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The armchair traveller goes to Sri Lanka

March 6, 2013

ImageYou know how a piece of music can make you feel exactly how you felt when you first heard it? And how a smell can take you back somewhere?  Well, these books are for me some of the most evocative fiction about Sri Lanka.  In lieu of another trip, these will do.

Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost

If you’ve read the English Patient, you’ll know that this Sri Lankan-born novelist is terrifyingly good at describing war.  He gets under its skin by conjuring up such believable characters that have such typical experiences, they seem to speak for all war in all places. Strong, quirky Anil goes to Sri Lanka on a forensic pathology mission to examine the murdered body of a man they call Sailor.  In trying to identify him as a political victim, Anil’s quest seems to spookily echo the headlines of modern Sri Lankan newspapers.

(thank you to Lynn, the college librarian, for this recommendation)

Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family

Reading this lovely patchwork of a book is like talking to your grandmother: sometimes rambling and disconnected but always warm and entertaining.  Ondaatje’s passion for the land of his birth is brought to life in the stories of his family, from the time they picked up the bishop on the way to a wedding, to holidays in the hills of central Sri Lanka.  It’s an easy read, and a great introduction to the craziness and variousness of the teardrop isle.

Romesh Gunesekera, Reef

Some writers, like Graham Greene, say very little.  Some writers, like Arundhati Roye, say a lot.  Gunesekera’s style is at once very compact and efficient, but his precise prose will then lead you to a glorious image: a ‘voice bundled in paper’, perhaps, or ‘flotillas of disturbed hope and manic wanderlust’. The same with the plot – not very much at all happens in this novel, but like many of the best, the journey is more internal than external and there is a lovely circularity to the whole thing.  A Booker Prize finalist, no wonder, for this gorgeous short novel is an exercise in how to write a book when you don’t have a story, but you have perfect characters, and a perfect idea.

(I’m indebted to Ben Roche for insisting I read this)

Reggie Siriwardena, Prometheus: an argumentative comedy for two characters

This is a one act play by Sri Lankan playwright Reggie Sirwardena I read in an effort to get clued up on island literature. It follows the meeting of a university English teacher and a computer programmer in the nineties, arguing about the limit of computers for playing the thinking man’s game, chess.

The computer programmer Rohan makes the case that ‘chess will be perfect only when it is freed from human frailties, when it is played by supremely wise beings, free of weakness or error. In other words, by machines.’ Conversely traditionalist Susil, positioned as a fuddy duddy until the slightly contrived but neat ending, argues for the ‘style, elegance, beauty’ of a human player.

It is of course an argument that rages on as we try to define technology’s place but this is a piece that now feels slightly dated. Nevertheless it was a quick and enjoyable introduction to Sri Lankan drama through the two characters.

So there we are: for me, four reads that are ‘full of the promise of cinnamon, pepper, clove’ (Reef). Oh, and here’s one that really isn’t…

Emma Boyle, Sri Lanka – Culture Smart! 

I’ve enjoyed the insights of these guides in the past but I guess like all series they depend on the individual authors and this one felt a little outdated. It’s only since being in Sri Lanka that I’ve learned that the left hand is considered unclean and should not on any account be used to offer anything; that the Sri Lankan head wobble can mean yes, and that you must always take your shoes off when you enter someone’s house. It’s a country so jam-packed with cultural expectations that I wanted more from this book.  You’d be better off just going.

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