Sunday, January 11, 2009

On LOVE MARRIAGE by V.V. Ganeshananthan

I write rarely about novels in this space dedicated to poetry. But once in a while I am moved to break the unnecessary chains and comment about strong new writing produced in prose in the Sri Lankan or Ceylonese diaspora. VV Ganeshananthan’s first novel Love Marriage is a brave and comprehensive work that mixes personal and political, national and international, diaspora and village, into a compelling story of Sri Lankan Tamils and their dilemmas, strangers in strange lands, expelled from home, trying in some cases to get back to their birthplaces.

Exile is the modern condition. We all seem to come from abroad. Meanwhile, Rimbaud noted that life is elsewhere. I read Ganeshananthan’s novel in a checkered manner, impressed by the powerful stories, interrupted by news from the island. I read Roma Tearne’s Mosquito in the same way. Sri Lankan stories get under my skin, bother my heart and sometimes work like a poison leading to literary paralysis.

What can one say about the unrelenting horror that the island has lived for more than 25 years, 50 if one goes back to the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 that began the disintegration of the calm, sea-bathing polity inherited in 1948. Now, I exaggerate. There have always been disputes and of course inequities. But short sighted policies to gain votes have come back to haunt the island like those horsemen of the apocalypse described powerfully by Tarzi Vittachi in Emergency 58. At least at that time, journalists were spared bullets or knives.

Now, all is changed. The recent murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, confirms the disintegration of the polity into a chaos where life is nasty, brutish and short, where the rule of law should be renamed the rule of thugs.

In this context—and when is the right moment—to talk about imaginative literature, work that will have a shelf life beyond the particular murders and abuses in the daily political sphere? Of course, Ganeshananthan is also a journalist, a truth teller, which adds another layer of interest for readers of her novel.

So what are the truths revealed in this fiction? I invite readers to examine the novel, to engage its partial truths--Ganeshananthan creates a great variety of powerful and opinionated characters—and to reflect on the correspondences between their lives and the lives of her characters. I am not reviewing the novel here, assessing its merits as fiction or history. My view, in any case, would be shaped by my own prejudices. Yet in the end—to avoid the paralysis of not opining at all, which would be a silly conclusion to the problem of literary or, for that matter, journalistic impartiality—I say here unequivocally that my antennae are dancing thrilled with this novel

I leave you as a teaser with some passages from the novel:

“What he means is this: it would be false to say that there is a beginning to the story, or a middle, or an end. Those words have a tidiness that does not belong here. Our lives are not clean. They begin without fanfare and end without warning. This story does not have a defined shape or a pleasant arc. To record it differently would not be true.”

“To read the story in the press is to read a story that has never gone far enough.”

“Like almos every member of his family, my great-uncle eventually left Sri Lanka. There was nothing else to do.”

“Tamil has two hundred and forty-seven letters. When I was five years old, I could recite about half of them. I could speak Tamil and understand it. But as I got older, I forgot the words. I do not remember how this happened. Sometimes when I dream, I dream in Tamil. But when I wake up I never remember the words. It is like remembering a fever, or a blessing.”