In his latest novel, Romesh Gunesekera zooms in on post-war Sri Lanka, grappling with the ghosts of its troubled past.
In Romesh Gunesekera’s worlds, time remains a constant motif. The past, largely unresolved, is employed as a tool to look at the present and into the future. “Writing was invented to subvert time. Any kind of writing, especially fiction, is a device of dealing with time. A writer has to intensely connect and negotiate with time,” says Gunesekera. The Sri Lanka-born, London-based writer’s oeuvre flits between memory and loss, the agony of exile and the appended idea of an eternally elusive home.
In his sixth and latest novel, Noontide Toll, Gunesekera, 60, explores the desolation and devastation of war in his homeland, and while many of his time-tossed characters share fractured relationships with the past, redemption can only be achieved with reconciliation.
Noontide Toll is partly reflective of his first book, Monkfish Moon (1992) — a collection of short stories — as this is a novel of linked-up stories. “The novel form is very flexible,” says the writer, who allies himself with the tradition of “saying more by saying less”. So, while war and its aftermath form the backdrop of the novel, he doesn’t dwell on the details, his prose hovers on the periphery — a word here, a sentence there, nothing more. “I want the story to grow in your head. If a sentence has to be written in five words, I will write it in four,” says Gunesekera, who frets over the form of his novels, always striving to get the structure right.
The novel, told through the voice of a driver named Vasantha, careens through the island country from north to south. Vasantha’s for-hire van ferries a clutch of people through the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, giving us a glimpse into what war has done to the country and what the future might hold for its people — a lovelorn and emotional soldier, an enterprising hotelier and an eager student.
It’s through Vasantha’s reflections that we get to know the story “of a country at war with itself for three decades, of mad artillery shelling, of armoured divisions and Tiger troops, of air-to-surface missiles and suicide bombers”. Jaffna is a “ghost town”. War has changed the attitudes of the younger generation, they have become accustomed to the idea of a disposable society. “So much is kept off limits these days. There are things we don’t speak of, things we not only don’t remember but carefully forget, places we do not stray into, memories we bury or reshape. That is the way we all live nowadays: driving along a road between hallucination and amnesia,” muses Vasantha in the novel.
Gunesekera has always written with a sense of urgency. His short stories (Monkfish Moon) and novels — Reef (1994, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Sandglass (1998), Heaven’s Edge (2002), The Match (2006) and The Prisoner of Paradise (2012) — may be “explorations into particular moments” of time, but they also capture human vulnerabilities that echo across time. “All these stories needed to be written. Writers, like historians, value the past a lot. The past does affect the way things pan out. The past controls the future; if you can’t control the past, you can’t control the future. Our memory is difficult and untrusting. And writing is about memory against forgetting. Everything has to be done before the world ends,” says Gunesekera.
What fiction offers you, he says, is a chance of living a life other than your own. “Fiction allows you to reach a point where it’s relatively easier to deal with certain things. If it’s good fiction, it enters into your bloodstream. It offers you something more complete than real life,” he says. Good fiction, Gunesekera feels, creates empathy, perhaps more than any other art form.
“Human history is always a story of somebody’s diaspora: a struggle between those who expel, repel or curtail — possess, divide and rule — and those who keep the flame alive from night to night, mouth to mouth, enlarging the world with each flick of a tongue,” reflects Triton, marine biologist Mr Salgado’s houseboy, in Reef, Gunesekera’s first novel. By writing about people who keep the flame alive, from a clairvoyant domestic help to a philosophical driver, he offers a glimpse into his own life: “Our lives become our stories. And, in time, these stories become us. I have appropriated a bit of me in my characters.”