One starts reading Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints expecting a dark but still essentially comic roman à clef covering sixty or so years of Indian literary and artistic history. There seem to be helpful hints for readers in the know to match character with model (or, more often, models). But the central figure, Newton Francis Xavier, is a more complex case: not simply a thinly disguised alloy of the writer Dom Moraes and the artist Francis Newton Souza, though he seems to have done many of the things they did. It is made clear – not least by the appearance of Moraes and Souza themselves in the novel – that this is not just biography by other means.
A couple of hundred pages into this large, somewhat exhausting book, it becomes apparent that Thayil has something other than a roman à clef in mind, something more ambitious, trying to create the taste by which it is to be enjoyed. It is as well that he tries: