The difficult question to answer is whether a work is under more pressure or less when it draws heavily from very popular source material. Does that popularity give it an advantage, at least in terms of marketing if not actual reception? It’s a difficult question, that is, if one is looking for a blanket answer.

As an individual case, Irwin Alan Sealy’s Asoca does a perfectly good job working with what it’s chosen; the result is a novel that feels authentic and resonant. The thing about retellings of history or legend is that they cannot rely on plot. The vast majority of the audience already has a degree of familiarity with the basic storyline – the case of Emperor Ashoka is hardly exempt.

The success of the novel, then, depends entirely on the telling. Sealy’s style is, I must admit, not often to my taste – in spite of the subject matter, he chooses a largely straightforward, cut-and-dried approach. It’s entirely possible that this is meant as a trait of the character – from whose first-person perspective events unfold – and not a feature of Sealy’s style, especially since Asoca does prove himself capable of lyricism and theatrics, most commonly when lusting after various women in the first half or so of the novel.

But as the story unfolds further, the words soften more and more and even bleed here and there. Something similar happens with other aspects of the book too, actually – it seems that the older Asoca gets, the more exciting his life becomes, and the better he gets at narrating it. Which is encouraging, as literary messages go.

Not a nice man to know

That said, events and narration aside, Sealy doesn’t really try to make his hero particularly likeable. Asoca has a straightforward, often almost unemotional voice – given a story like his, he has no real taste for theatrics. Injuries, deaths, conquests, and a stint in alcoholism are all narrated to us in the same tone as descriptions of the setting or food.

Sometimes it feels like having the story relayed by a newscaster, but it seems that Asoca is either severely repressed (my preferred version) or really does just have a rock in his chest most of the time. There is little attempt to portray him as particularly kind or otherwise attractive – he is petty, and selfish, and at times autocratic.

He is apparently ugly, too, just to alienate readers of every temperament – his nickname is Crocodile. Modern day scholars speculate that the Emperor might have had Recklinghausen’s disease; Sealy’s Asoca goes by Crocodile half the time, and grumbles about the rumour that he burned alive hundreds of women for mocking his skin.

The novel does a convincing job of establishing Asoca’s character. We see that he has a tendency towards non-conformist thought from quite an early age, but also that this rarely translates into rebellious action. We see his approach to questions of propriety and morality, and the way they change over time – especially in the context of the law and administration.

Sealy builds his imagining of his character around the events of the plot, matching one to the other. This is particularly evident in the sections dealing with the emperor’s conversion to Buddhism, which involves a number of conversations with the enigmatic Ananta. Sealy goes with the popular narrative of the conversion finally bringing Asoca a degree of peace of mind, by showing us the ways in which Buddhism addresses characteristics of his that weren’t as satisfying to him as he initially thought – that is to say, as he has led the reader to believe.

There are lines that one might expect to see superimposed on a beach sunset somewhere on Pinterest – the kind that joyless cynics like myself tend to roll their eyes at: “Up until now I had been forever turning away, never satisfied. I began anew by learning to stay,” and “‘So I am doomed to remain unforgiven?’ ‘Forgive yourself, Asoca.’”

Lines like these work here mainly because Sealy has already built a solid foundation establishing Asoca’s constant dissatisfaction and nitpicking, his tendency to move away from various concrete aspects of his life and towards mostly vague intangibles. As he says of himself elsewhere: “It was true. Refusing was my chief life was a string of delicious refusals.”

Which is true, it has been. Plot structure can be a little difficult with epic stories, especially this biopic type, because the narrative structure is an entire life, not just one or two series of events that one can organise around a certain theme. Asoca’s life story in the novel too has a slightly episodic quality to it, with not all plotlines being created equal.

There’s one in the later half, involving an assassination conspiracy that implicates members of the royal family, that I thought was riveting; Asoca’s years in Takshashila attending classes and first dabbling in governance, considerably less so. The few constant strings that pull through all these stories – chiefly thematic ones, like desire and its role, and characteristic ones, like Asoca’s tendency towards refusal – are employed consistently and well.

Of pleasure and desire

Although Asoca is largely a lone figure, we see the changes in the dynamics of the few relationships he does have. All this is done while we read from his point of view, which in my opinion is a display of skill. For all this change, a few things do remain constant – Asoca’s stubbornness, and his thoughtfulness (also a yearning for women that is characterised by words like “luscious” and perpetual references to honey) never change.

There are parts of the Asoca story you cannot avoid in any retelling, and so there are character traits of that are also, consequently, unavoidable. Asoca delights in conundrums, to the point where one suspects even his being drawn to religion has something to do with the contradictory, sometimes tangled nature of religious philosophy.

Questions of pleasure and desire, as expected, form a major theme in the novel, and these too Asoca interrogates chiefly through the lens of paradox (this is somehow far less insufferable in the book than it is in university lecture halls.). This isn’t to say that Asoca’s mind is somehow pure cognition; he is also deeply emotional, just only about a very few things.

His family, and of course, his grief and guilt surrounding the events at Kalinga – the parts of his life that so many popular narratives credit for the trajectory he took are not accorded any less importance in Sealy’s retelling. There are scenes – Asoca’s parting from Madhumitta (also known as Devi in some sources), the aftermath of the Kalinga battle – that are heartbreaking, and they make up for the bits and pieces where the pace lags or Asoca’s inner monologue drags. The latter is largely a side effect of Sealy’s attention to detail; though it is overall a strength, creating a watertight, fleshed-out world in terms of both physical setting and political circumstance, it invariably also causes some clutter here and there.

At the risk of repeating myself, one can argue that the nature of Asoca’s life, and the patina of legend that the figure has already acquired, gives the author an edge with this work, and there’s probably a grain of truth in that argument. The story as we know it has many of the trappings of what makes a poplar legend – the hero himself, who has blade and babes and moral crises; battles and whatnot; love story; tragic love story; and, most importantly, change, even reinvention.

Also, there are edicts left over from Emperor Ashoka’s reign to this day, and that sort of thing is always alluring. But all the same, there is still something to be said for how well all this material is used in this novel. All the source material in the world can’t save botched execution, after all (I just watched the 2021 Cinderella. Reader, do not watch the 2021 Cinderella.).

Sealy takes the historical figure and strips him down to a rather average, mildly irritating man, who isn’t even always that great at narrating his own life story, but rarely lets this dampen the larger-than-life quality of his story. The end, an ending most of us will have read before – the reminiscing of a spent, somewhat disillusioned man, most of whose loved ones and contemporaries are now dead or otherwise unreachable – still has the impact, the taste, of the epic.

Asoca is a book that you open with the knowledge not only of the extraordinary life the hero will have, but also of the nature of that extraordinary. Sealy does his best to ensure that the spoilers you already have don’t matter.

Asoca: A Sutra, Irwin Allan Sealy, Penguin Viking.