Tigers tale has bombs in un­ex­pected places

Tigers Don’t Con­fess

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Chris Flynn Chris Flynn

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.

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