Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shrapnel by Neil Fernandopulle

I picked this collection of short stories because it had won the Gratiaen prize. That fact was announced on the cover. But the cover itself was certainly not appealing. The appearance of the book, cover, look etc was rather dull and boring and I would not have gone out of my way to pick it up if not for the mention of the prize. What can I say? I am shallow. Nice covers and nice print jobs appeal to me. Anyway, this book was published nine years ago and a lot has changed in the printing world since then, so I suppose I should not judge this book by its cover.
I should have gathered from the title that the stories inside would be all about the war. The back cover has a nice blurb: Shrapnel is not about war. It is not about peace. It is not about love or loss. It is not about discovery and disillusionment. It is not about passion and remorse. It is not about the trees and the sky and the here and the tomorrow. It is about all these…
But once I started the stories, I realized it was about the war and the futility of peace. It is all about loss and inadequate love. It has too much disillusionment and not enough discover. It dwells on remorse and fleets through passion. There is nothing about the trees and sky, and an excess about the here and dismal tomorrows.
If you think by now that I didn’t like the book. That is not true. The stories are well written and well told. Perhaps it’s the beating over the head of the theme that tired me out and made it an effort to read.
Neil starts strong. The first story of the collection is strong and short on what else but the ethnic conflict. Highlighting the opportunistic practices of the state, he leaves the reader with a sense of loss and pathos, in describing what happens to a dead child terrorist. It has an interesting take to it and a unique style.
But after that story after story I felt it was much of a muchness. He came again into his own with the last few stories. The best story for me was: Seed dispersal patterns of the Dipterocarps of Sri Lanka. Written with a light hand, clever, witty, funny, and yet conveys so much so lightly Neil shows the talent that he has for writing that is hidden in his previous stories. Then Delirium about a grandmother who perversely refuses treatment for cancer as that is the only thing she feels she can control is also a good story. Dear Vichy about food for sex in a refugee camp is another gem.
But over and over I couldn’t help that I was reading a Sinhala film masquerading as a collection of short stories - Slow, sometimes listless, heavy and descriptive.
I know we live in a time of war, I know that it is hopeless but there is no need to be heavy handed about the theme. Death seems to pervade the book. Death in all its forms. It could be that the book is reflective of our times. Happiness is scarce, joy absent, what remains, is drudgery, no escape, doom to be captive to our karmic destiny.
Thus, the stories have a sameness which could be a good thing and a bad thing. It holds the collection together, true to its title and yet the same time the reader feels brutalized at the end. At the end of the reading, the reader has been battered with stories that have causes, they have morals and they have lessons that we the reader need to learn. And the worst thing is that we have to learn it without humour, without lightness, and without love.