Thursday, September 1, 2016

Shards of a Thousand Mirrors

Review of Nayomi Munaweera's "Island of a Thousand Mirrors." First published in 2012.

Shehan Karunatilaka praises Nayomi Munaweera’s “Island of a Thousand Mirrors” as "lyrical, heartfelt, and awash with imagery." All adjectives and nice words which describe it well, I should say.

The book is Nayomi’s first, and like other first novels it twists and turns in ways those assessing it can’t do justice to if the critic is more concerned about making it conform to his or her idealisation of its subject-matter. That, however, does not preclude comment and critique. Especially when it comes to subject-matter, one can add (with tongue in cheek).

In a review written around three years ago to "The Nation", Vihanga Perera takes Nayomi to task because of what he perceives to be her novel's "flouted project". He concedes, in his special way, that it contributes to the postwar discourse, but that halfway through it betrays half a dozen weaknesses which crop up on account of the writer's inexperience and "uprootedness. Relevant, but hardly the only or even main reference-point we can use in assessing the novel's (de)merits.

Nayomi Munaweera's novel isn't just about the war. It's about the colonial and postcolonial world this country inhabited, the transition from the one to the other which independence brought about, and the fact that this transition led to inevitable outcomes which, while tragic and certainly inimical to broader citizenry, nevertheless happened. Inevitable is a strong word, I agree. But no other will do.

How well does Munaweera's novel stand up to the task she's put up for it? She oscillates to and from first-person narrative, and on that basis the strongest sections are those in which the narrator is articulating her own experiences. Up until the fifth chapter, in which she is born, she dabbles in recounting a past which oversees a transformation: not just from the colonial to the postcolonial, but from an era of amorphous identities to an era where identity is predicated on race, faith, and communalism.

This can be seen right after the death of the unnamed (or un-nameable?) Judge, who "sports three-piece suits" and whose clan dreamt of teenage years at Oxford or Cambridge: the moment he dies, the family fortunes plummet, his wife (Sylvia Sunethra) has to fund her daughter and herself, and she seeks the "patronage" of a traditionalist Tamil family with money on their hands. "Named after Lord Shiva's privates," Sylvia mutters (the Tamil family name is Shivalingam), and adds: "These Tamils. So shameless."

The death of the Judge, in a symbolic sense, is the death of an old order buttressed by the Oxbridge elite: the fires of racism start to burn soon after their funerals are over. The problem for the author, however, is that she caricatures so much in these chapters that we don't know whether to laugh or not: the Linga-Singha wars, as she calls them, are supposed to be a microcosm of the civil conflict to come, but where (one can legitimately ask) is the augur, the Cassandra? For that reason perhaps, these domestic wars supply humour on a scale which jars as the chapters progress.

Munaweera is less successful, I think, when describing Saraswathi, who emerges as an idealist who, like most idealists, gets ravaged by the enemy and transforms. And to this end I agree with Vihanga when he implies (again, in his own special way) that Munaweera's Saraswathi is as much a construct as Nihal de Silva's Kamala (in the latter's "Road From Elephant Pass"). He could have added that this sustains and perpetuates the archetypal "Sinhalised" Tamil woman we're accustomed to seeing pretty much everywhere in our cultural discourse: who start out as idealists and get their dreams, visions, and moral qualms swept away by a savage reality. Not that Munaweera alone is guilty of this, of course.

On the other hand, she is most successful (as I pointed out earlier) in her depiction of Yasodhara and Lanka, and that too after they migrate to the United States. I don't think it's a coincidence that between their departure from and return to Sri Lanka, we see Saraswathi's rise, fall, and resurrection: it's plotted in a way to make us feel their parallel lives: Yasodhara and Lanka embittered in a land they can't call their own, Saraswathi pining for a land denied to her by her own people (from other terrains).

I personally thought this was commendable, despite the author's inexperience and despite the laboriousness of her writing (she's worked hard at sustaining her plot, we feel), because she appeared more concerned about making a statement than about constructing (and later flouting) a “project.” Not that her depiction of Saraswathi is three-dimensional. Far from it. But that's beside the point here, something even Vihanga admits when he writes that the novel, "like most flouted programs... has enough to merit a prize and recognition."

On a final note, Vihanga alleges that Munaweera's book ends with a "blatantly Rajapakshist note." What he means by this is that Yasodhara overcomes the tragedy of her sister's death by refusing to acknowledge victory on May 18, 2009, reflecting on the 80,000 lives lost, and hoping for the future.

I don't think that's "Rajapakshist" in any conceivable sense, not only because Munaweera's book would hardly sit well with the nationalists or extremists but because (paraphrasing what Vihanga wrote) her ending doesn't "urge us to deselect the past in favor of the optimism of a future." Unlike, say, Nihal de Silva's book, there's no embrace of a hopeful future here, only grief, sorrow, and conditional happiness: not "We Shall Overcome" but "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?", not "The war is over, let us forget the past and heal the present", but "The past is behind, let us look at and be humbled by it from time to time."

And so I conclude: despite her obvious inexperience and despite the fact that she lived miles away from the country even as it burnt and even as our forefathers added the proverbial fuel to fire, I salute Nayomi Munaweera for a debut that contributes something to our literary discourse, however small (and marginalised) that contribution may be.

The problem with her first novel, therefore, is that it's not just about mirrors. It's about shards. Picking those shards up is no easy task, especially for debut writers. Munaweera knows this more than anyone else, I guess. Even if her first attempt at fiction is, as Shehan Karunatilaka claims, awash with imagery.

Written for: The Island LEISURE, August 28 2016