On the morning of 28 January 1754, an exceptional Englishman sat down at the desk in the library of his gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill, to attend to his correspondence. It was a daily ritual, for the man in question was Horace Walpole, the greatest letter-writer of his era, as well the author of the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764). On that winter’s morning, Walpole composed a letter in which he committed to paper for the first time a word – now fashionable, even hackneyed – based on the ancient Arabic name for Sri Lanka. The word was, of course, serendipity, defined by its creator as the faculty of discovery, “by accident and sagacity”, while in search of something else.
That the organisers of the 2009 opening of Sri Lanka’s much-praised Galle Literary Festival decided to commence events on 28 January, the 205th anniversary of serendipity’s coinage, is an astonishing coincidence, for the literary significance of this date is little-known. The date also has another literary connection with Sri Lanka. In fiction, Jules Verne chose 28 January 1868 as the day that Captain Nemo and his fellow submariners aboard the Nautilus first caught sight of the island in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1869). Calendar connections aside, Verne epitomises the surprising number of major Western novelists – Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C Clarke – who have used the island as a location, to varying degrees. In other instances, the island has provided characters or story elements. Some novelists react to the exotic ambience by penning inspired descriptions of the outstanding physical beauty of Sri Lanka. Unusual social and cultural aspects beguile others. Although disparate in style and content, these writings contribute to the rich fabric of fictional versions of the island, in many instances close to the real thing.
Fittingly, it was Daniel Defoe, a pioneer novelist in the English language, who made first use of the island, then held by the Dutch and called Zeilan. In his novel The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (1720), there is an episode in which the eponymous hero’s ship is stranded on the shores of the island. The army of the Dutch-independent Kandyan Kingdom besieges Captain Singleton and his crew before they are able to escape. This episode was inspired by the experiences of sailor Robert Knox, who was confined in the kingdom for 19 years. His An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), written with help from physicist Robert Hooke, contains the first – and possibly finest – description of the island in English.
It took half a century after the British acquired Ceylon from the Dutch in 1796 for the first island-based novels, written by little-known authors, to appear. More notable were references to Ceylon by two celebrated novelists representing opposite ends of the fiction spectrum. First was Charles Dickens, whose last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), has as characters the enigmatic twins Neville and Helena Landless, who were born and brought up in Ceylon. After the death of their mother, they suffer at the hands of a cruel stepfather before being rescued by a philanthropist and sent to England. Second, the 1872 English translation of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea contained a gripping underwater episode in which a pearl diver is saved from a shark attack off Mannar, the location of the traditional pearl fishery. While there are many storybook descriptions of Ceylon by characters aboard approaching ships, there is only one by a character aboard a submarine: “When at noon the Nautilus came to the surface of the sea, there was land in sight about eight miles to westward,” Verne wrote. “The first thing I noticed was a range of mountains, the shapes of which were most capricious. On taking the bearings, I knew we were nearing the Island of Ceylon, the pearl which hangs from the lobe of the Indian Peninsula.”
The first adventure story concerning Ceylon was a romance in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). Called Dead Man’s Rock (1887), it was written by Q, the penname of Arthur Quiller-Couch, best known for his quintessential anthology of English poetry, the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (1900). Set in the early 19th century, the novel involves the quest for the legendary Great Ruby of Ceylon, stolen by an English adventurer from its protector, a Buddhist monk residing on the sacred mountain Sri Pada – a peak that Quiller-Couch climbed during his visit to the island. “What an entrancing country is this Ceylon! I am drinking in the marvels of Colombo,” Q’s main character enthuses.
he quaint names over the shops, the bright dresses of white and red, the priests with their robes of flaming yellow – but words cannot tell of the beauty of the country here. The roads are all of some strange red soil, and run for miles beneath the most beautiful trees imaginable – bamboo, palms, and others unknown to me, but covered with crimson and yellow blossom.
Colonial administrators also found time to indulge their literary talents. Leonard Woolf, who later married Virginia Stephen, served in the Ceylon Civil Service during the early 20th century. His sister, Bella, visited him, stayed on, and wrote a pair of children’s novels, The Twins in Ceylon (1909) and More about the Twins in Ceylon (1911). “It was like a dream,” one juvenile character in the first novel remarks,
a red road swarming with ‘rickshaws’, queer little two-wheeled carriages drawn by ‘coolies’ – bare-footed natives wearing ‘cloths’ (a sort of petticoat of white or coloured stuff) and a scarf twisted round their heads – bullock carts and private carriages, and men and women in all the colours of Joseph’s coat – and very English-looking tramcars. There was a big hotel, called the Grand Oriental Hotel, and there was a band playing and a palm-garden, and they had lunch, waited on by brown men in white with their hair done up in a knot and a tortoise-shell comb in it.
Bella Woolf was a gifted writer, but it is her brother Leonard’s The Village in the Jungle (1913) that has endured. Employing the rural knowledge gained while serving on the island, Woolf crafted a story set in a drought-stricken village. The opening paragraph, which describes the village’s relationship to the invasive jungle, exemplifies the brooding nature of the book:
It was in, and of, the jungle; the air and smell of the jungle lay heavy upon it – the smell of hot air, of dust, and of dry and powdered leaves and sticks. Its beginning and its end was in the jungle, which stretched away from it on all sides unbroken, north and south and east and west, to the blue line of the hills and to the sea. The jungle surrounded it, overhung it. It stood at the door of the houses, always ready to press in upon the compounds and open spaces, to break through the mud huts, and to choke up the tracks and paths.
In contrast, some novelists’ references to Ceylon are limited, even oblique. Take James Joyce, for instance. In Ulysses (1922), he employs a stream-of-consciousness paragraph in which the character Leopold Bloom has fragmentary thoughts on Ceylon after reading the label on a tea pack:
choice blend made of the finest Ceylon brands. The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. These Cinghalese lobbing around in the sun, in dolce far niente. Not doing a hand’s turn all day. Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness. The air feeds most.
A reference in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (1939) is minimal, for the author merely creates a derivative of serendipity in a character’s retort to suit the novel’s obscure language: “You semisemetic serendipitist, you (thanks, I think that describes you) Europasianised Afferyank!”
The seven Serendibs
Ceylon gained Independence from the British in 1948, but this did not diminish the island’s attraction as a location for authors representing the former colonial power. Indeed the latter half of the 20th century produced an increased flow of Ceylon/Sri Lanka-based novels – so much so that, due to limitations of space, the works of heavyweights Dennis Wheatley, Angus Wilson, Barbara Cartland and Rosamunde Pilcher cannot be delved into here.
Of the famous works, Robert Standish’s Elephant Walk (1948) is well known because it was turned into a movie. This is a tale about a bride newly arrived from England – played by Elizabeth Taylor – who has to contend with her tea-planter husband’s ‘father complex’, along with the fact that she is the only white woman in the district, as well as the rampages of a herd of elephants. Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962), about the Utopian island of Pala, said to be situated between Sri Lanka and Sumatra, is important, although there are few references to Sri Lanka itself. As a Palanese citizen explains:
After one hundred and twenty years of the Portuguese, Ceylon and Rendang [a neighbouring island] got the Dutch, and after the Dutch came the English. We escaped both these infestations. No Dutch, no English, and therefore no planters, no coolie labour, no cash crops for export, no systematic exhaustion of our soil. Also no whisky, no Calvinism, no syphilis, no foreign administrators. We were left to go our own way and take responsibility for our own affairs.
Arthur C Clarke’s masterpiece The Fountains of Paradise (1978) concerns the construction of a space elevator between the summit of the holy peak Sri Pada and a point in synchronous orbit 36,000 km above the equator. Clarke, who was domiciled in Sri Lanka for half a century and yet wrote only one novel concerning his new home, provides the first fictional portrayal of the island from space. “He was already 30 km up in the sky, rising swiftly and silently through the tropical night,” he writes. “There was no moon, but the land beneath was revealed by the twinkling constellations of its towns and villages … Soon he could see the whole island of Taprobane faintly outlined by the lights of the coastal settlements.”
Then, there is Christopher Hudson’s Colombo Heat (1986), a World War II story that involves a British rubber-company executive who gets drawn into intelligence operations, and reaches a climax with the Japanese air raid on Colombo on Easter Sunday, 1942. A major theme of the novel is the decline of colonialism and the hedonistic lifestyle that this encouraged, as Ceylon became a significant ‘R and R’ camp for tens of thousands of servicemen and -women.
A particular favourite of this writer’s is John Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1992), about a journalist lost overboard off Sri Lanka in 1980 while trying to retrace Sindbad’s voyages. He enters the mythic realm, meets Sindbad, and engages him in a bout of storytelling in order to return to the modern world. This extraordinary novel includes some classic lines such as: “You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously.” Then there is a passage that equates the so-called Seven Ages of Man with seven distinct Serendibs reflecting the stages of life: “There are the Serendibs of our childhood, our youth, and our mid-manhood … There is the Serendib of late maturity … Yet a fifth Serendib there is: the one I next woke to … Serendib Six is truly where I sit … But sweeter yet, sirs, is the seventh.”
Whether concerning Serendib or Sri Lanka, the fictional voyage continues into the 21st century. Meanwhile, the emergence of a number of respected indigenous authors over the past two decades, most of whose novels relate to Sri Lanka’s interminable and destructive conflict, provide a welcome counterbalance to the often exotic viewpoint of outsiders.
~ Richard Boyle is an English writer who has lived in Sri Lanka for 25 years. His latest book is Sindbad in Serendib (2008).