WHAT HAP­PENS WHEN FANTASYA GOES THE DIS­TANCE

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - FEATURES - By Gamini Ak­mee­m­ana

Among con­tem­po­rary Sin­hala fic­tion writers, there are those who have de­lib­er­ately struck away from con­ven­tional story telling for­mats, us­ing tech­niques of fan­tasy and dis­play­ing Post-mod­ernist and other in­flu­ences. Fan­tasy in this case doesn’t mean the Lord of Rings kind. One can dis­cern in­stead Latin Amer­i­can Magic Re­al­ism and even Gothic hor­ror story el­e­ments in mod­ern Sin­hala fic­tion.

Eric Il­laya­parachchi is one of our most pro­lific and ex­pe­ri­enced writers, and his lit­er­ary out­put ranges from nov­els and short sto­ries to po­etry, travel, lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, es­says and even opera li­bret­tos. ‘Le Wila Saha Dante’ is a short story col­lec­tion by him which came out in 2017. Among the most lit­er­ary of our writers, he starts with two verses from Dante’s In­ferno, taken from Canto 1.

Irony and satire are char­ac­ter­is­tic of Eric’s writ­ing, and the 13 sto­ries in this slim vol­ume are sat­u­rated with both qual­i­ties. Read­ing th­ese sto­ries, we are aware of two planes of con­scious­ness. While real places and place names are evoked, the char­ac­ters are fan­tasies. They are peo­ple who con­nect the reader with an­other plane of ex­is­tence not nor­mally avail­able to him.

While none of th­ese char­ac­ters van­ishes into thin air or flies away, their names, what they do and how they think is enough to star­tle the reader out of his nor­mal, com­pla­cent state of what to ex­pect from a short story col­lec­tion. There are gen­res of fic­tion meant to keep the reader on the edge – hor­ror, for ex­am­ple. While ‘Le Wila Saha Dante’ doesn’t be­long to the hor­ror fic­tion genre, its

char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions evoke a feel­ing of hor­ror – about the hu­man con­di­tions, what th­ese char­ac­ters do and what it might be like to be in their shoes.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the char­ac­ter of Tesla Ji­nadasa from the story ‘Clas­si­fied Ads.’ Just like her name, the char­ac­ter of Tesla too, is a cul­tural con­tra­dic­tion. She is part of Sri Lanka’s ur­ban pop cul­ture, mem­ber of a group of ‘cul­tural rad­i­cals’ to whom the Ma­jes­tic City shop­ping com­plex is a make be­lieve, ‘re­al­ity show’ home of sorts with the pain and leak­ing pipes of do­mes­tic­ity ab­sent. But she chooses to marry a na­tion­al­ist, a ‘com­plete Sin­halese’, and goes around Colombo in a Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle with a lion sticker. This is an­other con­tra­dic­tion, as the Bee­tle is a uni­ver­sal sym­bol of pop cul­ture, while the lion sticker is a glar­ing icon of Sin­hala na­tion­al­ism.

Other el­e­ments in the story, too, point to sim­i­lar con­tra­dic­tions. But, be­neath this sur­face mo­saic of pop cul­tural fig­ures and icons, there is a se­ri­ous, lit­er­ary un­der­cur­rent. One of the boys in this group reads love sto­ries and then tears up the pages. He is their ‘Um­berto Eco.’ Tesla Ji­nadasa comes to a birth­day in a striped suit, a stark re­minder of Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps, as if she fore­sees her own obliv­ion in the gas cham­bers of this coun­try’s cul­ture wars.

In ‘Ghost Writer,’ the au­thor takes a fig­ure not fa­mil­iar to the coun­try’s lit­er­ary cul­ture. Ghost writers are mostly a West­ern phe­nom­e­non, pro­fes­sion­als who re­main in the shad­ows while writ­ing books for oth­ers. This is rel­a­tively un­known in Sri Lanka. But this choice may be the au­thor’s way of telling us that not only cul­tural con­tra­dic­tions but also ex­otic cul­tural phe­nom­ena (such as ghost writers) are al­ways ca­pa­ble of im­plant­ing them­selves in the give and take of so­cial progress and re-shap­ing in a glob­alised con­text.

The sit­u­a­tion is made even more comic be­cause the ghost writer Loris Ku­maragama is a mi­nor em­ployee at a hos­pi­tal in dis­tant Put­ta­lama, and it’s a doc­tor who asks Loris to write a novel for him. Loris has no books, and not even a pen or pen­cil in his room though he writes ‘ev­ery­thing other than pe­ti­tions and waskavi.’ The ab­sur­dity is stretched fur­ther when this de­but novel wins a lit­er­ary prize. But the doc­tor’s lit­er­ary ca­reer comes to an abrupt end when he learns that his ghost writer is work­ing on an­other ‘ghost’ novel for a fe­male col­league at the same hos­pi­tal.

Such ab­surd con­texts are the au­thor’s way of ex­pos­ing the un­der­ly­ing ab­sur­dity of life. Even in a story such as ‘Ra­nar­ala,’a seem­ingly re­al­is­tic nar­ra­tion set in a vil­lage, the char­ac­ters evoke an ab­stract land­scape with dif­fer­ent shades of hor­ror. A young di­rec­tor of wildlife, ea­ger to meet again Theodore Haamu, the old Leftist stal­wart of his child­hood days, is bit­terly dis­ap­pointed when the meet­ing does take place. The vil­lage is a nest of re­sent­ments, thwarted am­bi­tion and vi­o­lent ten­den­cies, leav­ing the pro­tec­tor of wildlife stranded in a cul­tural waste­land.

In “The Lover Who didn’t Love,’ Yu­gan­thi is a school track and field star who hap­pens to be a mem­ber of a se­cre­tive group of youth known as ‘Che Gue­vara.’ Hav­ing de­cided that ‘an as­cetic life would not suit the sim­ple beauty of her hand­some physique,’ she longs for a life at a more ex­cit­ing plane. That her only route to the ter­rain of her dreams is po­lit­i­cal sub­ver­sion speaks vol­umes for the tragedy of thou­sands of young in this coun­try; while to­day’s gen­er­a­tion can es­cape into Face Book, re­al­ity shows, break­ing news, drugs, pornog­ra­phy and stim­u­lants, her gen­er­a­tion had to re­sort to po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence as a way out of so­cial aus­ter­ity and as­ceti­cism – or so the au­thor seems to sug­gest. The fi­nal fan­tasy in the class­room por­trays the deep pathos of the sen­si­tive loser who can’t beat the sys­tem.

‘The Elec­tions Com­mis­sioner ’ too, is seem­ingly straight­for­ward nar­ra­tive, but a care­ful read­ing will show that it is more than that. When for­mer deputy elec­tions com­mis­sioner Ganesh dies in Lon­don, the task of trans­port­ing his body from Colombo to Jaffna un­der wartime con­di­tions is en­trusted to Pieris, a young deputy com­mis­sioner who reveres the de­ceased le­gendary fig­ure. Both have the deep­est re­spect for democ­racy, but there are hints that the present con­text of their lives is not quite demo­cratic.

The cof­fin’s jour­ney, by air from Lon­don and by road from Colombo, is epic, and full of at­mo­spher­ics that hint at men­ace. The way the cof­fin and the body is han­dled at the fi­nal mil­i­tary check­point, as well as the ‘lunch episode’ at the rest house, end any il­lu­sion that this is re­al­ity we are deal­ing with. Like in his other sto­ries, the au­thor is hint­ing at a par­al­lel plane of ex­is­tence along­side re­al­ity, some­times over­whelm­ing it.

I have never felt that the days of con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive are fin­ished by any means, and that fan­tasy will re­place it in fu­ture. But writers such as Eric Il­laya­parachchi are at the fore­front of re-shap­ing mod­ern Sin­hala fic­tion and giv­ing it a new vigour and di­men­sion.

The book is priced at Rs. 250 and is avail­able at S. Godage and Bros,

Colombo 10.

Be­neath this sur­face mo­saic of pop cul­tural fig­ures and icons, there is a se­ri­ous, lit­er­ary un­der­cur­rent. One of the boys in this group reads love sto­ries and then tears up the pages

Writers such as Eric Il­laya­parachchi are at the fore­front of re­shap­ing mod­ern Sin­hala fic­tion and giv­ing it a new vigour and di­men­sion

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