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.