Giving presents is fun, although not the drudgery of looking for them. So before coming back to Sri Lanka for a visit this year, I asked my friends what they wanted. The requests were mostly predictable: tea, of course, and spices; batik sarongs and devil masks also made the list. One asked for something that, in the jargon of the export sector, would be called a non-traditional item: a local novel.
No problem, I thought. The 1990s were a great time for Sri Lankan writing in English what with Michael Ondaatje endowing a prize, and it looked like everyone with a disk drive (plus many who stick to ribbon and paper) was inspired to write. If anything, I’d have an abundance of choice. So thinking, I promised her a good read.
But I couldn’t just walk into a Colombo bookshop and browse the shelves. I am, after all, a literary critic with a theoretical bent. First of all I had to decide: what makes a good Sri Lankan novel?
The trouble with a literary training is that you can’t avoid inhaling the aesthetic. Even if you take classes only with Leftists, quality has a way of corrupting your oxygen. For years, I gave my friends Running in the Family on their birthdays, for passing comprehensive exams, or as aeroplane reading for long trips. I loathed the book for its orientalism; but it was Sri Lankan and, more importantly, ‘well written’. It didn’t, as it were, let the side down. This time, I was determined not to add to Ondaatje’s royalties. (I teach The English Patient in virtually every class, anyway.) This time, I was going to find some thing that took the question of form seriously and made the reader reconsider reality. Any good piece of Sri Lankan writing—journalistic, literary, academic, whatever — must make its reader see Sri Lanka, if not the world, at least slightly differently. It should give pleasure, but also tax the grey cells a little.
However, unlike other modes, the novel doesn’t work by content alone. Form counts. And the novel form moved away from realism a century ago because-to soundbyte a long story — the novel realised well before post-structuralism, that language was constitutive of the social; that language did not, simply and transparently, reflect it. Conclusion: a good Sri Lankan novel will contest the story Sri Lanka tells of itself in some way, shape and form. Theory in hand, wallet in pocket, smile on face, I was ready to hit the bookshops.
I would have fared better expecting the cricket team would win the World Cup. While the issues it takes on shows promise, every now and then, formal innovation has kept its distance from the recent Sri Lankan novel in English. Ondaatje may have endowed a prize, but inspiration isn’t guaranteed by money alone. The Sri Lankan writer is yet to think his/her way out of realism and its collaborator, humanism. With one and a half exceptions. Rajiva Wijesinha, who does magic realism with semicolons: he deploys Victorian prose, and a humanist vision, on an essentially post-modern spin on the world. The consequence is a complete lack of fit between form and content. Then there is Carl Muller.
Muller’s first two novels, The Jam Fruit Tree and Yakada Yaka, are funny, daring, nonrealistic and ‘peopled’ with characters — I prefer the term actants —one is supposed to enjoy and think about, rather than empathise with. They demand reflection upon how the postcolonial Sri Lankan story has been told; upon who constitutes its subject. In the dominant narrative, the Burghers — when mentioned at all — are upper-middle-class, professional comprador and copped out of the country after Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike replaced English with Sinhala Only as the official language in 1956. That stereotypical Burgher is confronted in these novels with the von Blosses: blue collar urbanites who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, or just didn’t get out of the country; who stayed and struggled and made their peace with Sinhala nationalism; who knew how to have fun. Not a heroic story, the way it is told, but sufficiently — to abuse a metaphor from somewhere else —subalternist. Besides, Muller can tell a damn good story.
The limitation of these novels (apart from needing a sharp blue pencil) is their politics, which is restricted to that of inclusion. All they say is: I live here too, please admit me. Not an unimportant message to a story that would like to continue being exclusively Sinhala Buddhist; that only admitted the Tamil nationalist after much resistance. But it is not one that taxes those grey cells, either. Still, the first two novels promised of better things to come. Perhaps, I thought, the next ones would take a long, strong and laugh-laden look at how the Sri Lankan story itself was constructed, not just seek to add the Burgher to it. However, Muller’s more recent output —Once Upon a Tender Time and that formal monstrosity, Colombo — have lost their humour, daring and imagination; politically, they are content with whitewashing Sinhala nationalism. If the Burghers can live with it, we are told implicitly (and disregarding those who emigrated), why not the Tamils? So I crossed Muller off my list.
Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy is the most promising thing I’ve ever read by a Sri Lankan novelist; an excellent first novel. It tells the story of Arjie Chelvaratnam, a young boy growing up in southern Sri Lanka in the 1980s, who discovers what it means to be Tamil and to desire those of his own sex. Given the writer’s location in Canada, I expected some discussion not only of Sri Lankan sexuality, but also of how it differs from sexuality in the West. But Funny Boy’s homosexual politics are just plain queer — that is to say, North American.
The logic of the narrative compels Chelvaratnam to leave a homophobic Sri Lanka by the tale’s end, in search of identity in sexual community — such identity being found, given the said logic of the text, only in the West. The narrative does demand that the reader contemplate Sri Lankan homophobia, but the account would have been more compelling if its other gay actant, Chelvaratnam’s lover Shehan Soyza, was allowed some narrative prominence. Soyza — who is, not incidentally, anti-racist —seeks only pleasure, not identity, in sexuality. A complex analysis of Sri Lankan (homo) sexuality could have followed; but we are never given Soyza’s story — the narrative cannot endorse it. By tale’s end, Chelvaratnam is safe in Canada; we are not told what happens, or even what might happen, to Soyza. Perhaps the text doesn’t care.
If, in its treatment of sexuality, Funny Boy sanctions identity politics, its treatment of nationalism is radically different. It approaches Tamilness not as a given but something to be learnt, discovered; in this instance, during the commencement of armed conflict between Sinhala and Tamil nationalism. Here, identity is not essential but conjunctural. Tamil separatism distanced itself from Southern Tamils as the struggle escalated. In depicting the Southern Tamil predicament at this conjuncture, Funny Boy doesn’t just seek to admit to the record the story of a group silenced by the larger Sri Lankan story, whether Sinhala or, now, Tamil nationalist. Rather, without condoning/exempting the horrors of Sinhala nationalism, this novel calls attention to the liberating potential of the Tamil, which uses the victimhood of Southern Tamils to justify its case against the Sinhala state, while excluding the same from its project. Thus raising the general question: is the nation an enabling form of community?
Despite the above, I found Funny Boy only promising because its identity politics were not thought through; its form was neorealist; and its actants all too human —we are supposed to feel their pain or, rather, that of the narrator, Chelvaratnam. Still, one doesn’t expect first novels to have figured everything out. These problems would be solved, I thought, in Selvadurai’s second effort. So I eagerly bought Cinnamon Gardens. The second novel takes up the same themes as Funny Boy — Tamilness and homosexuality, now in late-colonial Sri Lanka. It is told, again, largely from one perspective: that of Balendran Navaratnam, the son of a ‘high-caste’ (the text uses the term unselfconsciously) Tamil Mudaliyar and member of the Legislative Council. However, interrogating colonialism is not on the text’s agenda; even though the Donoughmore reforms, which instituted British-style parliamentary democracy in the country, is the framework within which the plot develops. Elite Tamils, the novel tells us, were nervous of these reforms since they intimated Sinhala dominance. Whether this is historically ‘accurate’ is not my concern. What’s disturbing is the coincidence: the same story is told of the past by separatist Tamil nationalism—that our present condition is/was inevitable. The text, in other words, is complicit with that nationalism (the trite quotes from the Tirukkural, which open every chapter, reinforce this).
As for sexuality, the novel informs us, through Balendran, that there were always (closeted) gays in Sri Lanka, who were compelled to be closeted. This is nothing new; we know it by definition. As admission-ticket style history, it might serve a purpose. But, as a literary argument against homophobia, it has all the relevance of an air-conditioner in the Arctic, a sauna in Saudi Arabia. That case is to be made on ethical, not historical, grounds.
Stylistically, Cinnamon Gardens is painfully realist. The narrator laboriously recreates houses, gardens, cars, clothes and codes from elite colonial Sri Lanka. Language speaks, not shapes, the real here; it strains after the representational status of the photograph — denotation without connotation. Reading Cinnamon Gardens, whose prose is clearly allergic to metaphor, it appears that Joyce and Djebar and Rushdie (to keep the list short) had never happened. The promise of Funny Boy is broken formally as well: the prose of this text is pseudo-Victorian. Sri Lankan history, the novel’s object, looks no different at the end of the 389 pages.
When Memory Dies
As it does after Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s 411 pages (albeit in a smaller font). Reading When Memory Dies, three books in one, requires patience —or Prozac. The first book, again, is promising, if not actually good: it tells the story of the rise of the labour movement in Sri Lanka. While this has been done already by Kumari Jayawardena, whom Sivanandan draws liberally upon, a case can.be made for the fiction. It asks the Sri Lankan reader, whose history lessons these days are fashioned by nationalism, to remember that there once was a robust, non-communal Left in the country; a Left that was organised, active, militant—and is depicted as such in this novel, unlike the marginalised status it receives in Cinnamon Gardens (which also draws upon Jayawardena). A Left that — if one is looking for causes —may actually have prompted the Donoughmore reforms with its movements.
The novel should have ended at book one. Alas, When Memory Dies seeks the status of an epic in the grand old tradition of socialist realism that the novel form, I thought, left behind ages ago. It must tell the story, the whole story, of 20th century Sri Lanka. Every single political event of any significance seems to get a mention in these pages. There are other —met-onymic, allegorical — condensed ways that the novel has adopted of depicting history. But this text can’t take that route. It must write a narrative history in fictional guise. However, the closer it comes to the present, the further it gets from the question of memory — and therefore the more it loses its direction, focus, perspective. Indeed, by book three, written in the third person, the narrator seems to have even forgotten that the other two books were written in the first. Given its epic ambition, When Memory Dies demands a cast of thousands. The narrative’s socialism makes the actants, those who cause history, ‘ordinary’ people, not the ‘elite’. If this is salutary, as is the narrator’s refusal to be humanist (I do not remember the name of a single one of the actants let alone feel for them), what is troubling is that the characters actually depicted causing change in this text are exclusively male; all that the females of When Memory Dies do is cook, clean or care for their menfolk—something the narrative accepts matter-of-factly.
If ‘true memory’ was indeed the project of When Memory Dies, it could have taken a cue from Cinnamon Gardens: the latter novel’s most intriguing actant is Annalukshmi Kandiah — once again inspired by Jayawardena’s research — a woman agitating for franchise to be extended to women: an instance of early Sri Lankan feminism we don’t hear enough about. But Kandiah’s story, much like Soyza’s in Funny Boy, doesn’t get adequate narrative development; its progress is consistently pre-empted by Balendran’s.
Her fate mirrors that of the feminist woman’s story in the Sri Lankan novel in English. Something quite remarkable when one considers that the country has not suffered from a lack of women writers. But, surveying the shelves, the closest thing available to a good feminist novel was Punyakante Wijenaike’s Amulet.The heroine Shyamali’s story is a difficult one for feminism: to present, without accusing or excusing, a narrative of the ‘traditional’ woman — superstitious, uneducated, married off young to an abusive husband, alienated from her ‘modern’ children; someone to whom autonomy was never an option. This is even more difficult to accomplish without demanding empathy from the reader. Humour, or metaphor, are useful devices here, but asking prose to do any work has never been a characteristic of Wijenaike’s style. Still, Amulet does tell a story that doesn’t often get told, it enlarges the corpus of feminist writing and makes one think about what gets counted as history.
The novel is a privileged arena: it can make arguments without evidence, without being burdened by the facts, or ‘reality’. Without, in short, respecting the record that passes for history. History, let us not forget, is also a story, or for that matter, stories. If it gains its authority from being allegedly about the real, the true, the facts, we know from Marxism, from feminism and anti-racism that the record of history has also been partial. Thus, one can say that history is no more than just another story — if a very powerful one. The potential of literature is that it can contest this story, its power, and draw attention to its partiality. The recent Sri Lankan novel in English gives every indication that it is about to keep its promise —even if by someone who is yet to publish. I can wait.
As for my friend, I suppose her present may turn out not to be so novel after all.