Thursday, 10 April 2008

Sri Lanka: Imagined Worlds from Neil Bissoondath and Arthur C. Clarke

Convergences are among the most interesting of life’s quirks. Last summer when I made up the reading list for the Atwater Library book discussion group I included Neil Bissoondath’s The Unyielding Clamour of the Night simply because I thought it a very good book. The story concerns a young man from a "good" family who goes off to teach school in a village in the south of his civil war-torn country. As an evocation of a tropical landscape and an exploration of the complicated circumstances that lead to horrendous inter-ethnic conflict, it has no parallel. The hero, Arun, is an extremely understandable and attractive young man, and his slow involvement in local causes is convincing—and frightening. While Bissoondath takes pains to say that his story takes place in an imagined place, the similarities with Sri Lanka are striking.

The discussion last night was animated, aided not a little by one of our regulars who left Sri Lanka in the 1960s, but who still has close contacts. Afterwards he showed me photocopies of articles about his own sister’s death: she was killed in the 1970s in an incident involving Indian peacekeepers. The pain and the irony live on in his eyes today.

There was no mention of the death of Arthur C. Clarke last night, however. The great science fiction master died last month on the island where he has lived more or less continuously since the mid-1950s. For him, Sri Lanka was an escape—from English winters, he told the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel in an interview rebroadcast recently, but also, it would seem from what Clarke found ordinary. Always one to look beyond the frontiers of time and space (he brought us the original 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all) he found in the beauty of the place a kind of alternate universe. How involved he was in Sri Lankan politics, I have no idea. But it is clear that one man’s paradise can be another man’s hell.

Interesting to think of Arun and the characters from 2001 meeting in whatever space might be reserved for dead people from fiction, with Clarke looking in to make a comment or two. Bissoondath, happily, is still very much in this world, and next fall Cormorant will bring out a new book from him. Something to look forward to in this complicated, far-from-perfect world.

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