

Reading Jeet Thayil’s Collected Poems is a reminder of the singular pleasures of reading the work of a poet from first book to last. You see changing approaches to form — from terse implosive verse to expansive, full-throated song; from a nascent verbal ingenuity to an ability to combine exuberance with exactitude.
Why a Collected, one might wonder, given that Thayil is nowhere near his dotage. The poet offers a rationale: his conviction that he will never write a book better than These Errors are Correct (2008). There is also a more persuasive rationale: the fact that none of his four volumes of verse is in print. That, as he points out unarguably, is ‘business as usual’ for the Indian poet.
Journeying from his first book, Gemini (1992), to the present offers the trajectory of an artist growing not just in dexterity and sophistication, but in a widening capacity to embrace the Dionysian. For me, the most rewarding poems are the recent free-form paeans of love and loss, passion and praise, riverine, extravagant, moving, yet playful: ‘ Your lips go from sunny side to suicide in a single click’; ‘Your green will outlast plastic’ or ‘O captain, my captain,,/ objects had a way of breaking/ in the life we shared.’
While Thayil revels in sonnet and ghazal, the poetry also reveals a capacity to segue between the spoken voice and lyric impulse, between the wild and the bravura. There is a skilful ability to modulate scale, to nuance the emotional chords.
‘Between’ is the operative word in this poetry. Poised between the reflective and the lyrical, following the imperatives of mood and melody, it arrives at a kind of ‘sound sense’. Here, mood is not in monochrome, and music does not spell monotone. Instead, the poetry unfolds into a versatile soundtrack, now soaring, now muted, now passionate and inconsolable, now low-key, thoughtful, spare.
An early poem speaks of belonging to a ‘generation stuck between shores’. The poems seem frequently located at such a precipice — ‘between white concertina and gallows’, ‘between thought and its correct articulation’ — and evoke landscapes arrestingly suspended between ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ and ‘Apna Bazaar’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Malabar Whistling Thrush’.
On closer reading, you pick up a deeper tension: between the love of ‘disorder’ and an equally urgent need for reprieve. On the one hand, there is praise for all sources of anarchic vision: the moon and majoun , ‘the 1001 names of heroin’, ‘the sick-sweet grace of opium’, the ‘miracle’ of ‘methadone’. There is the hectic euphoria of making ‘my home…in transit’, or leaping between ‘years, avenues/ financial/fashion/ meatpacking districts’, of being ‘reveler of starlight’, ‘bedlamite, friend to traitor and debauch’. But, on the other hand, there is also the yearning for ‘rest’ from the ‘uncontrolled, speed-made, fearful’, for ‘measured iambs’, the quiet logic ‘of a line defined by rhyme’. And sometimes there is a yearning to write a poem ‘of no cleverness…/ not high, or drunk on language’.
Where do these contrary impulses meet? Interestingly, I believe they find poetic resolution in the image of water — a recurrent metaphor from the very first book. The work evokes the ‘waterlogged crawl’ for wholeness, the endless human drama of ‘founder and sink and founder again’. Even ‘words are water’. And while all the tributaries of love seem to lead to drowning, there remains the deep Ophelia-like longing for ‘ooze/ frogspawn/ bright ring of algae/ round my throat’. Water is erasure, oblivion. But water becomes homecoming too — ‘a home for molluscs and oyster shells’, that place ‘where once we lived’.
In his ‘Preface’, Thayil writes, ‘This is my life and these are my collected poems. There is nothing collected about any of it.’ And yet, from ‘squalid, anonymous, free’ in the second book to ‘shipwrecked, dizzy, free’ in the third, is a distinct change of tenor and direction.
What we find in the fourth book is not just a Prufrockian desire for ‘ragged claws’ and the watery chaos of unconsciousness. It seems possible now for the drowning to swim by acquiring ‘a new set of skills: vigilance, silence, gills.’ Here is a journey towards a more profound creative repossession that makes this book far more ‘collected’ than Thayil might suppose. - Arundhathi Subramaniam

Only poetry is not shit: Jeet Thayil on writing

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