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.