Saturday, November 12, 2011

Savio de Souza's last song

[Preamble to a review: I did a version of this piece for the Sahitya Akademi's journal Indian Literature. It was one of those rare instances where I said yes to reviewing a book that I hadn’t yet read, and I regret it now: reading the novel and then writing this review took a few weeks off my life, or so it felt. It was also a difficult experience because in writing the piece, it was important to clarify that I have no problem with ornate prose in itself – unlike many readers I know, I don’t think language must only be used as cleanly and functionally as possible. But the writing in this book simply didn’t work for me, and I’ve tried to convey why. There’s a certain type of Indian-English writing where big words get used indiscriminately, with little regard for the rhythm of a sentence or the compatibility between a particular adjective and a particular noun, and I thought this was one of those cases.

Also, I've tried to include as many short excerpts as possible so that readers can decide for themselves if this sort of writing appeals to them. Needless to say, if it does, just ignore my assessment.]


For a convoluted, overwritten novel with many narrative detours, it’s surprisingly easy to summarise the plot of Binoo John’s The Last Song of Savio de Souza. Set over nearly three decades in a fictional Kerala town named Puram, this is a story about a man with a golden voice who divides his time between singing for a church and playing basketball and football tournaments, while friends, lovers and various colourful people flit in and out of his life.

The world of Savio de Souza, his beloved sister Silvy and their parents Simon and Tessy is one where science and faith, poverty and technology circle each other uneasily. As the book opens we learn that Simon is a long-time driver for a convent and that Silvy’s fate is to join the Order of Benedictine Sisters. With religious authorities along the coast contending furiously for miracles and believers (“the stink of competing evangelism” is one of John’s catchier phrases), poor people trying to eke out a living are caught in the middle. A launching station changes the lives of fishermen because it provides jobs for their children – but for the local priests, the sight of a rocket rising towards the sky is like “a big question mark thrown by science at the Gods”, a rude intrusion in a place where prayers were once the only things sent up to the heavens.

These details are promising in themselves, as is John’s attempt to evoke the many aspects of Savio’s largely provincial life: the slow disintegrating of his family, the inevitable changes that occur in Puram over the years, the sense of loss and resignation. And in the subplot about Silvy being separated from her parents and brother, there is the seed of a moving story about lives sundered by tradition. But unfortunately these themes aren’t given a chance to play out, for the book’s prose is so florid and meandering that one rarely manages to invest in these characters. More often than not, John’s self-consciously bombastic writing drains the energy from the storytelling.

Almost from the first page, there are awkward phrases and facile jokes. (“In general, there was a constipated atmosphere in church,” we are told when a proposal for a Western toilet – because an ageing vicar can squat no longer – is kept pending.) Occasionally a good quip does come along, as when a priest recruiting for the Vatican is called a “nun-runner of the Catholic Church” – but even here, what could have worked very well as a throwaway joke is carelessly repeated in the same paragraph.

There is too much clutter: too many side-characters, too many superfluous little incidents, and unnecessary detail that is often so much at odds with the main thrust of the narrative that it has to be put in parentheses. Thus, a description of Savio playing basketball begins well (“When he reached the apogee of his jump, he froze for a fleeting moment, stretched like a Byzantine sculpture…”) but then halts mid-jump to give us a distracting piece of information (his jersey “had ‘St Joseph’ written at the back, without an apostrophe and terribly misaligned”), so that the effect is diluted. It’s a bit like watching the handsome protagonist collapsing in a heap, instead of completing his throw with the same grace that he began it.

The cumbersome sentences keep adding up. It isn’t enough, apparently, to say “Savio resisted the urge to jump the wall and hug his father and bring him back home” when you can instead come up with a rambling “Savio resisted the urge, that genetic urge, that primordial surge of love, to jump the wall and hug his father and bring him back to the home of their childhood, of their tinkling laughter, their sorrows, their surrenders, deaths and farewells”. I’m not trying to make the case that novelistic writing must always be short and to the point, but there should at least be some elegance in word arrangements. With its clumsy juxtaposing of "genetic urge" and "primordial surge", and the banal finish ("tinkling laughter, sorrows, surrenders, deaths and farewells"), the above description lacks the rhythm that one expects from a well-constructed long sentence.

Another sample, which I offer without comment:
When this goddess led his finger to her legs, the marble smooth legs of many cataclysmic nights, dreams and disasters, when he had all the chance in the world to enter that tabernacle of desire, that alcove held together by her thighs which drove nursery kids to rebel against their mothers, when he could wash off the sin and stain of the whore by dousing himself with the moral detergent of angelic Silvy, Savio at that moment, got up.
The narrative is also characterised by a recording of events, so that the characters are constantly explained to us, instead of gradually revealing themselves through conversation. And when conversation – or interior monologue – does occur, it usually takes a dramatically exaggerated form, as in the stream-of-consciousness passage where Silvy addresses her father:

“Appa, are you leaving me here, friend and guide of my childhood, are you leaving me here? … How many times have you picked me up, Appa, father of my childhood, father of my youth, father of my sorrows, my prayers, my joys? Don’t you remember the time when you first bought a ball for Savio and I took it and hid it, Appa? How unbridled was that joy! Are you leaving me here, Appa?”

This goes on for another half-page. The repeated use of “Appa, are you leaving me here” seems intended as a poetic refrain, but good poetry is usually not what results when you string together a lot of sentences like “When will we go again, Appa, to the beach of my childhood to skip and hop, when the naughty waves come all the way up?” This is a case of affected language substituting for real emotion instead of expressing it.


The immediately identifiable literary mode in The Last Song of Savio de Souza is that of magic realism. There is a view that this form is now dated or irrelevant – that it was an expression for the social complexities of regions that hadn’t yet found a distinct novelistic voice for the world stage, and that its ability to startle readers has worn off. In itself, this is a suspect idea: there is no reason why a particular type of writing shouldn’t continue to flourish as long as there are authors up to the task of using it meaningfully. The real problem is that magic realism seems especially susceptible to misuse, often becoming a tool of convenience. Want to convey a general sense of an exotic setting where unusual things happen (or where people yearn to have unusual things happen to them)? Well, just throw in a few obviously supernatural incidents at irregular intervals, and call it “heightened reality”. Anything goes.

There’s something very random about the magic-realist bits in John’s novel. Among them is a prolonged episode where Savio’s friend Hamid stabs an eve-teaser named Camel, who then transforms, literally, into a dead man walking – his bleeding carcass saunters through the town’s streets until it reaches Camel’s room (by which time it has turned into a skeleton). There is also a moderately engaging description of monkey slaughter that results in a biology teacher and two macaques laid out together on the ground in an “evolutionary tableau of the dead or the dying, the half-dead and the fully alive”, and a gratuitous account of a “satyagrahi” named Sumati protesting outside a secretariat for the return of her land. She quickly becomes a prostitute, servicing just about every man in the region, and eventually destined for “communal rape” (her “valiant vagina, that mute uncomplaining receptor of many Puram phalluses” is evidently meant to be a symbol of something, but I couldn’t figure out what).

On view throughout is a massive Gabriel Garcia Marquez complex, what with meta-references to things that will happen in the future (“In the ecstasy of that moment, when Savio bent to nibble at the offering, Regalia saw the python slithering in front of her and choked in exactly the way she would, many years later, when the sea swelled with a deep cosmic upheaval and became a rising wall just a few feet from her, when everything was to end”), and more specifically, to fluids which gather in improbably large quantities. Tessy’s tears formed a little rivulet in the house, it is revealed; they “flowed along the baked brick floor, touched the rolled-up sleeping mats, flowed past the easy chair which Simon had picked up from a waste shop in Chalai, before making a reflective puddle in the corner”. Later, the “rivulet of blood” from Camel’s wounds will trail slowly behind him on his long death-walk. Apart from being highly derivative of Marquez, these soggy interludes add nothing to our understanding of the story or its characters - they exist purely to create eye-popping moments.

In any case, the book may as well have been titled “Chronicle of a Tsunami Foretold”; from the start, it’s obvious that everything in Savio’s life and the life of Puram is leading up to the tragedy of December 2004. Ironically, it’s when the apocalyptic wave arrives (and here is a real-life event that can make even the excesses of magic realism seem feeble) that John’s writing becomes a little subdued, as if constrained by the graveness of the occasion. The climactic passages are an odd mix of two very different writing styles – one characteristically baroque, the other the prosaic style of reportage. There is surreal imagery (notably in an account of Savio and a former girlfriend playing amidst the flying fishes, crabs and octopuses that have washed up on the beach), but there are also descriptions that tread close to conventional journalism: “A few miles down the Velankanni coast in Nagapattinam, Arko Datta captured raw tragedy and death as few have, either before or after. The desperate mother, her palms turned helplessly towards the heavens...

This makes for an uneven end to a very ambitious, busy but frustratingly laboured novel. On this evidence John clearly has many stories to tell – perhaps too many – apart from a certain knack for observation and empathy. But for the human element of his stories to come through, his prose needs to be tidier and more discerning.


  1. This is *exactly* the sort of writing that makes people turn to Chetan Bhagat. It makes the not-very-well-read believe that the only alternative to this kind of prose is the 'simple' writing practised by CB and his ilk.

  2. Shrabonti: I know what you mean. Some of the writing in this book also reminded me of the eye-poppingly overwrought prose one finds in all those Srishti titles by youngsters looking to impress their friends. Modus operandi: keep the thesaurus open and cobble together as many long words as possible without bothering about meaning or context.

    And I know from experience that some of those kids are actually snobbish about Chetan Bhagat - they think his writing is "too simple", while clearly a real writer should trade in sentences like "What will Pankaj do in this perplexed and imbroglio situation?" It's hilarious.

  3. I think it was Proust who said - "Trying to write well is a bad form of writing"
    This was one of your more sharply written reviews - very readable.
    Anyway , looking at the excerpts and the bits of story, I think this work had potential. To what extent can the editors be held responsible, for allowing it to go adrift?

  4. "What will Pankaj do in this perplexed and imbroglio situation?"

    This was so damn funny that I had to actually google it to find out where it appeared, and the link took me to an older blog post.

    As for CB, one cannot deny that he has been immensely successful, and the average urban fella is most likely to have heard of him (and even read his books).

    But "imbroglio situation" will remain in my mind for a few days!

  5. A very interesting post. When you started off with those excerpts, I began to feel that you had some axe to grind with the author. You seemed to come across more cruel than I can recall you being in most of your reviews. But, the Appa one just killed me.

    I have long felt that one of the major issues with Indian publishing is that there aren't too many good editors around. This sounds like a case of that.

    Of course, it's unlikely that I am going to read the book after reading your thoughts on it to really be able to make an honest judgement. Excerpts taken out of context do not always build the right picture, but they can always swing buying decisions towards more favourably reviewed books.

    I have read about executioners (largely from the US) feeling great remorse and lifelong torture for being the agents of death. Do critics feel the same dread when they almost kill a writer's career?

    Nope, I don't know the author. Just wondering.

  6. Rantings: you really need to pick up some of the Srishti books - there are much funnier sentences on every page, starting with the Acknowledgements. A friend wrote some posts on them which she later deleted, but I may have some of it on email - will send it across sometime. (See the last two paras of this post.)

  7. You seemed to come across more cruel than I can recall you being in most of your reviews

    Captain Subtext: simple enough explanation for that: 95 percent of the time, I read a book and then make up my mind whether I want to review it (and usually do it if it's stimulated me in a positive way). This was one of those rare occasions where I said yes in a moment of weakness, and then lived to regret it.

    No axe to grind - in fact, I've met the author a couple of times and know him as a fairly genial and likeable man. And no question of anything I write "killing" an author's career, I assure you!

  8. To what extent can the editors be held responsible, for allowing it to go adrift?

    Rahul, as far as I know very little constructive editing takes place in our publishing houses - at least for the mid-list authors who make up the majority of books published. Commissioning a certain number of books per month to meet a quota is far more important!

  9. 'Savio de Souza' for a novel set in Kerala !! Is it a Goa , Kerala fusion ?

  10. Interesting review, Jai - and thought-provoking about what comprises 'good writing' and not-so-good. I tend to think that it all comes down to the skill of the individual writer. There are those who know how to use seemingly daunting words and long sentences in ways that won't drive off a reader. There are those who can't.

    But, back to this book. I haven't read it (except for the first sentence - in a bookstore today - and the excerpts in your review).
    No, not my style. It's just too taxing. I can't manage so many sentences where, by the time I've reached the end of the sentence, I've forgotten what the start was all about.

  11. Bad Sex writing award nomination, please.

  12. I tend to think that it all comes down to the skill of the individual writer.

    Dustedoff: I think skill is largely a function of the quality of reading one has done. As I mentioned in this piece (and a few blog posts over the years!), the writers who use big words and long sentences without any discernment are invariably people who have done very little reading of value.

    There are those who know how to use seemingly daunting words and long sentences in ways that won't drive off a reader.

    I know many good readers who have a personal preference for lucid prose - short, simple sentences - and that's fine, of course. But I'd hope that even these readers would be able to tell the enormous difference in quality between the convoluted prose in (say) an early Rushdie novel and the sort of convoluted prose that goes:

    "The place, like future, was an arcanum but, unlike it, there was an air of democracy all over. The view resembled the surreal painting of utopia which the brush of her rapturous wishes had made on the canvass of her heart, since childhood. It wasn't exactly heaven but something more beatific and specific. It was a dream. And the ambience sprayed a déjà senti feeling on her."

    (Actual quote from a Srishti book - you'll find thousands of such passages in those publications.)

  13. That's a very nuanced review, Jai. I can imagine how tough it must've been to give it an objective assessment. I find this kind of overwrought prose very difficult to read and I would've skipped huge chunks if that had been my job. It's not easy sussing out the quality of the story that lies under such obsfuscating language. You know what that passage with "when her finger" reminded me of? Dev Anand's unintentionally-hilarious passage about his lover's femininity - compared to this, even he was more direct. Hmpfh.

  14. @Jabberwock: Srishti's books are the ones I pick up (only to look at, never to buy!) when I want to laugh... often just reading the blurb on the back cover is enough to crack me up. Or make me wince. Usually both.

  15. Dustedoff: inspired by your comment, I reached for the nearest two Srishti books, opened their Acknowledgements pages and let my eyes alight on a random sentence:

    "My family, without whom I am just a black and white rainbow"

    "I would like to thank my bums for all those hours I kept seated on them while writing copiously on my laptop"

  16. I need to find these Srishti books now. There should be some award for those bums!

  17. Jai: Kudos...this is outstanding...ha ha ha ha ha ha "my father of childhood, my father of adulthood" ha ha ha ha and that "I would like to thank my bums" he should get a sahitya akadmi award

  18. Pessimist Fool: the "I would like to thank my bums" is not from The Last Song of Savio De Souza - it's from a Srishti novel.

  19. oh...but i would like to believe that he wrote it :-) this is such a superb stress buster

  20. Kerala (or Malayalees who read) is immensely attracted to Marquez and magical realism. The reason could be the sort of magical realism Vaikom Muhammed Basheer had in his writing (though no one explained Basheer's writing in such terms.) There are more admirers to Marquez in Kerala than probably MT Vasudevan Nair.

    This book (and countless others, especially films) are the products of its time - cost of entry is very very low in 21st century. I am sure the writer would not have convinced any decent publishing house to take his work, but schmoozed his way through Sahitya Academi.

    Shame on Sahitya Academy. Seems they will publish whatever crap that comes to them!

  21. Shame on Sahitya Academy. Seems they will publish whatever crap that comes to them!

    Anon: by "crap" do you mean the book or my review of it? Because the review was published by Sahitya Akademi - not the book.

  22. Apologies.

    Thought the book was published by Sahitya Academi - which is one of those white elephants.

    Your review is very readable - I guess the book is the opposite.

    What exactly does Sahitya Academi do anyways?