Tigers tale has bombs in unexpected places
Tigers Don’t Confess
By Visakesa Chandrasekaram Frog Books, 310pp, $20
THE longstanding struggle between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam raged from 1976 until 2009, when the leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, conceded defeat on May 17 and was killed two days later.
This messy civil war over land rights for the Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka was characterised by frequent assassinations, suicide bombings and violations of just about every human right in the book.
The LTTE is in fact the sole militant organisation to have assassinated two world leaders, former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.
It is fertile ground, then, for a novel of political intrigue, paranoia, corruption and torture. Unfortunately, human rights lawyer, performance artist and playwright Visakesa Chandrasekaram misses the mark with his confused and disjointed attempt to capture this atmosphere of menace and terror in Tigers Don’t Confess.
The novel begins promisingly enough, with the violent and abrupt public murder of a Greens MP in Colombo. His bodyguard senses something is about to happen but still fails to protect his boss.
A problem in the narrative arises immedi- ately after this scene, which sets a template for what is to follow. The action switches to the investigation of the murder by assistant superintendent of police Tissa Wadugama, one of a series of jarring leaps that could have been smoothed by the introduction of separate chapters and better editing.
Tissa is as close as we get to a protagonist, but he is one-dimensional and erratic. He makes a sequence of idiotic decisions that serves to propel a story that tries to incorporate too many disposable secondary characters and subplots.
Desperate for a scapegoat, the police arrest a Tamil student, Kumaran Mailwaganam, and torture a lengthy confession out of him. Meanwhile, an exotic dancer, Shalini, persuades the bodyguard of another MP to help her secure an operation to remove her cancerous breasts.
She is in fact a Tamil sleeper agent who ultimately intends, in all seriousness, to kill the same MP by replacing her breasts with fakes stuffed with explosives primed to go off at the climax of her erotic performance. Given everyone else in the novel dispatches their enemies simply by walking up to them in the street and shooting them in the head, suicide bomb boobies seem a tad lurid and excessive.
A section of the novel is devoted to Shalini’s recovery from the operation while she trains as a hardcore LTTE paramilitary fighter in the jungle. Eighteen months pass in the meantime and the trial of Kumaran approaches.
The book becomes a courtroom drama at this point, with lengthy expositions exposing the corruption and inconsistencies in the state’s case. The trial collapses and the police are exposed as incompetent fools.
The real assassin is thus still on the loose, and could be any number of people. In fact there is talk later on that this skilled master assassin is able to reincarnate in different adult bodies, so no wonder the police can’t pin him down. This is one of thankfully only a few incidental mystical elements that sit awkwardly in the narrative.
Tissa has a tendency to rely on his swami rather than his wits at pivotal moments, but given he comes across as completely witless, this is perhaps understandable.
In the right hands this could all be quite compelling, but the prose is let down by a prevailing sense of amateurish enthusiasm. Chandrasekaram clearly has a passion for his subject but there is not enough focus here. The book is too long, too loose, too scattered. Promising narrative threads trail off and in some cases are forgotten entirely.
Some of the description is good, particularly of the Colombo marketplace, but the whole book is begging to be tightened up. A good, strict structural edit and a disciplined rewrite could turn Tigers Don’t Confess into a passable thriller but, as it stands, it reads like a rushed work in progress, even if it is the only book this year to feature TNT breasts.