Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wedding Gifts and Other Presents by Asitha Ameresekere

It’s funny that apparently short stories in the West do not do well. Publishers evidently are loathe to publish a first time author’s collection of short stories and prefer to launch him with a novel and then publish the short story collection. And yet, when I think of Jumpha Lahiri and Rohinton Mistry, they burst onto the literary scene with short story collections. And then followed up with novels. So, I don’t know, perhaps my impression is wrong.
Maybe, Asitha Ameresekere would not have got an audience in a western publishing house but here in Sri Lanka the short story rules. Lucky for us, for that allowed Ameresekere to get published here. If you are looking for short stories written in a typically Sri Lankan style, then this is not the book for you. Born and brought up in England, the only thing Sri Lankan about Ameresekere is his name and ok perhaps the way he looks. (At the Galle Literary Festival, he was compared to Abishek Bachaan! – a bit of a stretch to the imagination, I think.) Anyway, here is a book written with understated humour, wit, impeccable style and language.
This slim collection has twelve stories that zip up and down a strange universe. The first story deals with Sri Lanka and ever after that the country or its citizens are never again mentioned. I sometime wonder if Ameresekere threw in the token Lankan story to appeal to those here for you can see his heart lies elsewhere. It must be admitted that the story set in Sri Lanka is the most awkward and despite its setting is also not typical of Sri Lankan short stories. But never mind, it was entertaining if implausible.
My all time favourite story is the Shame of the Pig, a strange love story if any, but so beautifully written and so imaginatively told, that I feel Ameresekere shines here as a short story writer. The elements are all there: the language, the plot, the craft, the depiction.
Some stories are immensely short, and others are perhaps unnecessarily long. I had the impression of reading through twelve short short films and so I was not surprised to learn that Ameresekere is primarily a film maker. It shows in his stories. You can see the story rather than be simply reading it.
In reading this collection, I kept on wondering how many Sri Lankans would find it appealing. Then, I had to remind myself that I am a Sri Lankan and I find it appealing, and I can’t be that unique, so perhaps there are others out there who liked the book. I would be interested in getting feedback on this point.
I will admit that I think his stories to a Sri Lankan reader may be slightly odd. They may not be easily understood but that is not a bad thing. Literature can be many things at once.
I wonder if Ameresekere will be a popular read in Sri Lanka. If I can predict something, I will say no. He is too international, not slapstick funny, too sophisticated for the general local reading public.
After reading Ameresekere’s collection, I began to wonder why the short story was so popular in Sri Lanka. Most Lankan writers find it easier to start with writing short stories. A quick research on the web, gives me that: A short story is like prose fiction but more intense and compact than a novel or a novella. In the twentieth century for the first time, the short story didn’t have to revolve around a plot and very often readers claimed that nothing ever happens in the short story. Ameresekere’s stories are written so beautifully that it takes you a while to realize there is not much of a plot. It is more a feel of time and place.
In ending I have to mention my weakness for covers – and this cover is simply beautiful!