20 September 2015

Kiss It Goodbye

Many Roads through Paradise: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature

Collected and edited by Shyam Selvadurai

Three languages are spoken in contemporary Sri Lanka, and as far as I know this is the first serious attempt ever made to present an anthology of modern writing in all of them. Since few people can read with equal facility in English, Sinhala and Tamil, the anthologist has fixed on one language for his book and presented his chosen examples from the other two in translation. The language he has chosen is English, which is the most sensible choice as it is the anthologist’s own. Not that he is unfamiliar with the other two, since his father is Tamil and his mother Sinhalese; but they, like him, are members of the tiny post-colonial elite that dominated social, political and cultural life in my country until a generation or so ago, and whose preferred language is English.
       It is a pity that a choice had to be made, though, because when you present works in translation side by side with works in their original tongue, the former are likely to suffer by comparison. In this collection, there is a perceptible difference in quality and effect between the best of the selected English works and the best (as I judge them) of those translated from the other two languages.
       This is not due merely to shortcomings in translation. In much of the Sinhala and Tamil prose collected here, the authors’ earnest efforts to internalize and successfully deploy the modes of a foreign, relatively unfamiliar art form are at times all too apparent. To put it bluntly, these stories and poems appear to be the work of apprentice writers who have not quite mastered their craft.

Lost in translation?
The struggle is exemplified in the selected excerpt from Uprooted, Lakshmi de Silva’s translation of Martin Wickramasinghe’s seminal Sinhala novel, Gamperaliya. Wickramasinghe’s novel deals with the difficulties faced by Sinhalese villagers – more correctly, members of the rural Sinhalese bourgeoisie – whose relationships to their roots, and hence to one another, are being altered by modernity and citification. It’s meant to be compelling psychosocial drama, but I’m sorry to say it plods. The ‘action’ consists mainly of a series of conversations between people who can’t really express themselves to one another due to social taboos and their own confusion. Their oblique, laconic exchanges are filled with things unsaid – which, outside the quotation marks, the author tells us about in far too much detail.
       This, according to most Western notions, is bad writing: showing too little, telling too much. It miniaturizes the work, turning it into a puppet-theatre overshadowed by the looming shape of the string-pulling author. I suppose the model here was Dostoevsky, and particularly The Brothers Karamazov, but the result reads more like some Soviet propaganda-novel in which Revolutionary ideals and Party policies are turned into simplistic, allegorical tales suitable for semiliterate readers.
       If that comparison seems rude to you, consider this one: Gamperaliya, in this translation at least, reminded me of one of those doleful old Sinhala movies in which the characters spend most of the time staring glumly into space, their silence broken by an occasional despairing expostulation, while ominous music plays in the background, slightly out of tune. Gamperaliya antedates those movies and was widely imitated, so it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they are examples of its influence.
       Admittedly it is unfair to apply, to a novel like Gamperaliya, the same criteria one would use to judge a literary novel published in Japanese, French, Russian or English. These are languages in which novels have been written for centuries. Wickramasinghe was the first really successful Sinhala novelist, the first to produce a solid body of work and the first, perhaps, whose works aspired to the condition of literature. But to compare him with Dostoevsky as I have just done is unkind; and to judge him in relation to some of his literary contemporaries, such as Joyce or Nabokov, would be downright cruel. This pioneer of the Sinhala novel was still working through the basic techniques of fiction-writing at the time Gamperaliya was published. He had no local models to help him; as Mr Selvadurai would say, he was finding his own road through Paradise. No shame in that.

Going through Hell
There are a total of sixty items in this anthology and I certainly do not propose to review them all. In critical terms, what applies to Gamperaliya, the most distinguished work appearing here, applies to all the other translations from Sinhala and Tamil. Each has its aesthetic merits and shortcomings, but these are nearly always overshadowed by problems of a technical kind, translation itself being only the most common. It is hard to judge them as art because of this.
        Still, ‘Among the Hills’, A.M.S Ramiah’s insightful short story about a tea plantation worker, comes through as distressingly authentic – a glimpse into a world of people so humble and hopeless that even self-respect is a luxury beyond their means. Depressing authenticity is also the hallmark of Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s ‘The Hour When the Moon Weeps’, a story in which all the violence and viciousness of the 1980s seems to be distilled. But the narrative is confused and fragmented, the effect dissipates and all is lost.
       The poetry is better, I suppose; it’s hard to tell, because poetry suffers translation even less willingly than prose. You can judge the imagery, perhaps. There are some striking images to be found here, but as I found it impossible to respond to these works as poetry, I will say nothing about them except that I liked one, The Water Buffalo by Siri Gunasinghe, for its brutal interrogation-room humour.
       Whether poetry or prose, most of the Sinhala and Tamil works in this anthology deal with horrible things: war, violence, rape, torture and murder. Since most of them were written during a period when the country seemed bent on tearing itself to bits – that is to say, between 1956 and 2009 – this comes as no surprise. People write what they know, and what the people of Sri Lanka have mostly known for half a century are political, ethnic and religious violence, youth revolt, civil war, terrorism by the State and its opponents, and a parade of corrupt, inept rulers. It’s all here. By the time one has turned the last page on the twelfth or so account of abduction, rape, torture or death, one has had more than enough. Yet the hits – so to speak – just keep on coming. The people in these stories and poems aren’t finding ‘many roads through Paradise’; they’re going through Hell.

War, sex and cricket
What a relief, then, to find that the English selections are far more varied in subject-matter and tone, as well as somewhat higher in average quality. Of course, there’s still plenty of war-violence and war-woe around: Ayathurai Santhan describes the plight of Tamil refugees tossed back and forth like shuttlecocks between the LTTE and the Indian Peacekeeping Force, Amina Hussein’s ‘Guava Green and Mango Ripe’ captures a Colombo social worker’s numbed incomprehension as she travels through the blasted landscape of a former war zone, and even that gentlest of writers, Romesh Gunesekera, manages to come up with a story in which civil conflict and violence, from a distance, ruin a painstakingly-built refuge and spoil a friendship. Allusive and elegiacally written in the author’s characteristic style, the subtlety of ‘A House in the Country’ is somewhat lost amid the cries of agony and wails of grief rising from its companion pieces. That, sadly, seems to be the fate to which the self-effacing Mr Gunesekera is ever destined.
       Still, it’s not all gloom and doom. The joyous excerpt from Carl Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree is far and away the best thing in this anthology. Here, for once, is an author in full control of his craft – Mr Muller’s prose is highly spiced but beautifully judged, and the polymorphous sex-obsession of his characters is truer to life than most of his readers will admit.
       I wish I could say that the extract from Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman gave me as much pleasure, but I’m afraid it didn’t. I regard Chinaman – a story about cricket and about Sri Lanka – as the first or perhaps the second English novel of real literary merit ever to have been written by a Sri Lankan who actually lives here, but the chosen excerpt is more or a less a prologue and doesn’t give the full flavour of the book. Which I encourage you to buy and read.
       Speaking of residence and non-residence, Mr Selvadurai has chosen to include a few authors, like Michael Ondaatje and Michelle de Kretser, who don’t live here and have never had novels published in Sri Lanka. Mr Ondaatje is, of course, world-famous. The piece by him here, an episode from The Cat’s Table, is sui generisMs de Kretser is represented by a chapter or so from her novel The Hamilton Case, which is just what you might expect – a neat, well-researched assemblage of conventional tropes. What was it about? I forget. Why are these people even in this book? They’re not Sri Lankan writers, they’re established international authors with Sri Lankan connexions, who made their reputations abroad before they were ever heard of by the reading public here.
       Far better than either of these efforts was ‘The Rag’ by Nihal de Silva. This ‘toxic portrait of class rage turned outward and inward’, as Mr Selvadurai introduces it, describes the ordeal that Sri Lankan university freshmen are subjected to by senior students during their induction period. It is no good-humoured rag they endure but a Cultural Revolution-style brainwashing in which both physical and psychological violence are employed to break the freshers’ confidence and resistance before re-educating them in the narrative of race and class oppression that informs the darker side of Sinhalese nationalism. De Silva’s story is true to life, compelling and at times revolting. It is also very well told, and it got under my skin.
       Two other prose works, both short stories, are worth a mention: ‘No State, No Dog’ by C. Velupillai describes the repatriation of a Tamil plantation worker to India (and the sad fate of his dog), while ‘The Mission’ by S.D.V. Perera is a story of Christian duty done amid the violence of war that encourages us believe that even when we are at our worst, our humanity need not desert us.
       Moving on to the English poetry in the anthology, we find the violence and woe once more in ample supply: trauma is trilingual. Ashley Halpe and Yasmine Gooneratne give it to us in high intellectual style, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten rubs it in while feigning dispassion and Kamala Wijeratne should have read a few (hundred) more poems before setting herself to write one. But there are also works by Jean Arasanayagam and Regi Siriwardene that say insightful, clever things about our colonial inheritance, and one poem of genuinely remarkable quality, At What Dark Point by Anne Ranasinghe. Ms Ranasinghe is an established poetess, and only Sri Lankan by marriage; she brings her own darkness, the long shadow of the Holocaust, along with her.

What’s missing?
Anyone who reads Sri Lankan literature will have their own candidates for an anthology of this kind, so make up your own list. 
       I haven’t really thought about my own. I suppose I would have liked to see a bit of Mr Selvadurai’s own work in the book, but I applaud his modesty in not putting any in. The one really grievous lacuna is the hijack scene from David Blacker’s action novel A Cause Untrue. That should definitely have been in. Mr Blacker may not pretend to high art, but the way he builds and paces the tension in this scene could teach many more self-consciously literary writers a thing or two about technique.

A confession before I close. Although this is by some distance the longest book review I have ever written, I did not actually read the whole of Many Roads through Paradise. There were several pieces I could not finish because they were so depressing or unpleasant I could not bear to go on. A few I cast aside because they weren’t worth my while. To Shyam Selvadurai’s credit, there were relatively few of the latter: out of the thin unpromising gruel of modern Sri Lankan writing, he has managed to pick out the choicer morsels. They are not on the whole very tasty but that is not his fault, unless you think he should have chosen another country to anthologize.
       The same goes, I suppose, for the violence and woe. An anthologist must work with what is available. The sad truth is that, despite its balmy climate, heart-lifting beauty and cultural diversity, modern Sri Lanka is anything but a paradise. Things have got better since the war ended and the man who won it and then lost himself the peace was voted out of office, but for two whole generations this was, to be frank, a bloody miserable country to be a native of, and dangerous to boot. 
       Such seems to be the fate of so many of the world’s loveliest places. The history and literature of modern Sri Lanka amply bear out that old, cynical lyric from 'The Last Resort’: call someplace Paradise, kiss it goodbye.