Moonlight into Marzipan

In a crumbling Calcutta garage, a man strays blasphemously close to the secret of life... Promothesh's discovery promises to bring him fame and riches, instead it unleashes a chain of events which begins with his arrival in London accompanied by his wife Esha. Esha's death leaves him marooned and confused, his astonishing discovery slipping from his grasp. Into this morass of ambition and self-pity slips love, in the human form of his biographer, Alexandra Vorobyova, and the devil himself, in the very human form of Yuri Sen ...


Out of the corner of his eye, Yuri Sen saw him extract a phial from a pocket of his cream-coloured Nehru suit, he is going to kill me, he thought, he will poison me before I am polluted by poetry and remain a mere mortal when my breath returns, if it returns, my breath, my poor breath.

But the man only touches the bottle to his forehead, unscrews the top and sprinkles the contents over the length of Yuri Sen's useless body, a trail of drops leads from his chest down to his swollen toes, holy water from the Ganges, Yuri Sen can smell its crystalline origins, fetters of ice shrinking together, the slow parturitions of the glacial mass pulse in his mind, the clean cold birth of a great river sears his senses, the droplets collect at the base of his tongue, conglobe, tremble, and shoot out ten thousand branches around his solid bones, and wither all but one which gathers force and streams sugary with the sap of Himalayan cedars towards the plains, Yuri Sen can smell the first trembling descent into the dry wheatfields, the bleached white ribcage of the earth struggling to contain the growing force of the waters, the river widens and accumulates the miseries of its people, swells with the odours of cholera and kala-azar, rotting fish, cheap toothpaste, dead flowers, old promises, flourpaste glue, examination booklets, cigarette foils, cracked dentures, clarified butter, lost digits, used syringes, broken idols, stale cardamon, tax returns, discarded batteries, dry white seasons, grain alcohol, strangled parrots, bruised coriander, broken sitar strings, shrivelled land deeds, moribund ploughs, hookworm larvae, hardnosed bargains, kerosene lamps, missing mangoes, trigonometry texts, unused watercolours, unremarkable sunsets, adulterated sugar, unburnt oil, Yuri Sen smells gratefully amongst all this the tender flanks of a newly drowned calf, the fragrant musings of a village girl on the eve of her wedding, the ripening bouquet of rotting jute, as the river carves a steady course from disaster through disease finally to decay, the mouth frozen with siltsores, Yuri Sen can smell the bubbling mud, the dissolving fibres of blood, milk and tears, the wide scream of the river as it meets the sea.......



Sunetra Gupta is well known for the care she takes to choose poetic and at times oblique titles for her work.

"The title of this novel refers to the process of photosynthesis, which is the means by which light is parcelled into usable energy for us by plants. The narrator of this novel, a humble Bengali chemist by the name of Promothesh, makes an accidental discovery (purely fictional) about this fundamental process  and it brings with it the promise of fame.

Gold became grass, light folded neatly into small tasty morsels before our eyes at the insistence of a few grains of tarnished copper, and then there were months of pain, devoted to the articulation of this fact, months of anguish, when Esha would sit with the dogeared thesaurus, and tease out a respectable grammar for the alchemical routine, and in the kitchen her mother devised recipes for our slime, if people are to eat this, she said, it cannot taste like pondscum, her mother said, throwing a fistful of ground coriander into the works.
And then the words began suddenly to regiment themselves around our ideas, to reveal and conceal in the right proportions the fantasy we had made real, how her copper earring slipping from earlobe into the cold mass had made it seethe and spit and weave grass from light, we had poached on the territories of creation, what nascent syllables could dignify our fearful act?

William Blake is key to this novel. It contains, among other characters, an Anglo-Bengali catamite by the name of Yuri Sen, a name I chose to echo Blake’s Urizen,. Who was Urizen? Blake himself formed him out of the words You Reason, and this was his philosophy:

Here alone I, in books form'd of metals,
Have written the secrets of wisdom,
The secrets of dark contemplation
By fightings and conflicts dire
With terrible monsters Sin-bred,
Which the bosoms of all inhabit,
Seven deadly Sins of the soul.

Lo! I unfold my darkness, and on
This rock place with strong hand the Book
Of eternal brass, written in my solitude:

Laws of peace, of love, of unity,
Of pity, compassion, forgiveness.
Let each chuse one habitation,
His ancient infinite mansion.
One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure,
One King, one God, one Law.

In many senses, this is a book that explores that explores the tussle between Blakean Reason and Emotion and the power that is apparently invested in us simply by the ability to create life.  Promothesh and his wife cannot have children themselves (as Blake and his wife were also unable to), yet they stray to within a hair’s breadth of discovering the secret of life itself.  The latter has no basis whatsoever in real science.  It’s very important to me to get away from using real facts about science to pepper my narrative, because I think it’s a device that can be used merely as an accessory or as an embellishment. There are of course some wonderful examples of the facts of science and medicine being used to good effect rather than for decoration, as in many of John Banville's novels and Primo Levi's Periodic Table.

My character in The Glassblower’s Breath was very strong and very in control, selfishly in control in fact.  In Moonlight into Marzipan we see the opposite – a very quiet and passive Bengali man who has inadvertently made this fundamentally important discovery but who is tossed around by his own emotions and by other people’s desires to co-opt his discovery. The devil appears in many guises in this book. What Promothesh is trying to achieve, without any personal power whatsoever, is dignity. With this book I felt drawn to the idea of the vulnerable protagonist, the vulnerable narrator.  I had recently read The Sportswriter and I believe this had a powerful influence on me, although the roots of such a character as Promothesh (who is of course my Promotheus) can be traced back to L’Etranger, and The Great Gatsby and even Oedipus, all of which provide lessons in preserving human dignity in the face of chance."
















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