Friday, October 29, 2010

Learning to Fly by Shehani Gomes

Some people think I am wierd, for example I will never not buy a book because someone else didn't like it. I have to read it for myself. My friend told me that her mother had bought this book and not liked it but that she had. Previously a reader had left a comment that they loathed this author. So when I saw this on sale at the book fair, I had to buy it, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. (I told you I bought a lot of loot at the book fair). The cover is just gorgeous and straightaway I knew that it was a sad story. You can kinda tell with the lonely table, the rainy day, the grey sea. And yes I was right, it is a sad story but told in such a way that it doesnt force itself down your throat in a sad way, but just says it the way it is.

Shehani Gomes writes for young people. And actually if I think about it, there are hardly any books that cater to the late teens early twenties crowd. The warped love story actually reminded me of a stupid obsession I had when I was fifteen with a guy who didn't even know I existed. Sigh! But luckily I came to my senses and realised that he wasn't worth it. Anyway back to Learning to Fly. The story can get kind of complicated. You have Kala, she has a best friend Sumi who dies in a car accident. Kala never really gets over Sumi's death and throughout the book you have her remembering incidents of both of them together. Kala has a blind sister and two working parents. The blind sister falls in love with the flute teacher who while he does have feelings for her marries another girl chosen for him by his parents. After all who wants a blind girl for a daughter in law, however pretty she may be? Then you have Dylan. Oh my lord! Dylan is a complicated bag of goods. He lost his father when he was young, his mother married again and there are traces of the wicked step father routine here. Dylan fantasises about building a tree house with his real dad. Dylan and Kala love each other but pretend that they are friends. Kala finishes school, grows up, gets a job, has an affair with her boss, is sacked, attempts suicide, mother dies, she recovers, meets someone else, marries him and has a baby. Dylan while interested in Kala, has an affair with Nadia who is another bag of complications (alcoholic, rich, indifferent parents, commits suicide). If I put you off the book with all that , I am sorry, because it is really a fabulous book. Shehani Gomes writes about serious things in a very unserious way that totally would appeal to the younger generation. I mean isn't this what we have all gone through - sometimes thinking life isnt worth living, doing anything to get your parents attention, having money (Ok not all of us have it but still) and your life still feeling empty. But I can also totally understand older people just not getting it. This book is too wierd for them, give them a soppy village love story any day and that they will lap up, but a book with real stories and real situations - Nah! that is just too real for them I suppose. Anyway, I loved the book, its definitely a keeper not to be given away to anyone. I will admit sometimes it a bit confusing and you go - what the heck just happened there - but give it a chance, and let me know if you liked it as much as I did. Judging from previous comments and reactions I have had with others, I am expecting the comments to just fly in.

Mythil's Secret by Prashani Rambukwella

When I was young I read the usual things starting with Enid Blyton, then Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket etc etc. Basically I didnt read any Sri Lankan authors as a child. Heck! I didn't even read Indian authors. So when I picked up Mythil's Secret at the book fair for my neice, I intended to do a quick read and then give it to her, and guess what? I am getting another one for her, this one is mine. OK, so I loved the book and yes its a children's book but it is intelligent, it respects the child and therefore it is a cute read for adults as well. Mythil's Secret is about yakas and a little boy who realises he has the gift of seeing them. Prashani Rambukwella didn't write a sweet idyllic all is well with the world story for children, what she did was to create a world that balances real life (fighting parents and worries about money) with the fantasy world of the yakas. OK, so there are good yakas and bad yakas, there are strong yakas and weak yakas, there is a bahirawaya who is cool to die! There are yakas who impersonate humans and then there is Mythil. The unlikely hero, who is an only child who worries obsessively about his parents fighting and is aware of their money problems. Such a welcome relief from the spoilt brats you generally see around (take a look at my neice's classmates!) One holiday when Mythil is dumped at his Aachie's who lives in a village near a little forest, he realises that he can see into another world. Thus begins the adventure. Soon Mythil is seeing everyone as a yaka. The beauty of this story, though perhaps its only adults who may realise it, is that it could be that Mythil because of his family problems is retreating into a fantasy world. Even his parents think so and thus enters a child psychologist to counsel Mythil. But Mythil is suspicious of her, she could be a yaka, her friends could be yakas, who can he trust. The nice thing about this book is that it is a book that any child can relate to. Ok, so I am not the horrible aunt you think I am, I did give my neice her book and asked her what she thought. Her verbal skills are not that advanced as her aunt's obviously because she said it was "Cool!" For me 'cool' is good. It means that she didnt wrinkle her nose and go: "What a lame book, how goday." Then she tells me that some of her other friends from other schools (not her posh school mind you) are doing Mythil's secret as a school text. Hurrah! If only we had such interesting school texts I might have paid attention. Right now, I cannot remember a single school text that I did. Just goes to show. Anyway, Mythil's Secret in my books is a winner - and of course how could I forget, it did win the Gratiaen early this year. So even other people thought so.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Arathi by Nihal de Silva

Nihal de Silva writes his best book and then dies before finishing it. Readers will know that I am not a Nihal de Silva fan. I couldn't understand for the life of me why people were raving about The Road from Elephant Pass ( for me it was a romantic drivel that was too politically correct, completely unrealistic, badly written and an excuse for a little ornithological walk in the park). Ginirella while having a good premise was so badly written that I couldn't finish it. And then comes Arathi. What a book! The narrative shifts between the reality of a young hip advertising executive who purchases a used computer and discovers secret files within files. He manages to crack the code and read the content of the files. The book is presented with alternating chapters of the present and the past (which reveal the diary of a man involved in the gun running trade). They come to a head when the LTTE and crooked officers in the armed forces are both on the hunt for the computer, some stolen money stashed away, a young girl (Arathi) who may hold the key, and the young executive who finds himself in a situation way over his head. All the ingredients for a stunning thriller.

The prose is brutal - terse, tense, holding back no punches, Nihal has successfully infiltrated the mind of a young man who enters an unfamiliar world. Reading it in one go, from start to finish over a weekend the futileness of his death is rammed home continuously. You cannot escape it. Having appeared to have done his homework Nihal recreates a very realistic scenario set during the CFA. With not one reference to wild life he takes us on a fast paced urban journey of the hunter and the hunted. If there were any slip-ups it was that he used the outdated name for Dharmapala Mawatha (I had to ask someone where this Turret Road was?) which was the only indication to me (if I was not aware of his background) that he was someone of an older generation. His hero also used the term 'darling' a bit too liberally with almost everyone. Glossing over the actual part where hero and heroine fall in love (it seems to happen almost instantaneously and without choice) he does a fairly realistic portrayal of a young man in love. The darn book finishes at a crucial point. Vijitha Yapa has issued a challenge for someone to finish the story but to my mind I just cannot think of how it could possibly end. Possibly the only person who could do it would be David Blacker (author of A Cause Untrue). I do hope he takes up the challenge. As you know I am a sucker for covers and this one just does not do the book justice. It is washed out and boring. The way the book is designed is also confusing as there are hardly any breaks to indicate time jumps and situation changes. But those lapses are forgiven because the story line is so good. It was tiresome to give bad book reviews one after the other, so I am so glad that this Book fair purchase was utterly and totally worth it!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Unplugged Quarter by Vihanga Perera

Oh it is the beginning of the Book Fair and I have already got away with stacks and stacks of books. I will certainly go back again middle of the week to stock up even more. This year it was kind of messy with stalls not in their usual places and me getting annoyed with having to deal with the rain and the mud and the crowds who seem to come for other reasons other than books. The long walk from the parking lot was enough to deter even the most die hard book lover but it is an event that I just do not miss. Call me a total boring bookworm but I honestly get goose bumps from being in a place that has all these books. Book fair - Rock on!

In one of the comments to a previous blog entry (The Prince), someone recommended Vihanga Perera's Unplugged Quarter. As I had reviewed a previous book of his ( Stable Horses, in May 2009) I thought it might be interesting to review his newest book. In a previous review I read of this book by someone whose name I cannot quite remember (a foreign girl I think) the reviewer compared Vihanga Perera to Aristophanes. Yep, she did! And I was quite surprised. Aristophanes after all is a very big deal. After reading this book, I think she got it wrong. Vihanga is no Aristophanes, instead he is closer perhaps to James Joyce in his word play and combinations.

Unplugged Quarter is certainly a more mature book than Stable Horses. If I remember right, I just didn't like Stable Horses. This book is different. There is a story line of some sort. The writing except for some instances is mostly smooth. It stays amusing.

Very quickly, the story concerns the Head of the Department (written throughout the book like that which after being funny became annoying) Vahanya Bertolt (!!!! her parents must have hated her) referred to as Bertolt Breast by the uni students and her live in uncle Bheem. They both live in a collapsing house. It would not be a Vihanga Perera book if there was no reference to the university system and university students. So they duly appear. Peradeniya university and English Honours students: Sri, Manishka, Poornaka, Nipunika, Kesha Godapola and a student constantly referred to as Sucked Cock - Nishadi Denagama; then there is a failed guitarist Nayana who is related to the Head of the Department and who is in hiding from some sordid escapade with a young girl in Negombo. I believe those are the main characters. A series of sub characters enter and exit throughout the book. There is a chapter entitled Aeschylus or Euripides where two university professors go head to head in a poetic encounter. Does this actually happen in the University of Peradeniya? If it does kudos to them, because it told me of the existence of a vibrant artistic culture that I did not know existed. Perhaps the English lit graduates of our university system have quite a different experience from those in other departments.Earlier in the book there is a discussion of Nihal de Silva's The Road from Elephant Pass by the students. I for one will agree with them in their interpretation. I seem to be the exception to the rule and really didn't like the way the book was written and couldn't believe that people fell hook line and sinker for the pc drivel! But that is another review.

Anyway back to the book - I actually didn't have a big problem with this book. True the writing is uneven. True, Vihanga Perera has flashes of brilliance, and wittiness and true talent but it peters out all too fast. There are nice references to ideas, music, situations and wicked and sarcastic asides. Vihanga's strength is that he conveys student life so accurately. Unlike Chucking the Dragon, the very names, the very language, the very attitude smack of authenticity and doesn't seem to be written just for the sake of a good read. Don't get me wrong, I loved the Dragon, but it didn't feel quite authentic.

All this leads me to believe that eventually Vihanga Perera will produce the great Sri Lankan novel - well I certainly won't be surprised if he does so, but does he have to inflict his journey towards it on us. I have decided that I must be a masochist as I keep on reading his work. Therefore, perhaps it would be wise for me not to review Vihanga Perera's future work until I read the great Sri Lankan novel that he shows promise of writing.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tea and Me by Chanima Wijebandara

As reviews of poetry books have been requested, off I trotted over to my neighbourhood bookshop to see the pickings. Tea and me by Chanima Wijebandara caught my eye. Firstly I love the yellow bookcover and secondly because the book was slim, I thought I could read it quickly and review it before the week is up. Divided into three parts - we begin with a poem that cries out at the injustice of society when one is a woman. While there were some awkward parts, you cannot deny the poem was written straight from the heart and that is what makes it appealing. There is undeniably a strong feminist streak that runs through most of the poems. While some poems are mawkish in their depiction of love, there are others that are strong and vibrant. For example a favourite poem is

The New "pound of Flesh"

The sophisticated modern man
who saved me
from the stereotypical tragedy,
took my heart,
took my hand
and soared to unknown heights,
and glorified the
unconventional woman in me,
after six years and a half
now wants
three children
three meals
and six cups of tea a day
from me
to continue!

Is there a new Vivimarie in the making? Other poems are Cocktail - an amusing description of the hollow and brief encounters at what else but a cocktail party; File Delayed - makes one think on what is important in life and that have been missed amidst the pressures of work; Marriage - is a startlingly good poem that reveals the facade of a violent marriage. One of the things I loved about Vivimarie's poetry is how she took everyday events and highlighted the mundane or particular social issues in a few lines. Chanima seems to closely follow in Vivimarie's footsteps. She has passion and there is outrage. Two things that can fuel the writing of good poetry. However, I feel that she needs to mature in her writing. Undoubtedly, Chanima Wijebandara has talent. She has important things to say about life and love and social issues. Tea and me for a first attempt at writing poetry is commendable but it has room for improvement. Like the title, I will await Chanima's second publication and hope that she has let it steep and brew awhile before it goes to press.
On another note, the Colombo Book Fair starts in a few days time. Oh Goody! You can bet that I will be there stocking up on books to do more reviews on. See ya there!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Stitch Your Eyelids Shut by Vivimarie VanderPoorten

Like I have said before, I am not a poetry person, but since I picked up her first book Nothing Prepares You, I have been a huge fan of Vivimarie VanderPoorten and was looking forward to her second book of poetry. Stitch your eyelids shut, the title taken from Pablo Neruda's poem Ode to Sadness gives us many poems that deal with disturbing themes, sadness, lost loves, conflict and emotions among other themes.

Perhaps there may be those readers who will feel inundated by this weight of sorrow. But Vivimarie continues to be one of Sri Lanka's foremost contemporary poets, detailing every day life with such accuracy that one is surprised to read of an ordinary emotion told in an extraordinary way.

There are many poems that deal with love, most of them lost. A particularly poignant love poem is Aftertaste:


wet on my lips

we are divided by

the blue wide sheets

of the crumpled ocean

and I have stopped waiting

on this side

of the beach's over bright bedroom

yet still I want

to write for you

even though I have kissed another man since

and filled

the empty

The poems I like best in this collection have to do with family. Grandmother Died, My Sister's fish, Letter to my sister, December 1995. Some poems are different and interesting like Quiz and Random Questions, though I have the feeling Random Questions is a nod of appreciation to Malinda Seniviratne's Gratiaen shortlisted manuscript of poems that had a whole host of question poems.

Having won the Gratiaen for her first book of poems leads me to the question is this book as good if not better than her first. Unfortunately, the answer for me is a no (and this is an entirely subjective opinion). Her first book was sassy and sharp. I found some of the poems in this collection tedious, others were laboured but let me hasten to add that most of the poems were good - in fact they were more than good, and that is what makes this collection worth having.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Hour when the moon weeps by Liyanage Amarakeerthi, translated by Kumari Goonesekere

When you read a translation, and you don't like the book, you never know if its bad due to the translation or if the book is simply bad. My book crazy aunt had spoken so highly of Liyanage Amarakeerthi that I was quite excited when I got my hands on The Hour when the moon weeps. But the book did not live up to my expectations and I am not sure why. It is my gut feeling that the translator has not done the book justice and when I see that it won the HAI Goonetilleke Prize for best translation, I am doubly dissapointed. There are six short stories, it is a fairly slim book. Perhaps the trouble is with me, for when reading I was either bored or I just could not understand the stories. For example, a story titled Black Pokuta and Red Pokuta totally confused me. The story jumped time lines and tenses and in the end I was not sure between reality and imagination. Perhaps that was the author's intention, if so, then he succeeded.

I read this book as an indication of the state of contemporary Sinhala fiction writing. Perhaps I wanted to read stories that were modern and cutting edge and spoke of the dilemmas and lives of present day youth. Instead, what I got was traditional village scenes, of bathing beauties and thwarted love. The story I liked the best was the title story: it conveyed albeit disjointedly (but perhaps that is the writers style) the internal battle of a hardened criminal who aches for revenge.

Does a book lose something in translation? My personal opinion is that translation is not the word for word translating of a book but it should convey the sense, spirit, humour, darkness and joy that a book may hold. My feeling of Amarakeerthi's book is that the translator did a word for word translation which resulted in an awkward, clumsy rendition of what could have been a good book. Perhaps it is the lack of good translators that does not allow works from our three languages to cross into each other's worlds. I would be most interested to hear if there are other good translations of works from Sinhala or Tamil.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Chucking the Dragon by Mark Wilde

Whoa! What a book. Firstly, I just love the whole design of the book. Secondly, Mark Wilde has kickass taste in music. Thirdly, this is some attention grabbing story.

A problem I have with some Sri Lankan books is that they have a nice story but they are told so badly that it ruins it for the reader. The story in Chucking the Dragon is not pretty: a young man who is preparing to attend the University of Colombo finds himself hooked on heroin. The son of privileged but somewhat indifferent parents, he ends up doing anything and everything to get money for his drug habit. In the West such stories are a dime a dozen, but here in Sri Lanka this is a first. And though many not want to think so, this could be the story of many young people today.

Written as an autobiography Mark Wilde takes you on a wild and bumpy journey that covers almost everything sordid - from being a rent boy, to drug overdoses, to painful withdrawel symptoms when Wilde wants to kick the habit - the reader is spared nothing. Wilde reflects the typical young arrogant university student attitude of having an opinion on everything, living life on the edge and hellbent on the road to disaster. The writing is edgy and sometimes x-rated, it pushes the boundaries of Sri Lankan English writing which I like. And let me hasten to add that I do not say because Wilde uses four letter words that his writing pushes the boundaries. I say it because his sentences trip on the tongue like a drug induced monologue. For much of the novel, Wilde stays in character.

Now what is this story about. Chucking the Dragon, is Wilde's tortured tale of kicking the heroin habit. Hence the title, with the dragon referring to heroin. But it begins when he is still an addict, with only other addicts as friends, having lost the love of his life, and at his first year at university. At uni he feels a misfit, so while other students are talking of careers and love affairs, he goes into the toilets to shoot up. He ends up almost dropping out but yet with minimal studying he does better than the regular students. Is Mark Wilde saying something about the standard of university education? Eventually, Wilde disillusioned with his life, decides to kick the habit by going cold turkey in a beach shack down south. However, after almost a year of being clean and renewing old friendships and lovers Wilde contemplates going back on the habit.

This is one of my must read books. If I have a criticism it is that some things didn't ring true. The title page says Mark Wilde is not his real name. The guy knows very little about Colombo University life and certainly doesn't know much about the difference of middle class or privileged Sri Lankan lives. Some situations are more suited to a Western landscape than here in Sri Lanka and the writing sounds squarely American. I would not be surprised if Mark Wilde the writer turns out to be an ex-pat kid or an international school product. The fact that he emphasizes he goes to Ananda makes it wierdly out of place, but that is a minor point. This is one novel where it doesnt really matter. For to tell you the truth, this is a tale that could be anywhere. For while admittedly the sense of place is somewhat lacking in this case who cares. It is one heck of a tale.

The Gratiaen Prize in neglecting to at least shortlist this novel (I am told it was available for sale at the Gratiaen shortlist so I am presuming it was submitted) reveals itself to be narrow minded and old fashioned. Sri Lankan writing in English needs to not only talk about villages and walauwas but reflect modern Sri Lankan life as well. Chucking the Dragon is one of the most original, thought provoking books that I have read written by a Sri Lankan in a long time. If the judges had been less prudish, perhaps they may have given this book the chance it should have got.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Whirlwind by Ayathurai Santhan

First I shall grouse about the Grataien. It is really irritating not to be able to read the shortlisted works and sometimes not even to be able to read the winning works until a year has passed. So this year there were three manuscripts and two books and of course last year's winner got published just in time as well. I have yet to pick up copies of the two winners - this year and last year, but my aunt who went for the Gratiaen picked this book up for me.

I didn't go for either the shortlisting or the award night but the literary chatter was that there was this interesting book written by a writer from Jaffna about the time the IPKF was stationed there. In fact, I thought at the time, that this might have been a sure winner. Then I read the book and straight off, I will tell you if it had won, I would have been dissapointed.

In my opinion a prize winning book has to stand out. While this book actually had what could have been a gripping story, the writing style left much to be desired and I was not even sure that it should have been shortlisted.

The story is set over a very short period of time. Perhaps over a few days. When the IPKF came as so called peace monitors to the North of the Island, they saw all the people there as Sri Lankans - an identity the Northerners had erased from their psyche and they saw all Tamils as potential LTTErs. Concentrating on one village that has all the people rounded up and housed in one compound that had one toilet for around 400 people, the people are confused if they are there for their safety or being detained. The depiction of the Indian army is sketchy and not drawn out yet it does not turn out to be a weakness of the book, for the slim novel in fact concentrates on the relationships, hardships and fears that the Northern Tamil families were going through during a period that they hoped would save them and yet became another kind of horror for them.

When you read this book, you feel for our people and what they have had to go through. They are mere pawns that are toyed with all players - the LTTE, the Sri Lankan army, the Indian army. Ayathurai Santhan is careful not to tread on the ideology of the average Northern Tamil person. He shows all these people as victims, being tossed from one side to the other at the whim of whoever rules. It might have been interesting if he had taken a stance, for after all the LTTE could not have existed and been successful for so long, without popular support in the area. The book ends without resolution.

The writing is replete with Sri Lankan English of the lesser kind: akward, clumsy and sometimes grammatically incorrect. Now, I hope I don't get flak for this comment. For example: "Though everyday, Sivan had passed by this house often, this was the second time he happened to be inside." Is a sentence written in the way Sri Lankan's typically speak. And there is nothing wrong with that if it was written as direct speech.

My final comments is that this is a book that I highly recommend only because there is a dearth of writing in English about the conflict from the Tamil perspective. I admit that it is written in a sometimes crude and akward manner, that the story could have been fleshed out better, that as it is, it is not a very strong book. But it is important that all Sri Lankans be able to read about our history, and what better way to do it, than through fiction, the different voices and perspectives of our history - be it good or evil. I applaud Ayathurai Santhan for taking the courage and writing such a book. I just wish it had been edited much more and we would have a stronger perhaps even a prize winning book. I look forward to more books written from varying perspectives, perhaps one that is sympathetic to the LTTE cause for we need to know how part of our own people wished to secede from the country in the hope for a life of equality, justice and peace.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Prince by Manu Gunasena

This is a story that has been told for hundreds of years in many different ways. Yet, while it is a story that all of us know there are many who have not read it. When I picked up The Prince by Manu Gunasena I was pleasantly surprised to find that it read well and was simply told. In fact so simply that at first I was under the impression it was a book written for children.

The book starts with the dilemma of a North Indian prince who has been having confusing dreams. Living a life of decadence (dancing girls, Madeira wine, music) the young prince finds himself bored and unchallenged. He wants something but cannot quite name his want.

That is our introduction, the next chapter takes us to the very beginning of the tale - the story of the miraculous birth of the prince. The two childless wives of the king beg him to take another wife, then, the elder wife dreams of a white elephant entering her soul. Thereafter is the conception and birth of the prince followed by predictions of fame, fortune and worldly power.

The prince grows up within the palace, lacking for nothing. He is cosseted and protected and sees nothing but luxury and 'happy' things. But his search for that certain something ensures that he rebels and eventually he comes face to face with the very elements that the king wanted to protect him from: old age, sickness, death and the ascetic.

He now finds a name for his quest- the Stoic Stone and soon he leaves home as a mendicant in search of this elusive prize. Eventually after many years and many paths, he finds it. The Stoic Stone or Nirvana as we know it becomes his forever.

Many readers would have guessed that the story is about Lord Buddha, however, credit goes to Manu Gunasena for retelling this ancient tale in a straightforward yet interesting way. Admittedly many adults might find the book too simple for them but towards the end of the book, it shifts direction and becomes sharply philosophical.

The book is a very easy read with each chapter featuring a Manu Gunasena poem. This is one feature I could have done without. The poems were not very good and detracted from the tightness of the chapters. Consider one:

Betwixt life's splendour and fates' gloom

the Prince now rooted stood;

He had himself, the knowledge loomed,

sans thought spawned sorrow's brod.

Now that he had sired sorrow

His search couldn't wait the morrow,

now nothing would intrude;

To stir his will, his pledge fulfill;

Renounce the world; the truth distill.

If I have a resevation about this book, it is that he will lose his audience. If they are children by the time they get to the end of the book, they will get lost within the philosophical debate. If they are adults they might get bored before they got to the philosophical debates. But all in all it is an interesting read and a book I would recommend parents buy and read to their children. For in the end, it is a story that deserves to be told, it is a story worth knowing.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Serendipity by Ashok Ferrey

Having read and enjoyed Ferrey's first collection of short stories Colpetty People and not enjoyed as much his second collection of short stories, The Good Little Ceylonese Girl, I was most interested to se if this good short story writer could make the transition to good novelist.

Serendipity is a bit of a ramble. Its an all over the place kind of novel. It could work. But does it, is the important question? Piyumi Segarajasingham, the unlikeable shallow promiscuous heroine leaves her discontented mother behind in London to return to Sri Lanka to deal with a personal crisis. In between she seems to have been recruited by a man named Skanda, a front man for an unnamed organisation, to do God knows what. An underqualified Pole named Marek who falls madly in love with Piyumi over a carton of guava juice finds himself 'serendipitiously' on the same plane as her going to teach at an International School in Colombo. A lesbian activist Deb, who head the badly named 'Women in Want, is in love with Piyumi. A trishaw driver named Viraj is in love first with Deb, because she is white and then settles for Piyumi because she is there. Then you have a motley assortment of other characters - Mrs Herath and her sister Mrs Fonseca (the Minister's wife). You have Mrs Fonseca's daughter whom they want to arrange a match for with Marek! Meanwhile, we are not spared the shenanigan's of Marek's mother who begins an affair with her neighbour Dennis Ridoynauth (Where on earth does he finds these names?) Suranganee the recalcitrant cook at Aunty Chelvam's (don't ask?) is young, nubile and sharp tongued. By now I am totally confused as the list of characters go on and on - the back text says over twenty!

Now, I have a problem with so many characters. They remain just so - characters as Ferrey takes neither the time nor trouble to develop any of them. They remain caricatures with clever and not so clever one liners that don't mean anything very much in the end. May she rest in pieces (after a bomb attack), Boom-fuck-a-boom-fuck-a-boom (to describe the said bomb). The Shadow Minister for Ports would actually prefer a brandy and on and on it goes. Sometimes it is too much.

Then Ferrey uses the most wierd names. I am sure he thinks he is being clever (and there is no doubt that man is clever). Mogambo International School; Lawyers Bilious and Dicey; The National Anthem is sung as: No more, No more, No more Martha-a-a; The Head master's name is Percy ffinch- Percy; the name of the cafe is Fuk-a-Luk, the name of the removal van is Truk-a-Luk. Ferrey must learn the art of restraint.

Now the book markets itself as a satire. Just what is satire? It is defined as a text or performance that uses irony, derision, or wit to expose or attack human vice, foolishness or stupidity. There is plenty of that in the book, but I am uncertain if Ferrey uses irony, or derision or wit to expose any of them. What he does use in good liberal doses is ridicule. Sometimes below the belt, sometimes viciously. I expect satire to have some depth, that unfortunately you will not find here. Though from his writing you know that Ferrey is vastly capable.

Another problem I find with Ferrey's writing is that its all the same. Which ever book you read, you will find the same phrases, same plot, same kind of characters etc. The man can certainly write but it is like a recipe that he follows all the time, every time. With Ferrey, we have a writer who sells himself short. He writes well, his writing is different, it is clean, polished and sometimes shows a glimmer of sophistication. But Ferrey thinks his readers are stupid. The story line is dummified, the cliches (by his own admission he says the book is rife with cliches) abound and I am positively sure I have read of of the same lines in his other books.

He is also sloppy in his writing. I believe there is a time lag here. The book is set in the 1980s, Piyumi Segarajsingham who was a little girl when she left the country in 1983, can no way qualify and practice as a barrister even in 1989!! unless she was a genius and there is no indication of that! Then on page 126 Ferrey slips up and calls Women in Want after the real name of the NGO he has modeled it.

There seems to be nothing too sacred for Ferrey to have included in this book: white vans, Golden Key, terrorism, class, caste, NGOs, sexuality, bomb attacks, security check points, interns, fitness freaks, gyms, elections, election posters and so on. Michelle de Kretser at the Galle Literary Festival, said that some of the things you leave out tell a story more effectively than all that you put in. Ferrey needs to listen to his inner voice more.

On the whole the book for me was a large dissapointment. Ferrey while having the talent to write unfortunately plays to the gallery. The people who buy and like his book are a reflection of the society he laughs at. But this particular book is crammed with too much and yet there is no decent story line. You don't get caught up in the character's lives- you don't laugh with them or cry with them. Instead you are supposed to laugh at them all the way, all the time. I can't do that. I get tired.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Calf in Milk and Milk Chocolate by Jagath Kumarasinghe

First let me wish all of you a Happy New Year. Let's hope that 2010 will hold a bright future not only for us but for the country as well.

Sometimes, I wish that I hadn't restricted this blog to only Sri Lankan books. For instance I read Michelle de Kretser's book The Lost Dog, towards the end of last year (she is coming to the Galle Literary Festival this year, I hear). I couldn't understand head or tail why reviewers thought it was such a great book. For me, it was boring, obscure and totally self-indulgent. But as she is not a Sri Lankan author, I can't review her book and must content myself with these few snide remarks!

So off I went to read a truly Sri Lankan author and happily my mother had bought Gratiaen winner Jagatha Kumarasinghe's latest book, A Calf in Milk and Milk Chocolate - isn't that a great title? Even if you never read the book, the title will make you lick your lips. So I took it off to my holiday destination to read in peace and tranquillity. What a mistake!

Jagath is a truly unintelligible writer, for me at least, and all things being relative, I could be very wrong. The stories claim to be advertisements in spiritual realism. Unfortunately, it sounds that if you want to be spiritual you have to be incomprehensible as well. The ten stories are liberally sprinkled with Bible quotes and sound as if they are going to be portentous. Instead they seem to ramble on and on using fairly bizarre language that makes the reader exhausted in a few minutes.

I generally hate reviews that copy chunks out of books, but just in case you haven't read the book this will give you an idea of what I am talking about. For instance, what do you make of the following passage -

"I myself am erected. Even men get themselves erected and that would lead them to beget and I myself am erected on this sprawling grounds, which is quite hilly. Yeah four things say not it is enough; The grave: and the barren womb; The earth that is not filed (sic) with water And the fire that saith Not, it is enough ...The sprawling grounds on which I am erected has many a grave, and on this ground I witness the nature of a barren womb and the nature of fire which is kindling within my belly that never satisfies. The Sinhalese use a nice word for hunger - Badagini - it denotes about the very nature in the belly when the fire within the belly gets roaring you need food to sacrifice for the fire. And I have a chimney which is running upwards and which adds zigzagging curly smoke to the sky where heaven is. ( The Barren Womb Grounds)"
Whoa! Now that is a mouthful. And a complex and confused mouthful to me. The whole book is peppered with such passages full of spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes disguised as philosophy. It is such a perplexing read that you are not sure if the writer intends the mistakes and perhaps they are not mistakes or are they real mistakes. Who knows?

Jagath's first book Kider Chetty Street which won the Gratiaen Prize some years ago was also full of this adhoc English but at least it was sweet. But I take this opportunity to question the judges for I believe they were single-handedly responsible for all sorts of drivel to be written up as Sri Lankan English. When in fact Sri Lankan English is merely English that is written reflecting the way it is spoken and written in Sri Lanka. Jagath is by no stretch of imagination our local James Joyce if that was the implication of the judges.

This latest book of his is neither sweet nor accessible nor does it make sense to me. But who knows perhaps it is a gem for other readers.

I am sorry, I hate giving bad reviews and wished I could give it a better review. But maybe it's just me. Perhaps others will love the book. Let me know.