09 December 2010

Down the Drain with Wikileaks

Whistleblowing is good when actual wrong has been done, but governments and businesses cannot function without privacy any more than individuals or families can. When people don't feel comfortable talking off the record, or when they fear they might be endangered by it, they stop talking, and mutual misunderstanding and suspicion ensue.

Take the revelation that Hillary Clinton had inquired of her aides whether Christina Fernandez was on medication and if so, how the meds affected her decision-making. It's a perfectly legitimate question for a secretary of state to ask before meeting the president of a foreign country. Yet Ms. Fernandez is hardly likely to be pleased to learn that it was asked, and this makes relations between Argentina and the US ever so slightly more difficult. Much worse would be the consequences of harsh words used by US diplomats (in a confidential discussion) about the chief Chinese representative at the Six-Party Talks over North Korea, and the revelation that some American diplomats think an important Turkish minister is a bit of a closet Islamic extremist. Publicizing such matters makes the going along the rough edges of international relations just that much rougher--and makes the world a slightly more dangerous place.

Back on the home front, what good purpose is served by making public the knowledge that some American diplomats in Colombo, at least, believe that President Rajapakse and his military commanders are guilty of war crimes? It is not as if the news is going to change the views people already hold. It may briefly put fresh heart into human-rights campaigners and civil-society activists, but its practical consequences are all negative: they consist mainly of increased friction, distrust and resentment between Sri Lanka and the US, and between Sri Lanka and the west in general. It will make working towards final reconciliation and accountability harder than ever. That benefits nobody.

'Freedom of information' also means freedom for information to flow. By turning itself into an obstacle to its free passage in this way, Wikileaks has made the world a shadier, more secretive place. This is nothing less than a terrorist attack on civilization. It will have a far greater impact, in the long term, than 9/11 ever did or could. And it is not just the West that is the victim here. It is everybody.

01 December 2010

Solar: Not Stellar

Ian McEwan is, in one sense at least, the best prose craftsman now working in English. That sense is finish; his writing is like a perfect cabuchon-cut jewel, slick and flawless; or like a perfectly aged brandy, so smooth you hardly feel it as it goes down.

Unfortunately, I find that the impression it leaves behind, at least with me, is also as ephemeral as the effect of fine brandy: a slight hangover the day after, and then gone for ever. I've enjoyed nearly every book of his I've read, as long as I was reading it. A month after I'd finished it, though, I could remember little of plot, character or indeed, anything else. Surely this can't be good?

Solar, however, is a book I will remember, because it is the first time Ian McEwan has completely failed with me. I think I understand the trick he's trying to pull off here: create an unsympathetic character, one deserving of nothing better than pity or contempt, and try to interest the reader in him, even feel some sympathy for him in spite of his faults. It doesn't work. Michael Beard, the Nobel-prizewinning protagonist of Solar, is a gluttonous, womanizing slob to whom essentially unbelievable things happen, and not very interestingly. We are privy to his thoughts most of the time, but these neither bring us any insight into his creepiness that would help us understand him and possibly empathize, nor do they seem to me like the workings of the mind of a physicist--unless physicists' minds work just the same way as everyone else's, which may be the case most of the time but surely not all of it. The fact is, Michael Beard doesn't seem very intelligent at all. Is that McEwan's point, then? That Nobel-prizewinning physicists are just the same as all of us, only intermittently bright and otherwise slaves to their passions and habits, not very interesting apart from their work? We knew the first already--it's a truism of the most banal sort--and as for the second, it's a lie. People like Einstein, Dirac, Feynman and Bohm were far from uninteresting as human beings. They were all, in their different ways, a little bit peculiar. There is nothing in the least peculiar about McEwan's physicist creation Michael Beard.

Somewhat to my astonishment, I actually found myself speed-reading the last third of Solar, just to see whether anything worthwhile would happen in the end (nothing did). Speed-reading Ian McEwan! Has it come to this?

24 November 2010

Too Many Cameras

I never carry a camera. I used to boast that I didn’t need to, because whenever I was somewhere a picture needed to be taken, there was always a competent photographer at my side to take it. I was married to a first-class amateur for seven years, and a lot of my sightseeing in the world’s picturesque and interesting places has been in professional association with the incomparable Dominic Sansoni. On wilderness outings in Sri Lanka, too, I have always been able to leave the photo-catching in the practised, unobtrusive hands of others. This has left me free to do what is incumbent on me as a writer: experience the moment with all five of my senses, not just one, recording it holistically and subjectively rather than objectively and in detail – later to write about it and perhaps, if the Muse wills, bring to it some perspective or insight that could never be caught on camera.

Real photographers can't spell
In those days, I was always happy to have a photographer by my side. To state the obvious, photographs are useful – for recording events of significance, briefly returning to life the revenants of fond or fervent emotion, acting as a spur or corrective to memory, or conclusively settling an argument. Such things are, or can be, important. But this, of course, was in the days before PhotoShop. Nowadays, photographs, and by extension photographers, cannot be trusted. It may be argued that this unreliability, never perfect in the days of film no matter how the retouchers laboured, may at last have brought the photographer’s art to maturity, for the mission of all artists is to tell the truth by lying. However, it isn’t the new untrustworthiness of photographs that has brought me to resent photography and abhor photographers in general (though there are a few, including the aforementioned, whom I still respect and admire). No, it was the thing which made the trompe l’oeil of PhotoShop possible in the first place, and turned the act of taking a photograph, formerly a considered action requiring time and thought, into a perverse reflex, a nervous tic, a pathological symptom. It was the replacement of film by digital image capture as a recording medium.

Yes, I know you can do wonderful things with digital cameras. The pictures they take are now almost as good as the ones taken by film cameras – better, for all I know, since technology marches on and I have had better things to do than pay attention. Moreover, these pictures, being recorded merely as bits of information, can be stored, transferred, processed, manipulated and reproduced in their millions with the greatest of ease. The revolution has been total. Hardly anyone, barring a few specialists, purists and fanatics, uses film nowadays. An entire industry – photo processing and printing – has crumbled to dust, and the shops (‘studios’ in Ceylon patois) that used to engage in it have vanished from the high streets of the world. Not that I miss them, particularly; I don’t suppose anyone does, apart from the poor saps who made a living out of them. It isn’t nostalgia that makes me mourn the disappearance of film, it’s the offensive ubiquity of photography and photographers that digital technology has made possible. When Sting made that comment about ‘too many cameras and not enough food’ thirty years ago in Driven to Tears, he was really complaining about something else; digital photography was in its infancy back then. But the remark acquired greater pungency after its advent: there are many, many more cameras today than there were in 1980, and as for the food – we’re it, and they’re fighting over us.

Kalpitiya sunset by reformed former
shutterbug. Yes, it's a great shot.
I remember vividly the day I came to hate digital cameras. It was in Kalpitiya, where I had just arrived at the end of a long and fatiguing day’s journey with a group of friends. We were in two cars; I was driving one, and was first to arrive at our destination, a big bungalow overlooking the lagoon. It was a few minutes before sunset, and as I stepped out of the car, the sight took my breath away. Long shadows advanced towards me across a sloping garden overgrown with thigh-high, shimmering illuk grass; at the foot of the garden, beyond a tangled hedge of bat-emitting mangroves, Kalpitiya lagoon reflected the fiery orange-gold effulgence of the sky. The sun was a few degrees above the horizon. My travelling companion had disappeared into the house to make certain arrangements, so I was left to myself to enjoy this feast of a sunset. But then, as the sun dipped lower and blushed redder, I heard the sound of our second vehicle approaching. And in a minute, there they were, my well-loved friends, falling out of the vehicle in their eagerness to ‘catch’ – appropriate word! – the sunset: to capture it with their lenses and imprison it in the lightless virtual dungeons of their memory chips, to kidnap it from me and all the rest of the living world that stood or crouched or lay or flew about us in that golden moment, to ruin it for all time with their clacking shutters, their noisy blundering back and forth across my field of view to find the best ‘angle’, their stagy exclamations and pose-striking. All I can say is, I hope they got good pictures, because all that was left of that particular sunset, at that particular place and time, was their bloody pictures. As if a mere picture could ever compare with a real sunset.

In the days of film, the chances of this kind of thing happening to you would have been low, unless you happened to be sharing some well-trodden beauty spot with a pack of Japanese tourists. Film cost money, you see, and you didn’t want to waste it. You took thought before you took a photograph. With the advent of digital image capture, this economic disincentive has vanished. It now costs as much to take a thousand photos as it does to take one, so people do. Everybody is doing it. And – let’s be fair – everybody is probably a slightly better photographer as a result, because practice always makes for improvement, even if it does not always make perfect. But this is of no consequence, because the high tide that lifts all boats also lifts the bar, so to speak, and no relative eminence is gained by anybody. Instead, what has occurred is a kind of creative inflation, in which the currency of the image has become devalued.

A better photographer than he looks,
not that he looks bad
In the years since that distressing event at Kalpitiya, everyone, it seems to me, has become a photographer. Nearly every young person with creative pretensions carries a camera these days, and many of them plan, sooner or later, to make a living out of the pictures it takes. The poor fools have forgotten the basic economic law of supply and demand. When taking pictures is as easy as raising a camera to your snout and pushing a button, pictures become as common as dirt, and about as valuable. This is something I can vouch for at first hand, because I work in a media-related business that uses both stock and commissioned photography. We simply aren’t willing to pay as much as we used to for good images, and sometimes we aren’t willing to pay at all, because there’s so much usable stuff available out there for nothing. The glut of photographs, of available photography, is putting the professional photographer out of business. Why bother with them and their inconvenient, expensive demands, when photography has become commoditized?

As for me, I remain a lover of good photographs, which I believe have nothing to do with the subject of the picture and everything to do with the person taking them. There will always be those who bring something unique and worth having to the art of photography. The present ubiquity of shutterbuggers will not significantly increase their number, however. Nature, or providence, or chance or what have you, doles out talent with a parsimonious hand. I know a handful of young photographers with genuine talent; one of them was among the posse who so annoyed me at Kalpitiya (and has since returned to that location with exquisite results), another is this guy. Both of them are currently engaged in discovering how hard it is to make any kind of living at photography nowadays, even when you have genuine ability – and neither of them seems to have yet mastered the essential trick of getting out of the way of their own pictures. Still, they’re well ahead of the pack. My advice to them is: go out and murder as many shutterbuggers as possible. In doing so you will revive the market for quality professional photography, and you will also make one cantankerous old scribbler very, very happy.

18 November 2010

The South America Programme

We’ll get to the Great Novels another day. What I have to offer you today is a voyage to South America in the form of three favourite works of non-fiction. If you will read them in succession, and in chronological order, I think I can promise you a fascinating and remarkably affecting experience.

Galapagos finches' heads
 drawn by Charles Darwin
The first of these is The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. It is a scientific traveller’s diary, but there is nothing dry and academic about it; it is so rich and bursting with life one almost disbelieves that it flowed from the same hand which wrote On the Origin of Species and a voluminous treatise on earthworms. Also unexpected is Darwin’s youthful boldness and courage, setting out through unknown and dangerous country with only a few matelots for company, often trusting his life to people he had met only a few days earlier. Highlights of the book include Darwin’s passionately-expressed antipathy to slavery, of which he adverts at length after witnessing the institution at first hand in the Canary Islands and Brazil; an account of the Beagle crew’s encounters with the natives of Tierra del Fuego, human beings so primitive they could barely be said to have entered the Stone Age, and the mutual culture shock resulting from them; and an eyewitness account of the earthquake that destroyed the city of Conçepcion and altered the landscape of Chile. There are also his Galapagos explorations and discoveries, some interesting social commentary about Australians, and much more besides, but it is the South American sections of the book that make the best reading. 

There is a further treat in store for those who know a little about geology: Darwin’s Lyellian speculations are hilarious.

The second book is a curiosity: Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson tells the story of the author’s life from infancy to manhood among the pampas of Argentina, and later (and tragically) in its cities. Hudson was a kind of nature-mystic, though he didn’t write of his experiences in specifically spiritual terms—he just thought that was the way everyone perceived the world, that it was normal. And reading him, you can almost believe that once upon a time, out on the plains of Africa before sowing and reaping were invented, it was normal. People talk about ‘luminous prose’, but Hudson’s writing seems to describe a landscape that is itself luminous, that does not merely reflect light from the sun and moon but glows with its own. But in truth this light is also a reflection; it’s soul-light, and Hudson himself is the source. Far Away and Long Ago is no namby-pamby pastoral, though; some of the scenes are bloody, violent and terrifying, and towards the end of the book the author’s struggles to make sense of human society (of which his childhood on the pampas has taught him nothing) are heart-rending. This is a very strange book, written by a very odd man, that made its place in English literature purely on its merits and despite being unlike anything else that had ever been written. John Galsworthy described it as ‘a vision of natural beauty and of human life as it might be, quickened and sweetened by the sun and the wind and the rain, and by fellowship with all other forms of life.’ He called its author ‘a very great writer... the most valuable our age has possessed.’

Bruce Chatwin, taking
a hike as usual
My final recommendation is Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Chatwin, a maverick writer of novels and travel books, was one of the coming men in English literature during the 1980s; sadly, he died of AIDS in 1989. His literary speciality was faraway places and states of mind, which he could bring to life as few other authors could. He was a great walker, and many of his books, most notably Songlines, came out of that. In Patagonia, an earlier work, did too. The thing about Chatwin’s journeys is that they are internal as well as external (actually, all journeys are), and he writes lucidly and convincingly about both. In Patagonia offers some incredible landscapes, people and stories both contemporary and historical, and by the end of it, you feel as if you truly have been Bruce Chatwin’s walking companion through these wild, windswept, extremaduran places, and have come, on the journey, to know him almost as well as you know yourself.

Of course, it is all illusion; Chatwin was a complex and very urbane man who lived his life in compartments and enjoyed generating an air of mystery. And in fact, he seems to have had much to hide. Even his long hikes have a certain improbability about them, as he mysteriously appears on the road to so some Patagonian village or Aboriginal settlement in Australia as though beamed down from a Culture starship, walks up to the first front door he sees and knocks on it. As Paul Theroux, another great traveller, complained, ‘life was never so neat as Bruce made out.’ But that goes back to my earlier remarks about the habitual untruthfulness of fictioneers. You should never really trust us, however convincing our stories may be. In fact, the more convincing the story, the less you ought to believe it.

Taken together, these three books make up my basic literary geography of South America. It is a mystic land, but in a Spinozan kind of way its numinosity inheres in the material reality of it, its rocks and hills, its plains and forests, its plants and animals and the seasons that govern their lives. It possesses the inhabitants of the land and makes them one with it. And it is a country of the mind, not of the earth. Whether or not the real South America resembles it I have not the slightest idea, and perhaps I will never find out. But this does not really matter. Imaginary countries are the most hospitable of all.

Don't Believe a Word

Karen von Blixen-Finecke
in Kenya, 1918
The author Karen Roberts is a friend of mine, and whenever I want to get her goat I tell her she’ll never be a patch on the other Karen, the lady we remember as Isak Dinesen. This is so obvious it doesn’t need saying—Dinesen was nominated twice for a Nobel prize—which, of course, is exactly why my lovely authoress friend hates so much to hear me say it.

Pardon the doting digression; among the old, hoary passions often make unexpected, spectral reappearances, a bit like the beans we ate for lunch, and cause us to rumble—sorry, ramble. I do not plan to bore you here with accounts of my unsuccessful mid-life amours, but rather to suggest an experiment you may find amusing, and perhaps even instructive.

Novelists are often accused of writing about their own lives and acquaintances and calling it fiction, and there have been numerous lawsuits—some successful, others less so—based on this assumption. It’s true, as I said in my review of Shehan Karunatileka’s novel Chinaman, that personal experience and insight is the raw material we shape our work out of, but the relationship is not as direct as it often seems to the reader. Such verisimilitude is a result of the author’s craft and hard work. It’s what we do, we fathers and mothers of lies; we try to fool you it’s all real. Sometimes it works too well, and then you sue us. Or worse: vide the fates of Christopher Marlowe, Nabokov père and John Lennon.

The other Karen
Enough preamble. The experiment is simply this: read the following three books in the following order. First, Out of Africa. Bear in mind that, although it is written by a novelist, it purports to be autobiography. Second, the section on the society of Kenya’s Happy Valley in Félipe Armesto-Fernandez’s amazing one-volume history of the past thousand years, Millennium. That will set you up nicely for the third book, White Mischief by Edward Fox, the fascinating tale of a murder, long unsolved, among the Happy Valley set.

By the time you’ve finished that book, you’ll have learnt that life in Happy Valley was nothing at all like it is portrayed in Out of Africa, and you will have formed your own judgements of Karen Blixen and the people she writes about. If you are a person of tender sensibilities, or a trusting disposition, you may be slightly shocked. You may never again believe a single word a novelist commits to print, and you will certainly be cured for ever of the foolish belief that what you read in novels is somehow true, no matter how many correspondences exist between the details of a story and its author’s life.

A typical evening in Happy Valley would have looked something like this.
Photo by Peter Beard, long-time resident and discoverer of Mrs. David Bowie

15 November 2010

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

As someone whose background has a few things in common with Salman Rushdie's--South Asian, heavily Westernized, bluntly secular, roughly similar in age and both writers by profession--I'm ambivalent about the man. Some of what seem like virtues to his Western critics look like faults or cheap tricks to me, and vice versa.

I am also a lifelong lover of rock music, so I was suspicious of this book in particular. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the story of the rise and fall of the two greatest rock stars who never lived, and of their fated, fatal love for each other. High-culture attempts to get under the skin of rock are rarely, if ever, successful, being usually either blandly patronizing or quivering with embarrassing wannabe enthusiasm. Though he avoids both these awful extremes, it turns out that Rushdie is no better at writing about rock than any other grown-up author or critic. His vision of the Rock Life is pretty tabloid, and the song lyrics he comes up with for his fictional band, VTO, are beyond dire. If you're a rock fan who doesn't read much high-class fiction, and you're attracted to this book because of its rock subject matter, my advice is: forget it.

Worse, the damn' thing is science fiction, and a stock example of a stock sub-genre at that: the alternative history novel. I guess Rushdie figured that two Bombay Indians could never become the world's biggest rock stars in this universe, so he created a whole new one for them.

Third, the book starts really, really badly. Rushdie's prose in these opening pages is overburdened and clumsy, and the metaphoric imagery that is so vital to the magical-realist project is in some cases more worthy of Rushdie's imitators than of the man himself. There were times when I was reminded of...Ashok Ferry. No, really. But thank goodness, the style settles down after the first forty pages or so, and after that the book becomes a real pleasure to read. The pleasure is alloyed, however, by further, though occasional lapses into, well, if not quite Ferryism, at least Arundhati Royism. Salman, that's so not a good look...

In the end, however, I found The Ground Beneath Her Feet to be a damn good read, and it made me think. It is one of the most philosophical of Rushdie's novels, and its discursive first-person narrator often digresses to share with the reader his opinions on this and that; and I found these philosophical interludes and observations on life amusing, enjoyable and very much to the point; there were several times when I caught myself reading with a nodding head and a rueful grin on my face. This is not how Salman Rushdie usually takes me.

The book sort of falls apart at the end. Its narrative arc is that of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and as the narrator informs us fairly early on in the proceedings, that myth makes for lousy showbusiness because it has an unhappy ending--Orpheus's attempted rescue of his lover from Hades fails; he lives out the remainder of his days disconsolate and is ultimately torn to pieces by a group of maenads, crazed female devotees of the god Dionysius. This dog of an ending clearly had Rushdie seriously worried while he was writing the TGBHF--so worried he actually shares the problem with the reader a couple of times, maybe so as to prepare him for disappointment. In the end he contrives a happy ending of sorts without straying too far from the narrative arc of the original Orpheus legend, but only at the cost of having to introduce a new major character to us in the dying chapters of the book. And that is all that I'm going to say about that little trick.

Despite its faults, I really enjoyed reading this book. Very few people in the world can write so well--on his day--as Salman Rushdie, and well-made prose is always, I find, and regardless of content, a joy to read.

08 September 2010

The End of History

From beneath my office window a ragged chant rises from throats already hoarse at half past nine in the morning. It is accompanied by a lurching dot-and-carry drumbeat. 
        All along Parliament Road from Alexandra Place to Pelawatte, the rent-a-crowds are gathering. The Transport Board buses that brought them fill every lay-by, lane and empty roadside lot. Expensively-dressed thugs and thuggish-looking cops are walking busily up and down, talking self-importantly on mobile phones and walkie-talkies. In spite of the cops, the traffic is an unholy mess. The crowds have taken over the streets.
       No-one dares oppose them, for they are here at the behest, and under the protection, of our new Master. They carry his smirking face placarded on a stick as an amulet, and they wear blue caps, red shirts and other tokens of their loyalty. Most have bunked off from their government jobs to be here and their faces are alight with the joy of sanctioned truancy. Many are already drunk – foam-flecked, sweat-drenched and drooling, primed for the day’s inevitable violence. Here and there a politician walks among the masses, distinguishable from them by the pristine whiteness of his raiment and the bloated lividity of his face, toward which other faces turn as eager sunflowers toward a ashen sun.
       They are here to demonstrate in favour of tyranny, to show the world how eager Sri Lankans are to give up their freedoms and constitutional rights. They have not come here of their own initiative, of course; they were brought. And bought – some for no more than the price of a lunch-packet and half a bottle of arrack. They sell their freedom cheap, these Sri Lankans. But then, their fathers and grandfathers got it cheap, didn’t they, back when Sri Lanka didn’t exist and the British, exhausted by the Second World War and the trials of Indian independence, were only too eager to hand back the Crown Colony of Ceylon to a people who weren’t ready to receive it and, for the most part, didn’t really want it anyway.
       The rest, as they say, is history.
       But history ends today.

30 August 2010

The Soon-to-Be Dead Poets' Society

So Pa threw a kind of poetry party for his brother Ra, who’s back home for a visit after more years than anybody can count, and the above is what he called it. Ra protests he isn’t a poet, though I suspect otherwise. In the grand scheme of things this may be important, but on the day it didn’t seem to matter because there was, if anything, a superfluity of poets foregathered to read their own stuff and listen to others’. I was there too, with a poem of my own, but we’ll come to that later.
       The setup was pretty close to that of the Open Mic sessions organized by Jehan, Indi and Tracy in 2008 and 2009: people told their friends, who told Facebook, and everyone who had a poem to read or just wanted to listen turned up at the venue. There were microphones and a voice PA and everyone took turns.
       Most of it was pretty bad, of course. This kind of amateur poetry is always bad in the same way, displaying the same faults no matter who has written it. I suppose you need talent to make even your blunders original. Real poets write about everything under the sun, but bad amateur poets always go for the same clumsy, ostentatiously high-minded cant. If it isn’t a meditation on life or love or mortality we're subjected to, then it's an intense disquisition on metaphysics or an account of the depthless, pathless gloom pervading the poet’s soul. Why do people, especially young people, feel obliged to come over all high-minded when they’re writing poetry? Homer didn’t, Virgil didn’t, Dante didn’t, at least not all the time, and as for Shakespeare, his mind was stuck in a holding pattern at crotch level. I suppose it was the Romantics who gave people the excuse, especially Wordsworth and that damned scoundrel Keats. Because it is an excuse, you know; it’s far easier to make rhythms and rhymes out of vague but emotive phrases and high-sounding but meaningless sentiments than it is to write a poem about a house, or a pair of knickers, or a visit to the dentist. I wish more people would write poems about verandas and dental cement and gussets. Especially gussets. I’d read it, especially if they put a scratch-'n'-sniff panel in the margin.
       The poems presented weren’t all bad, I’m happy to say. An elderly chap called Chris (I’ve known him for years but we’ve never yet gotten on last-name terms with each other) read, or rather performed, a couple of his poems. Apparently he was discovered years ago by Ra in Canada, rapping his stanzas to an audience of trade unionists. This sounds entirely in character; Chris is a performance poet. His lines, though reasonably well crafted and often good enough to make you sit up and take notice, wouldn’t be particularly remarkable on the page; it’s the presentation that does it. Kudos to him, all the same; his two poems, half-sung, half-recited, earned the loudest applause of the day. He deserved it, too.
       There was some other goodish stuff. Brandi offered us a piece, Byronesque in conception if not in craft, about a young woman being deflowered by a viper. I had to suppress a few involuntary giggles during the torrid bits, and as usual he ruined line after potentially first-rate line with grammatical crappiness, loutish word choice or just plain bad taste, but at least the topic was welcome for being unexpected, if not exactly original. It’s a pity Brandi’s craft and taste aren’t up to the quality of his imagination – but those are curable faults. Only I wish he’d hurry up and cure them. Of course, good taste isn’t exactly the point of Brandi’s stuff. I was disappointed, though, when the snake ended up using his tail to do the dirty deed. Surely any self-respecting reptile ravisher goes in head-first?
       Then there was Indi, everybody’s favourite enfant terrible, who read out a typically thoughtful and well-crafted piece of prose. Sadly, I don’t remember any of it, or even what it was about, which is rather unfair to him. My mind may have been elsewhere at the time, probably on my own poem, which I was preparing to read as soon as he stepped down.
       Before I could do so, however, I found myself barged aside by an earnest young fellow who had read twice already, and would end up reading more than anyone else that day – a series of deep meditations and soulful laments for his own sorry life and hapless condition. I have never met anyone so keen to share his pain with others as this chap was; the gloom was absolutely unremitting. At one point he even had the cheek to read us a poem explaining why all his other poems were so full of misery. His antics were so tedious and exhausting they amounted to an imposition upon us, which is why I feel justified in offering him the following unsolicited criticism: remember the boy who cried wolf, kid. And if you can’t write about anything but your miserable self, quit writing, because you aren’t very interesting.
       About my own offering, it's worth mentioning only that it was one-time affair. It will never be published, nor even read again if I can help it. Not because I think it’s bad – though it didn't go down especially well at the reading – but because in it I poke fun at matters deep and sacred to the heart of a very close, very large and very heavily muscled friend of mine. Out of respect for his feelings, and my skin, I shall say no more.
       Even though I wasn’t feeling very well that Saturday, I must say I enjoyed myself at the STBDPS. It’s good to know there are so many people out there who are serious about writing poetry; and if they don’t all end up becoming real poets, well, them’s the breaks. By their very presence they raise the game for others, and that, too, is a service to the Muse. Besides, 'tis better to have rhymed and wrecked than never to have rhymed at all.

26 August 2010

Technology vs. Freedom

An article in the Calgary Herald reports that the city of Leon in Mexico has just embarked on a project that will use iris-scanning technology manufactured by Global Rainmakers, a US company, to identify citizens and make it possible to collect and store data about their activities. The data will be used by the local authorities for a variety of purposes, including, natch, policing and security. According to the company web site,
the partnership will utilize iris biometrics... as the base of the security for all aspects of day-to-day life for Leon’s 1.2 million citizens. Portoss will integrate iris capability across the city, install miles of fiber optic cable and construct the central iris database with power to enlarge the scale to include private sector corporations for a variety of applications.
The Herald article explains how it's done:
When the... residents of Leon go to the bank, get on a bus or walk into a medical clinic, their eyes will be scanned by machines that can handle up to 50 people per minute in motion, automatically entering the information (about where they've been and what they've done) into a central database monitored by the police.
 This sort of thing instantly evokes thoughts of Big Brother watching us. And of course, Big Brother, or someone with an internet link to him, is watching us already; consider the recent case of the British woman who got caught on a private security camera while stuffing a cat into a dustbin. The fact is, technology now makes it easy for those with an interest in keeping tabs on us to do so, and it's getting easier all the time. It's also getting cheaper, and the combination is going to make routine surveillance and data-gathering on members of the public more widespread.

I don't see how the trend can be halted. It isn't just biometric scanners and security cameras; the technologies of surveillance, data-gathering and data-mining are forging ahead on all fronts, and the infrastructure to support them is growing ever more pervasive. And most of it is happening with our explicit or tacit consent. We willingly give up the information in exchange for the goodies and conveniences we obtain thereby.

In all of this, the Great Enabler is, of course, the internet – to which, we are told, not only our computers and workplaces and mobile phones, but also our cars, homes, TVs, refrigerators, air conditioneers and even our clothes will soon be connected. Over five billion devices are already hooked up to the internet; by 2020, say the pundits, the internet of things will have over 22 billion active nodes, all busily uploading information about their owners.

And that's scary. It's bad enough in rich, sophisticated democraies, where concepts of civil society and civic freedom are embedded into the social fabric and governments (or corporations) have to get public approval before they can go ahead with things like this. But Mexico, where Global Rainmakers is wiring up a city with iris scanners, wasn't, last time I looked, a particularly rich country. If a city in Mexico can afford this kind of technology, a city in China probably can, too; and the Chinese authorities don't have to ask anyone's permission before introducing measures like this. Neither do the governments of places like Singapore, Syria, Myanmar and, of course, dear old Sri Lanka.

Of course, there are questions of capacity and competence that arise, too; the Burmese and the Sri Lankans may be able to instal the technology, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to use it effectively. Cerrtainly, the bungling efforts of the Sri Lankan authorities to 'regulate' mobile phones and the internet are no threat to anyone – not yet, anyway. But this is cold comfort for those of us who have seen at first hand how much damage incompetent but dictatorial governments can do by abusing the resources at their disposal.

10 July 2010

Breeding Stupidity

What is the average Sri Lankan IQ? Two recent global studies of the relationship between IQ and other important national statistics (popular religiosity and national disease burden) both include Sri Lanka among the countries studied. Naturally, both studies give a figure for mean national IQ. I confess I don’t know how far we should trust these figures, but I don’t see any reason for discounting them altogether.

IQ is, I know, a controversial statistic. There is massive disagreement about whether it is a fair measure of intelligence or whether, indeed, it measures anything at all. Its origin in eugenics makes it suspect – and scandalously, black people tend to do worse on IQ tests than whites. Less scandalously (since they didn’t invent the tests), East Asians do better than either. All this is worth remembering, yet there is no other measure of general intelligence that works as well as IQ, and it correlates to other measures of intelligence too. Perhaps intelligence cannot be measured at all; yet IQ tests certainly measure something like intelligence.

With all these caveats in hand, then, what do the statistics tell us? The IQ-vs.-religiosity study uses data from a famous and controversial book, IQ and the Wealth of Nations, and it puts the average Sri Lankan IQ at 81.

This is pretty shocking. However, it’s probably an extension of the figure for India, which is the kind of thing the authors of that book did quite a bit of. The more recent Economist study gives figures of 82 for India and – more shockingly yet – 79 for Sri Lanka. This puts Sri Lanka on par with Nepal as the lowest-IQ countries in the non-black world.

Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me. The Sri Lankan environment actively selects for - that is to say, breeds - stupidity. Here's how.

  • Because life here is nearly unbearable for an intelligent person, and prospects are so poor, the brightest Sri Lankans of every generation emigrate, taking their genes (IQ, like intelligence itself, is strongly heritable) out of the pool. This has been happening without pause since a few years before Independence – a matter of three generations now.
  • The society they leave behind is one that has evolved to nurture and celebrate stupidity, while intelligence and originality are penalized at every turn. Tradition, religion and caste all load the dice against independent thinking and creativity; you can’t even record a new version of the National Anthem without being accused of disrespect to the nation. So intelligent people prosper less than stupid conformists, have fewer children and perpetuate their genes less.
  • Arranged marriage, which works against the natural tendency of intelligent people to marry one another and produce intelligent offspring, is widely practised.

In fairness, it must be said that other South Asian countries are not a great deal better than Sri Lanka when it comes to average national IQ. This does not surprise me: the same driving-away of the most intelligent in every generation, the same coddling of stupidity through religion, caste and ‘the way we do things here’, is as evident in these countries as in Sri Lanka.
India, of course, is changing fast. But will Sri Lanka? From a Ceylonese perspective, the prospect doesn’t look good.

Map source

07 July 2010

Religion: Addictive Drug, Social Poison

Evolutionary Psychology, an online magazine that publishes new research in the field (not always peer-reviewed) features a report on a fascinating study, snappily titled 'The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity on Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions'. If the title doesn't put you off, you may find it makes interesting reading. 'Nationalists' and others who think that what Sri Lankan society needs is a dose of that good old-time religion may be in for a shock, though:
Conservative religious ideology apparently contributes to societal dysfunction... The antagonistic relationship between better socioeconomic conditions and intense popular faith may prevent the existence of nations that combine the two factors.
As a bonus for trend-watchers, the study findings also explain why, as Sri Lankan society disintegrates, publicly-professed concern with 'insults to religion' has become ever more frequent and more ridiculous. Read it and tell me what you think.

02 July 2010

Early Aviation Images

My friend Longoff has put together a wonderfully nostalgic collection of early Ceylonese aviation photographs and trivia on Picasa, which you can look at by clicking on the picture below. They include such gems as a Chance-Vought Corsair fighter-bomber being towed to its hardstanding by an elephant, pictures of old Air Ceylon timetables and in-flight menus and some fantastic images of the RAF base at China Bay, later inherited by the Sri Lanka Air Force, where the rotting carcass of a Fairey Fulmar used to greet Air Ceylon internal flights from Colombo at the end of the runway back in the 1960s.

Early aviation in Sri Lanka

The photo of a gang of indentured native labourers building the runway at Katukurunda aerodrome tells a less agreeable tale of Ceylon, but one that was always an inseparable part of the experience. Lest anyone think Sri Lanka superior to the land of my birth in even this sorry respect, let's not forget that, right now, gangs of Chinese convicts under the supervision of Chinese warders are hard at work in the South, building the government's vanity projects for it. Meanwhile, some surveys of youth unemployment in Sri Lanka put the figure as high as fifty percent. Yes, you read that right.

22 June 2010

Liars' Cricket

A review of Chinaman

W.G. Karunasena, the hero of Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman, used to be my neighbour in Battaramulla about the turn of the century. Our homes stood on a quiet, leafy lane, slightly downhill from the ITN studios and transmitting tower. I understand the location was chosen as the site of Sri Lanka’s first TV station because the hill is the highest in the Colombo district. It’s a long, sweaty climb to the top on foot, so when one day I came upon a skinny, leathery old gent in white making heavy weather of the first (and steepest) part of the ascent and recognized him as my neighbour, I stopped the car and offered him a lift. We’d seen each other before, of course, but hadn’t spoken. He’s garrulous, W.G., more so than you might think from Karunatilaka’s portrait of him. In the book, he mostly just asks questions and lets others do the talking, but in real life he is, like many arrack-fuelled convivialists, an eager, indeed unstoppable, raconteur. That was the first thing I learnt about him. By the end of that two-kilometre drive up ITN Hill, I’d learnt a lot more.

He had done all right for himself in the end, despite the booze and the health problems it had caused him, the enemies he made researching the story of Pradeep Mathew, and the machinations of people like Rakwana Somawardena and Newton Rodrigo. In spite of them, W.G. did manage to get a foot in the door of the then-new and burgeoning world of Sri Lankan cricket television. He did a bit of commentating but was rather better known as a pundit, the sort of person who comes on after the match has ended to help conduct the post-mortem. He told me (this must have been later, on our second or third meeting) that he’d given up drinking, though there’d be mornings when he looked remarkably crapulous for a teetotaller. One of these, I remember, succeeded a night on which big, shiny SUVs had congregated in our lane, half blocking it, and unwonted sounds of revelry could be heard coming from the Karunasena house. The next morning he sought me out to inform me that his dinner-guests the previous night had been Ian Botham and several members of the Sri Lanka cricket team. A fine time had been had by all, he said, but this morning the ‘domestic’ (he’d taken up Sheila’s gentrified usage by then) had given in her notice. A famous all-rounder’s hands had been all round her all evening, and the silly girl had been too ignorant of the gentlemen’s game and its famous exponents to appreciate the compliment being paid her.

Readers of Chinaman will learn from the above that Karunatilaka has taken a number of liberties with the biographical details of his sports-journalist hero. Either that, or I have. At any rate, one of us is lying, and I think you’ll agree, once you’ve read the book, that it’s probably him. Chinaman the novel subsists – make that thrives – upon the wreckage produced by the collision of truth and fiction. It features among its characters a famous English cricketer-turned-commentator named Tony Botham and a Sri Lankan sports minister called Tyronne Cooray who had a stadium in Moratuwa named after him. It takes implausible liberties with the geography of De Saram Road, Mount Lavinia. Its overloaded, rattling, magpie-bedizened pantechnicon of a plot advances unsteadily, forever teetering between seizure and disintegration, on stepping-stones of such far-fetched contrivance as a Geoffrey-Bawa designed retirement colony for traitors and criminals beloved of the Sri Lankan state and Dutch catacombs under the P. Sara Stadium crammed with ancient but still perfectly functioning Second World War surveillance electronics.

The plot concerns W.G.’s efforts to research and write the biography of Pradeep Mathew, a Tamil spin-bowling genius who played for Sri Lanka in numerous test and one-day international matches as well as for Thurstan College, Royal College and Bloomfield C.C. Mathew delivered spectacular performances in obscure games and more than once saved the day for his team and his country, but since the Nineties he has been somehow forgotten, lost to history. Even the few people who still remember him – old coaches, former teammates who never made the record-books, family members and an ex-girlfriend who may not be quite what she seems – don’t want to talk. But W.G. is a fine old newshound despite his dependence on the bottle, and helped by his old friend and neighbour Ari Byrd, he slowly teases out and weaves together the threads of Mathew’s story. It turns out that Mathew – arrogant, prickly, too honest for his own good – is the victim of an effective, secret purge. His name and achievements have been quietly but thoroughly expunged from the score-books and public records, and people of importance or authority who once knew him simply pretend he never existed. As for the man himself, he seems to have disappeared.

A foreign reader, unless she is a conspiracy theorist, may find this aspect of the story hard to swallow; Sri Lankans who understand how powerful a force denial has been and still remains in our history and culture will find the suspension of disbelief easy. How many great Ceylonese have been erased from the records and forgotten? How many historical epochs have been blanked out or subjected to thoroughgoing revision? The iconic elements of contemporary Sri Lankan culture – the lying politician’s pristine raiment, the worldly bikkhu with his business interests and political connections, the bland white van of the abductor – are all symbols of denial: denial of truth, denial of reality. W.G. Karunasena himself is an avowed practitioner of the art, not least when he tries, as Sinhalese often do, to lay the blame for Lanka’s ethnic and social divisions (as well as her other manifold troubles) at the feet of the Europeans who ruled us for so long. No-one really believes this, of course – even the spit-flying ‘nationalist’ fanatic knows in his heart that it is lie – but I suppose it helps us live with ourselves.

Behind the wall of denial that conceals Pradeep Mathew, Karunasena finds many unsavoury things: racism, feuds over women, honey-traps, ball-tampering, theft and counter-theft, evidence of match-fixing at international level, and collusion between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. W.G. is warned off and threatened by mysterious callers. He is taken for more than one white-van ride. It is all very Sri Lankan, masterfully imagined and convincingly presented. For all I know, some of it – maybe even all of it – is true.

But then again, Chinaman is a novel: a work of fiction, although the postmodernist acrobatics that decorate the last hundred pages or so may persuade a few gullible readers otherwise. Fiction, however, is rarely all made up; those of us who write it know that the clay we work with is real enough, the stuff of our own lives and other people’s, though normally so altered in the moulding and firing that the finished artefact bears very little resemblance to the people or events that inspired it. There are exceptions, of course; novels like Tropic of Cancer or Genet’s Notre Dame des Fleurs seem, to this reader at least, to be indistinguishable from autobiography. On the other hand, someone like Neal Stephenson can devise a historically accurate setting peopled by real characters and use it as the backdrop against which to unfold a story that seems fantastic, cut from the whole cloth of imagination. What Karunatilaka has done smacks more of Stephenson than Miller or Genet: his story takes place in the real world and features real characters and events together with fictitious ones, as well as many that are probably best described as half-unreal. Nevertheless – and to repeat myself – Chinaman is a work of fiction and no-one, as Hemingway once wrote, should be so egotistical as to see himself or herself in any of its characters. I think it is important to note this, because an author of fiction in a savage country is exposed to many dangers his colleagues in the civilized world need not fear – unless, of course, they happen to be Salman Rushdie.

There is, however, one aspect of the novel that seems to me to correspond faithfully to real life. It is a metaphorical correspondence, not a literal one, and subtle withal; perhaps only someone who has personally experienced the qualms, second thoughts, boggings-down, crises of confidence and feelings of helplessness that plague a writer who genuinely labours to turn an inchoate mass of half-expressed ideas and half-completed phrases into a work of art will be able to spot it. Indeed, the correspondence of which I speak can only properly be guessed at; but I think I have enough experience of reading from ‘between the shoulder-blades’ – to read, that is, as if one were writing and not reading – to assert with some confidence that it is real. It is this: W.G. Karunasena’s struggles with the bottle precisely mirror Shehan Karunatilaka’s struggles to write his novel. Part One of the novel ends when a television documentary W.G. has written about Mathew is telecast. At this point the real story of Chinaman is only just beginning, and its author, having surmounted the foothills whose conquest has monopolized his energy and attention up to that point, looks up and comprehends in its entirety, probably for the first time, the Himalayan task awaiting him. At this juncture, as if in sympathy with his creator, W.G. has his first serious medical crisis. Afterwards, the arc of his affair with the bottle – his renunciations, backslidings, bouts of illness and catalogues of ever-more-terrifying symptoms – appear side by side with other signs that indicate, to the experienced eye, that Karunatilaka is feeling the weight of his material, that the process of drafting and re-drafting is beginning to confuse and daunt him, and that he fears the multiplication of characters beyond feasibility (we are twice introduced to new ones, only to be told immediately that they will not reappear in the book). Somewhere just past the two-thirds mark, which is the point at which any novel and its author enter the doldrums of creativity, W.G., who’s been concentrating on the Mathew book and letting everything else take care of itself, suffers his worst alcoholic reverse so far. And when Karunatilaka hits the wall, 150 pages or thereabouts from the end, Karunasena ends up in hospital.

Fortunately, both author and book recover. The final portion of Chinaman contains a number of surprises of an apparently postmodernist kind whose true origin, I suspect, lies in the shifts to which the author was driven in order to bring about any kind of ending to the book at all. This is not to denigrate his achievement, for to turn an innings around with only one wicket in hand, in failing light, is (as any cricket fan will tell you) the work of heroes.

Which brings me to the question you’ve been waiting for me to answer from the beginning: is Chinaman any good at all, and if so, how good?

The first person to ask me this was a friend who had been involved in the design and editing of the novel, whom I met at the Barefoot Cafe hours after I’d posted up a Facebook status note saying I’d reached p. 279 of it. I told him it seemed okay so far, but that I was reserving my judgement until the end. This, I explained, was because I had yet to read a novel by a resident Sri Lankan author that that stayed good, or even palatable, to the last drop. Some of them had arguable literary merits – beautiful prose, a charming sense of time or place, real action and suspense (for instance, the hijack scene in David Blacker’s For a Cause Untrue), the odd felicitous turn of phrase or telling auctorial insight – but none of them were worth a damn as a story, one that kept you interested, had a plot which stayed the course and characters anyone but the author could possibly give a damn about. Not one of them, frankly, ever had a proper ending. Chinaman has that, and pretty much everything else it takes, too. The first genuine contender for the title of Great Sri Lankan Novel has entered the lists.

And Sri Lankan it is with a vengeance. Its blend of fact and fiction closely resembles the ‘history’ Sri Lankan children are taught in school. Its subject, cricket, is, of course, our national obsession (and this is a novel that rarely strays from its subject); but in the background, Karunatilaka touches, without ever making it look like a stretch, upon all the crucial Sri Lankan realities: racism, all-pervasive yet blandly denied; class snobbery; endemic corruption, moral failure and cultural decline; suicide-bombings, alcoholism, paedophile sex tourism, the shadow of the colonial past and the failures of the first post-Independence generation. It’s a depressing list, but in spite of it, as we all know, Sri Lanka is a far from depressing country. And Shehan Karunatilaka’s book isn’t depressing at all. It’s a festival, a carnival, a giddy riot on Galle Face Green after Sri Lanka wins the World Cup. Though portions of it are set in Australia and New Zealand, no novel I have ever read captures, embraces and partakes of the essence of Sri Lanka so perfectly. Even its faults – its fragmentary construction, its occasional grammatical and stylistic infelicities, the imperfect editing that has allowed a few nugatory fragments from discarded earlier drafts to infiltrate the final text – are thoroughly Sri Lankan.

Chinaman, my old neighbour W.G. Karunasena reminisces about how he felt ‘watching Wettimuny at Lord’s in 1984, the first time I realised that a Sri Lankan could be as good as anyone else.’ I don’t give an all-girl softball team captain’s toss for cricket, but I know a bit about writing, and Shehan Karunatilaka and Chinaman have made me feel exactly the same.

Call Someplace Paradise, Kiss it Goodbye

Once upon a time, there was a country called Ceylon. It was a quiet, rather sleepy place that did not covet greatness: a former British colony, a little backward in some ways, perhaps, but civilized and decent. Its climate was felicitous, its scenery of legendary beauty, its people known for their simplicity and friendliness to strangers.

The cultures and customs of Ceylon were fascinatingly polymorphous and its faiths multifarious, ecumencial and syncretistic, for many different races called the country home. Walking through the streets and bazaars of its capital, you might hear a half-dozen different languages spoken in the space of ten minutes, and see twice as many different styles of costume on the backs of passers-by. This multiplicity of races and faiths did not always live in amity, but life was largely peaceful for all that. Garden walls were low, gates were left open and front doors ajar. The children of all races played together in the streets.

Ceylon ceased to exist in 1972. It was superseded by a new country, Sri Lanka. Unlike Ceylon, Sri Lanka has not been mostly peaceful: it has been at war against sections of its own populace for nearly all its history. That history is a sorry account of expropriation, ethnic oppression and cleansing-by-stealth, war, revolt and separatism; its successive governments have been noted mainly for their violence, corruption, incompetence and malfeasance, their gradual erosion of the rights and opportunities of those whose lives were in their trust, and their reluctance to leave office when their time was up.

Like every other Ceylonese, I became a citizen of Sri Lanka on 22 May 1972. I am, I believe, a reasonably good citizen. I pay my taxes, obey the laws and do my civic duty as I see it. I am no revolutionary, neither do I think it possible to resurrect the past.

Yet I am not - and will never be - Sri Lankan in my heart. I am a Ceylonese for ever. The tourist brochures call Sri Lanka Paradise, but the real paradise was always Ceylon. The fate of my motherland bears out the the lesson the singer sang, long before he sang it:

Call someplace Paradise, kiss it goodbye.