The Tribal Hangover.
Aptly timed to coincide with the triennial ACLALS (Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies) conference held in Colombo in August 1995, Penguin India released three books: James Goonewardene's sixth novel, The Tribal Hangover; Yasmine Gooneratne's second novel, The Pleasures of Conquest; and Jean Arasanayagam's first book of fiction, the short-story collection All Is Burning. At the same time, McCallum Books of Colombo published Servants, the new novel by one of Sri Lanka's younger authors, Rajiva Wijesinha. It may be interesting to note that most of the abovementioned authors (barring Muller, Goonewardene, and Selvadurai) are poets (or poetry editors) with published collections of verse to their credit but now really making their fuller presence felt with works of fiction.
Goonewardene's new novel confirms his reputation as one who writes out of the soil, one who is firmly rooted in the indigenous social milieu. The narrative in The Tribal Hangover revolves around the Sri Lankan-born Harindra d'Richter, who is adopted by a German couple. The basic story charts Harindra's growing up in Sydney and the racial implications that surround his life and his world. Later we see the psychological trauma which traps him "when his foster father turns physically abusive." The story is compelling, told with a pungency that arises out of personal experience and richness of imagination. It tackles modern-day problems such as fragmentation, displacement, and rootlessness with clarity and insight.
Yasmine Gooneratne was already known in the world of Commonwealth literature as a scholar, editor, and poet before she published her prizewinning first novel, A Change of Skies, in 1991. Her new novel, The Pleasures of Conquest, is an absolute delight, a book that deftly weaves various styles and modes of the modern-day novel. On one level it is pure fantasy that throws the reader into the tropical world of the imperial past. On another level, however, it is a sharp commentary on present-day colonizers and their life-styles, the players insidiously masked in an overt scenario of academia, erudition, and hi-tech glamour, a mis-en-scene that is equally adulterous as those of their predecessors. It is a multitiered novel with the past and present ingeniously interlaced, written in an effortless prose style that is at once bitingly astute and enormously funny.
Another poet, Jean Arasanayagam, makes her prose debut with a substantial book of stories, All Is Burning. It is a collection which deals with many of the familiar issues and subjects of her poems, including social unrest, politics, postcoloniality, and the identity and definition of womanhood. Arasanayagam's stories have a docudrama quality about them, wherein fictional imagination, reflected reportage, and personal experience and observation all contribute to display the truths and untruths of the Sri Lankan world. Among the nineteen stories that constitute the volume, some of my favorites are "I Am an Innocent Man," "Fire in the Village," "Prayers to Kali," "A Husband Like Shiva," and "I Will Lift up Mine Eyes." The selections, especially in the last third of the book, employ a peculiar format of using subheads and subtitles within each story, a mode that does not necessarily add anything significant to the tales themselves. As a collection, All Is Burning is a moving first book of short fiction, one that uses elements of poetry, realism, paranoia, and reflection with powerful effect.
Rajiva Wijesinha has already published and edited several books: works of fiction such as Acts of Faith, Days of Despair, and The Lady Hippopotamus; books on politics; guides on teaching English. As an editor, he has brought out the collected poems of Richard de Zoysa, an anthology of Sri Lankan short stories, and, most significantly, the invaluable anthology Contemporary Sri Lankan Poetry in English. Wijesinha's new book, Servants, is a relatively short novel, organized as ten stories forming a cycle. It evocatively leads the reader through the protagonist's childhood reflections, the crumbling world of colonial life, memory, the fast-shifting needs and morals of a strife-ridden society, and ultimately, I suspect, the pleasures of autobiography. The work is a montage, capturing at certain moments, in beautiful slow motion, the process of time, time that changes magically from black-and-white to sepia, to the harshness of virtual color, then to eventual reality.
Sudeep Sen London