BOOK REVIEW: Romesh Gunesekera
Far Eastern Economic Review
Jul 9, 1998

Island Fever
  * By Salil Tripathi
    804 Words

The Sandglass by Romesh Gunesekera. Granta Books. 9.99.

   Over the years, South Asian novelists have combined their innate gift
of the gab with the territorial advantage their region offers -- a
region fertile with conflict, drama, tension and history -- to produce
memorable results. Not a year goes by without some Indian author winning
another prestigious award.
 But increasingly, other voices are coming to the fore: Bapsi Sidhwa
and Sara Suleri from Pakistan; Romesh Gunesekera, Shyam Selvadurai, A.
Sivanandan and, lest we forget, Michael Ondaatje from Sri Lanka. These
writers have shown that there is more to the Subcontinent's literary
flowering than the overshadowing presence of India.
   Yet, these writers are not part of a literary movement. They may
good-humouredly pose together for photographs and tolerate dissertations
that seek to find common influences in their work. But they are too
distinct from one another to allow for any meaningful generalization.
Last year, Gunesekera gallantly posed with nearly a dozen Indian authors
in a portrait published in the Bill Buford-edited controversial summer
special of the New Yorker. Gunesekera was flanked by Salman Rushdie,
Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, Vikram Chandra, Amit Chowdhury and others.
What makes him different from these authors is not just his nationality,
but also his distinctive, almost un-Indian approach to writing.
   Some Indian authors feel obliged to write the Big Book each time they
start a novel. Gunesekera doesn't. His books are slim by the standards
of the Subcontinent, but they sparkle nonetheless. His writing is not
self-conscious or clever, nor does it insist that the region is so
unique that a novel would fall flat if it did not exaggerate reality.
Gunesekera is clinical and sparing in his prose; he doesn't clutter the
page with polysyllabic words.
   To understand that, consider where he comes from. Gunesekera said
once that Sri Lankan authors have more in common with authors from other
islands than with their bigger neighbours. There is, indeed, a bit of
the late, Trinidad-born Shiva Naipaul in Gunesekera. Born on a small
island and not overwhelmed by a 5,000-year-old civilization, Gunesekera
is able to focus on the lives of a few individuals and use the violent
reality of Sri Lanka as an ever-present backdrop, not a dominating
leitmotif. His tales don't need history to he them stand up.
   In his bleak second novel, The Sandglass, Gunesekera takes his
writing to a more sombre, less lyrical plane than in his impressive Reef
(1994), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In so doing, his
tone takes on a contemplative, philosophical edge, underlining the
pathos, agony and uncertainty surrounding Sri Lanka's future.
   Gunesekera daunts the readers at first, with a sprawling family tree
of Ducals and Vatunases, whose entangled lives dominate the tale. The
Vatunas family represents old money and the meanness it develops along
with decay. The Ducals, on the other hand, are nouveaux riches, keen to
acquire the trappings of wealth and modernity, and more important, class
and power.
   Jason Ducal is an upwardly mobile manager who seeks to inherit the
colonial firm where he works. He rises quickly from being the token
brown manager to sitting on the company's board. He sets in motion the
tragic train of events that drive the novel by buying a piece of
property once owned by the Vatunas family. The patriarch, Esra Vatunas,
schemes to regain his property -- and his glory -- by blocking the
corporate merger that Jason Ducal plans. The resulting corporate rivalry
consumes Ducal, leading to his mysterious death. The remaining Ducals
move to London.
   The story's narrator is Chip, a Sri Lankan who lodges with the
family's matriarch, Pearl Ducal, in London in 1975, and remains in touch
with her family. It is told in flashbacks and conversations over a day
and night in London. Chip longs for a Sri Lanka that now exists only in
his mind: a peaceful, tranquil garden of Eden. The tone is elegiac and
nostalgic; modern Sri Lanka forces those who love it to leave it. Yet,
each migrant hankers for home-even if it is an imagined one, as Rushdie
puts it in one of his essays.
   Once a peaceful idyll known as Serendib, Sri Lanka today is a much
transformed place. Gunesekera's yearning for that earlier place is an
undercurrent in the book, perhaps best expressed when he says that music
composers who try to get the grandeur of heaven by heaping "scales upon
scales" have got it all wrong. "What they really need to do is imagine a
stilled heart and the peace that can only come from the absence of
conflict, of abrasion, of sound itself." The rest is silence. That
meditative tone takes The Sandglass away from the pure lyricism of Reef.
But it also makes it a more important novel.
   *    Salil Tripathi is the REVIEW's economics correspondent.