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Midweek Review

Exquisite intermingling of the novelistic and the poetic

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by Liyanage Amarakeerthi

A debut novel rarely achieves the same excellence as Baththalangunduwa by Manjula Wediwardena. In any language, such first-novels are rare. Still there are many writers who have mesmerised readers with their first novels. This is certainly one among them. In writing this novel, the author does not hide the fact that he arrives at the art of novel, bringing with him the technical devices of poetry and short play, two genres he had excelled in earlier. He uses those elements to create a style that makes his novel a sensation in the contemporary Sinhala novel. The book has been translated into English. This essay, though based on Baththalangunduwa, is about the significance of style in a novel.

One of the challenges that new writers face is to create a ‘new language’ for the Sinhala novel. Not to argue that a single style fits all, but style is one area in which a writer can establish the novelty of his work. Our writers seldom experiment with language to create a style that is both simple and attractive at the same time. When it comes to experimentation with narrative techniques, even young writers do not show the youthfulness found in the work of senior writers such as Ajith Thilakasena, Siri Gunasinghe, Simon Nawagatthegama or Tennyson Perera, to name a few. Naturalist realism becomes rather stale, if it is not presented in an innovative style or using other experimental narrative devices. The realist mode is, however, extremely malleable, and an inventive writer can still make it look surprisingly fresh if he or she is imaginative enough with regard to the technical devices of fiction writing. Stories can be crafted in numerous ways. Possibilities of fiction can never be exhausted. Every once in a while, a writer or two appears to remind us about those possibilities. In recent times, Manjula Wediwardena was one such writer. Of late, there are others but we are yet to see if they would continue to develop literary careers.

Tissa Abeysekera, one of our greatest writers, points out this problem of style and language in his excellent collection of essays, Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences. In it, Abeysekera argues that even though Martin Wickramasinghe was able to produce a language for the realist novel in Sinhala no writer was able to surpass him. Abeysekera goes on to argue that Viragaya (The Way of the Lotus) is the pinnacle of the Sinhala novel. It can be said that this is an accurate observation. One can agree that Viragaya is an immortal novel. Yet, the weakness of Abesekara’s argument is that it does not mention any writer who has apparently attempted to surpass Wickramasinghe. The novels of Simon Nawagattegama, for example, are excellent examples of creating a fresh style of language for each novel. The characters or the environment of Dadayakkarayage Kathawa (The story of the Hunter), or Ksheera Sagaraya Kelambina (The Milky Ocean is Churned) cannot be properly portrayed in the language of Wickramasinghe’s Gamperaliya (Uprooted). Furthermore, those novels have levels of reality whose existence is predicated upon the existence of a unique language, and Nawagattegama creates that language. Let’s look at a paragraph of The story of the Hunter, even though it is hard to make my point in a translated segment:

“Those who belonged to the lineage of the hunter had no satisfaction by merely being hunters. To be a shooter, one only has to train himself in shooting a target. It is not such a big deal to brag about either. Is it? Even though one can aim at an animal and shoot it down, even though one can shoot every day all the animals one sees and carry them to the village, it only shows that one has already committed so much sin and one still has Karmic disposition to acquire sins that can bring Karmic fruits for five hundred lives to come. Does it not?”

The language of this novel is formed in such a way that it focalizes the story through the life and point of view of the hunter. This style takes the reader into the hunter’s consciousness and sustains the reader within the level of reality, where the hunter dwells.

Misconception

There is a misconception that there exists language or style suitable for all novels. It is an opinion constantly repeated by popular literary journalists. Poetic talents can be extremely useful for a novelist. More often than not, it gives immense pleasure to read novels written by poets. All novels by Michael Ondaatje are like long poems. Yet, each of his novels has its own language. If anyone expects a single language or style from all his novels, he simply does not know the meaning of novelized language. A British critic once claimed to have found Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost a bit too poetic, and might have reasons for that argument.

Possession by A.S. Byatt is very much a poetic novel, and there is a narrative reason for it: It is a story of love between a poet and a poetess. One might not be able to write a novel of that kind without a great deal of poetic skill within oneself. Byatt writes in a beautifully poetic language. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald is also a captivating novel about the life of the German poet Novalis. In it, the author’s controlled-use of poetry within the novel contributes considerably to the book’s immense attraction. That Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is poetic should not surprise anyone, for it is an epic of the life of a poet. But there poetry does not intermingle with prose. It is true that there are so much poetic description nearly everywhere in the book. But what is obviously poetic is included as a collection of Zhivago’s poems, at the end of the book. So negligible was the connection of poems to the structure of the novel, that the poems were later published as a separate book. Separation of that kind is not possible in Possession, where after every few pages poetic sections appear, helping to advance the plot. The immense appeal of Rainer Maria Rilke’s stunning novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, is predicated upon the author’s undisputed skills in poetry. In some ways, it is a Campu written in German translated into English!

Prose or Campu

Vilasiniyakage Premaya (The Love of a Courtesan) by Ediriweera Sarachchandra is a Campu poem, as the author prefers to name it. In a Campu, verses are a part of the structure because it is a genre that uses a mixture of prose and verse. In it, verses are used to express the inner feelings of characters, to express interior monologues or to send some coded message. Another novel that deals with poets, poetry and poetic talents is Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere. It is clear from Baththalangunduwa itself, that Wediwardena has been heavily influenced by Kundera’s novel. Intertextual significations the Sinhala novel develops by constantly referring to Life is Elsewhere, and in reading it, an experienced reader is regularly reminded of many other novels in which the novelist and the poetry merge in an exquisite union. In the manner the author uses language in the novel, it is very much comparable with numerous other novels mentioned above.

A good novel, among other things, creates a style that refreshes the language of contemporary fiction. Baththalangunduwa does refresh the language of the Sinhala novel or novelistic Sinhala. Though there have been many recent newcomers to the genre, the promise made by those novels to renew novelistic Sinhala has not always been kept. Hundreds of novels are routinely published, written in a style which fails to attract and surprise us with its beauty and artistic fineness. Only a few novelists, Sunethra Rajakarunanayake for example, delivered on the promise, by writing several innovative novels. Perhaps, it has a lot to do with the fact that a style alone cannot give a novel lasting substance.

Insights into human life

Why have we failed to sustain the genre of novel as a text that generates unique insights into human life and society? Some Sinhala writers use attractive styles, but their thinking is a bit too plain to make them great novelists. Conservatism of thought has been plaguing the Sinhala novel in recent years. Cultural nationalism, as the most dominant ideology in the country, gets in the way of achieving literary greatness. In fact, the same nationalism, which is extremely conservative about the language, is one of the greatest obstacles for inventive writers. More often than not, writers who break away from conservative grammatical traditions, have to face considerable hostility from conservative thinkers. Wediwardena seems to be aware of these challenges. This book has a new style and a new content, and they supplement each other beautifully. Moreover, the book’s thematic content cannot be separated from its style.

This novel is quite minimal in its content. In time and space too, the novel’s scope is limited. For that very reason, its style is the central feature that breathes life into the text. Usually, a novel, which focuses on a relatively small life-world situated within a small space and short time period, places greater emphasis on its style. Such a novel aims to achieve its completeness through an innovative and captivating style. Baththalangunduwa is such a novel. There are such novels in world literature as well. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August, for example, have achieved excellence primarily through their styles. Novels like, Karamazov Brothers, War and Peace, or Anna Karenina are so grand in their theme and scope that they achieve greatness even without any particular inventiveness in style. That is not to say that Tolstoy was not a great stylist. He certainly was, and there are memorable sentences and paragraphs everywhere in his novels.

Wediwardena’s novel tells a story set in an Island of the North-Western coast of Sri Lanka, and the novel becomes unique simply because of the sub-culture of the fishing community of the island. But he still faces the challenge of inventing a style suitable to create the world of that community in his text. He does invent that style wonderfully.

The challenge he had to face was a complex one. The community he is writing about is different from Sinhala Buddhists, which make up the largest chunk of the cultural world of Sri Lanka, and the community in this small island is different from the mainstream Christian community living on the main island. This small island is an island in the cultural sense as well. It is a tiny island that belongs to a larger island. The writer, writing in Sinhala, has to portray this small fishing community in a manner accessible to the readers living in the main island, who have little or no knowledge of this sub-cultural group.

In addition, there is another challenge, perhaps much more demanding: Sinhala language is mainly a product of Buddhist culture and many Sinhala words have Buddhist connotations. The majority of novel readers in Sinhala are also Buddhist. They know very little about Christian communities and much less about fishing communities in these small islands. In this sense, writing about Baththalangunduwa, the island, is as difficult as writing about a foreign land.

Son searching for father, father in search of son

The other side of Wediwardena’s challenge is even more complex: When the narrator-son goes to this remote island to look for his father, he is a young man exposed to the postmodernist conditions in Colombo. He takes with him a Sinhala translation of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere. It is through this character that the fishing island and its people are presented to us. Thus, the challenge of style gets even more complicated. The writer has to come up with a style that can hold together two worlds, which are strikingly different from each other: The postmodern urban world of the son and the unsophisticated life of the fishing community, where the father makes his home. It does not end there. Since the narrator is a poet, the style of the novel needs to be one that can facilitate poetic sensibilities. As I see it, the author successfully meets all these challenges. At times, the novel’s style is too poetic to be novelistic but, in the main, it is able to breathe life into ‘postmodern Antony’, (the son) and the men and women in the fishing community. The style wonderfully absorbs fishermen’s wisdom of the ocean without destroying their epistemological foundations. In other words, those folkloric views of the fishing community enter the author’s prose without being subjected to any rationalist comments of an urban observer. Thus, one is able to listen to the most beautiful descriptions of the ocean through the dialogues of those fishermen.

Though characters of a novel exist in language, characterisation largely belongs to the plot. The complications of characters appear in the way they react to different incidents of the story. But in this novel, the style is instrumental in characterisation as well. Wediwardena allows the language of these Island-dwelling fishermen to merge with the author’s narration in a way that provides important glimpses into the lives of those men and women.

This novel does not have large dramatic events. Thus, the plot is not all that crucial in characterisation. Instead, the author skillfully uses his style to present his unique characters.

Organic connections with characters

The author deeply loves the characters he portrays and he is honest to life there on the island. Consequently, very much like the main character, Antony, the writer himself has no hesitation in mingling with life on the island. He is not a detached observer of that life. Antony does not detach himself from the community in the island as an elitist visitor from Colombo. But rather he eats, drinks and have sexual relationships with those people. The ethical rationality that undergirds those activities is not something brought from metropolitan Colombo; it is a form of ethics unique to the island. Both Antony and his father share everything that the island offers: food, drink, lodging, and even sex. For the conservative moralists, the island might look like an abode of sin. But the ideal reader of the novel, the reader this novel seeks to ‘create’ might see this island as a place where primordial innocence still exists. That innocence is something we have lost with the advent of modern life. It would not be surprising for the reader to feel like eating fish curry, drinking locally made illegal alcohol with those fisher folk and making love freely as they normally do. This aesthetic effect is achieved primarily through style.

New facet of Sinhalaness

This novel shows us another beautiful facet of Sinhala culture. The culture of this island made with Catholic faith, the trade of fishing and folkloric beliefs about the ocean should also belong in the Sinhala culture at large. Some of the Sinhala people on this island only speak Tamil. But the island is open to Milan Kundera. It is clear from the way the culture of this island intermingles with other cultures that no culture is pure or impure. This novel reminds us of Sri Lanka’s cultural diversity and the intricate connections among different cultural elements. This is, perhaps, one thematic dimension that could have been developed further.

In this novel the impressionist portrayal of life on the island is prioritised over elucidating a strong thematic line. The novel revolves around the trip Antony makes to see his father, the meeting of the father and the eventual separation. What are the themes of this journey; of the search for his father; or of seducing the father’s girlfriend? Is it a case of a son seducing his symbolic mother? Our author does not allow us to make any thematic summaries of the plot. In Faulkner’s As I lay dying, a family takes a dead woman’s body across the Southern US to bury her. That journey itself makes much of the novel. But the mythical allure of the journey lends itself to multiple meanings. Antony’s trip to this exotic island has that mythical quality, whose realization perhaps needed better care. Still Baththalangunduwa is one of the most original works of fiction to be published in recent times.

(Amarakeerthi is a professor of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya)



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Midweek Review

Post-war foreign relations: A diplomatic quagmire for Lanka

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa flanked by PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chinese FM Wang Yi launch Sri Lanka China Friendship Sailing Cup at the Port City last Sunday.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Chinese Ambassador to Colombo Qi Zhenhong seems quite confident of Sri Lanka’s capacity to overcome the current economic turmoil the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is experiencing.

 The top Chinese envoy, at an informal meeting with a selected group of print media journalists on Sunday (09), soon after the departure of Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, asserted that the crisis was temporary.  Ambassador Qi Zhenhong declared that as Sri Lanka had overcome far bigger challenges the country wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the current challenge in debt servicing. The meet took place at the King Emperor Suite of the Galle Face Hotel

 Wang departed following high level political talks with the Sri Lankan leadership. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chinese FM Wang inaugurated the Sri Lanka-China Sailing Cup 2022 at the Port City to celebrate the 65th anniversary of China and Sri Lanka diplomatic relations and the 70th anniversary of the Rubber-Rice pact. Interestingly, former Premier and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP, was among the invitees. Wickremesinghe, whose government delayed the Port City project by about one and half years, sat next to Foreign Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, who returned from an official visit to Seoul the previous day.

 Is Ambassador Qi Zhenhong right in his assessment? Had there been far bigger crises in the recent past that threatened to overwhelm Sri Lanka? Perhaps Ambassador Qi Zhenhong is right in his appraisal. Maybe, he is not. Having joined the Chinese Foreign Service in 1988, Ambassador Qi Zhenhong took over the Chinese diplomatic mission in Colombo about a year ago at the height of Covid-19 eruption.

 Amidst a simmering row with the Sri Lankan government over the rejection of an allegedly contaminated Chinese carbonic fertiliser consignment, Ambassador Qi Zhenhong undertook a three-day visit (Dec 15-17, 2021) to the Jaffna peninsula.

Colombo-based The Hindu correspondent, Meera Srinivasan, in a story dated Dec 26, 2021, headlined ‘Chinese Ambassador’s visit to Jaffna sparks concern, commentary in Sri Lanka’, described the visit as an intensification of geopolitical contest between India and China. Qi Zhenhong underscored China’s right to engage people in any part of Sri Lanka. Responding to media at the Emperor’s Suite, Qi Zhenhong pointed out: “Jaffna is in the northern part of Sri Lanka, not south of any other country.”

 Ambassador Qi visited the Jaffna public library and the Adam’s Bridge, a row of limestone shoals across the narrow Palk Strait between Mannar and Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.

The Ambassador visited a seafood factory in Mannar district, built with Chinese investment, and a sea cucumber farm in Jaffna.

The Chinese entry into Sri Lanka and the gradual expansion of its role here should be examined against the backdrop of Indian-funded terrorism project that destabilised the entire country. The Sri Lanka Army couldn’t have withstood the terrorist firepower if not for military assistance provided by China, Pakistan, Russia and Israel during the early stages of the conflict. Having paid a heavy price for destabilising its smaller neighbour, India allowed the annihilation of separatist Tamil conventional military capability in 2009. The eradication of terrorism has paved the way for geopolitical contest between the two Asian nuclear powers here. Both China and India seemed confident in pursuing their agendas as the cash-strapped SLPP government struggled on multiple fronts. The deterioration of Sri Lanka’s economy as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic delivering a devastating blow to its once vibrant tourism industry and expatriate worker remittances, (both raked in huge amounts of foreign exchange), as well as waste, corruption and mismanagement at every level appeared to have facilitated anti-Sri Lanka foreign projects much to the dismay of the vast majority of people. Sri Lanka seems to be at the mercy of foreign powers.

Superpower politics

 Chinese and Indian investments as well as relations with political parties here cannot be discussed leaving out the ongoing battle between China and the US-led grouping. India is part of the latter. South Korea is also in that group though it has so far refrained from joining the four-nation ‘Quad’ comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia. Post-war Sri Lanka is in a dicey situation. In spite of overcoming terrorism 12 years ago, Sri Lanka is under tremendous pressure from both parties as each seeks investment opportunities advantageous to them.

 Recently, Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda expressed concerns over China and India seeking to invest in the Point Pedro fisheries harbour. Devananda, the leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), one of the smaller terrorist groups, that took to the democratic path long before the LTTE terror mechanism was annihilated and primarily active in the Northern region vowed not to allow China to exploit the Northern population. Obviously Devananda is playing politics. The Fisheries Minister cannot take a view contrary to that of the Rajapaksas.

Pathfinder, an organisation founded by Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, Milinda Moragoda, in its latest report titled ‘Sri Lanka has no room to maneuver’ carried in the January 10 edition of The Island warns of a catastrophe unless the government adopts remedial measures, immediately. While appreciating the arrangement Sri Lanka has reached with India to meet immediate challenges, Pathfinder recommended (i) restructuring of external debt (ii) an arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (iii) mobilisation of ‘bridging finance’ to meet the external financing gap up to June 2022.

Recent US and Indian investments in the energy sector should be viewed against the backdrop of much economically weakened Sri Lanka. The controversial energy deals with US-based New Fortress Energy, and Indian Oil Corporation Limited finalised on Sept 17, 2021 and January 5, 2022, respectively, generated much public interest. The latter was finalised just days before the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit. Both agreements have been challenged in the Supreme Court. The SC is in the process of hearing several petitions against the US energy deal whereas Ven. Wakmulle Uditha Thera of Nayigala Raja Mahaviharaya, Agrahara, Weeraketiya, filed a fundamental rights petition against the agreement on Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm. The Ven. Thera is believed to be acting on behalf of the JVP, the only party to move court against both the US and Indian investments.

Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila, who along with Cabinet colleagues, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Wimal Weerawansa moved SC against US energy deal that came through the backdoor, in a booklet titled ‘Regaining Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm’ declared that he gave the ‘strategic leadership’ to the project. In spite of accusations of a sellout and betrayal by many quarters, including the Federation of National Organisations, led by Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, which demanded a thorough investigation. Attorney-at-law Gammanpila defended the latest agreement. The booklet released by the Energy Ministry contained a letter dated July 29, 1987 signed by the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that dealt with the Trincomalee oil tank farm, President JRJ’s response, an agreement finalised on Feb 7, 2003, during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on economic projects signed in 2017 also during Wickremesinghe’s premiership. What really surprised the public was that though the Energy Ministry compared the 2017 MoU with the recently finalised agreement, the ministry quite conveniently left the January 5 agreement out of the booklet. The ministry may claim that the agreement couldn’t be included as at the time of the releasing of the booklet, it hadn’t been signed. Perhaps, the printing of the booklet should have been delayed till the finalisation of the agreement.

Declaring the project received political guidance from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Energy Ministry revealed the identities of the two negotiating teams. Accordingly, the Sri Lankan delegation comprised Lalith Vidanagamage, Advisor, Energy Ministry, Buddhika Madihahewa, Managing Director, CPC, Mrs. Hasitha Paragahagoda, Legal Officer, Energy Ministry and Nalin Beligaswatta, Research Officer, Energy Ministry.

The Energy Ministry also named the Indian negotiating team. Deputy High Commissioner Vinod K. Jacob has led the Indian delegation that included Dr. Rakesh Pandey, Head of Commerce, Indian HC, Ms Irina Thakur, First Secretary, Commerce and Cultural Affairs and Manoj Gupta, Managing Director, LIOC.

The Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm comprised two sections (i) Lower Tank Farm and (ii) Upper Tank Farm spread over 827 acres of land.

One cannot forget the circumstances India forced the Indo-Lanka Accord on the latter. That agreement finalised at the height of the US-Soviet cold war encompassed the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm. Today, US-India relations have reached zenith whereas at the time of the Indo-Lanka Accord India was seen as being much closer to the Soviet Union and constantly feared the US using Sri Lanka as a platform to destabilise the country. The letters exchanged between Rajiv Gandhi and JRJ agreed on the restoration and operation of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm as a joint venture. With the latest agreement, India has consolidated its position in the strategic port city of Trincomalee close on the heels of politically influential Adani Group’s investment at the Colombo port. Gujarat-headquartered company signed a Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) agreement with Sri Lanka’s largest listed company John Keells Holdings and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) to jointly develop the Colombo West International Container Terminal (CWICT) at the Colombo Port, situated amidst one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. China has secured a terminal of its own during the previous Rajapaksa administration as the war was raging with hardly any other investor showing interest and during the Yahapalana administration won a 99-year lease on the Hambantota port. Controversy surrounds the Hambantota port deal, too. Arjuna Ranatunga, who had served as the Ports and Shipping Minister at that time had to give up the portfolio as he didn’t agree with the terms. The then President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe brought in SLFPer Mahinda Samarasinghe as the Ports and Shipping Minister to put the finishing touches to it. Having finalised the agreement in 2017, Samarasinghe switched his allegiance to the SLFP in the run-up to the last parliamentary election in August 2020. The one-time UNPer recently gave up his Kalutara District parliamentary seat to receive appointment as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington.

Former PM Wickremesinghe, FM Prof. Peiris, Minister Namal Rajapaksa and Chinese Ambassador to Colombo Qi Zhenhong at the launch of Sri Lanka China Friendship Sailing Cup at the Port City last Sunday (pics courtesy PM Media)

Wijeyadasa strikes discordant note

 In spite of China and Sri Lanka enjoying excellent relations and the latter regularly referring to China as an all-weather friend, there had been a number of contentious issues. The Island had an opportunity to raise some of them with Ambassador Qi Zhenhong during last Sunday’s meeting. Reference was made to accusations made by the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake as regards China taking advantage of Sri Lanka, dispute over contaminated carbonic fertiliser consignment that had to be settled by paying USD 6.7 mn to the Chinese firm concerned and SLPP lawmaker Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s fiery letter to the Chinese President Xi Jinping. There hadn’t been a previous instance of a lawmaker writing to the Chinese leader through its Ambassador in Colombo. Ambassador Qi Zhenhong dismissed Rajapakse’s concerns over China changing its strategy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka in the wake of the high profile ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project meant to improving connectivity and cooperation among multiple countries spread across the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. One-time Justice Minister and former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) accused China of following an agenda intended to destroy Sri Lanka’s relations with the US, the UK, India, Japan, Korea, Australia and in time to come Russia.

Lawmaker Rajapakse’s stand cannot be examined without taking his call during the previous administration to rescind the Sri Lanka-China agreement on the Hambantota port through the intervention of the Parliament. That call was made in his capacity as a UNP Member of Parliament, whereas he wrote the January 3 dated letter as an SLPP lawmaker.

MP Rajapakse accused China of ruining Sri Lanka’s economy to facilitate their project. The former Justice Minister seemed to have no issue with Quad members, the UK and Korea. Quad members never stood by Sri Lanka at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) whereas Western powers brazenly pursued a policy detriment to Sri Lanka. They either voted against Sri Lanka or skipped the vote as in the case of Japan regardless of the Comprehensive Partnership the two countries entered into in Oct 2015. Obviously, Japan lacked the political will to go against the US wishes at the Geneva HRC, whereas Seoul voted against Colombo. On the basis of the Geneva process, the Sri Lankan military is being targeted by the US and some of her allies as part of the overall campaign directed at Sri Lanka.

Regardless of Sri Lanka’s close relations with China, the accusations made by MP Rajapakse cannot be dismissed lightly. The MP issued a warning over possible Chinese investments under the ‘Selendiva’ project, having questioned the investments on the Colombo Port, South Terminal, Coal-fired power plant complex at Norochcholai, International Airport at Mattala, Lotus Tower (Nelum Kuluna) in Colombo, Lotus Theatre (Nelum Pokuna) in Colombo, International Cricket Stadium at Suriyawewa and International Conference Hall in Hambantota. Alleging China created a debt trap, lawmaker Rajapakse said that he lost his portfolio during the Yahapalana administration as he opposed the Hambantota port deal. The copies of MP Rajapakse’s explosive letter have been sent to the President, Prime Minister, Speaker, Most Venerable High Prelates, the Archbishop Colombo, Foreign Minister, Chinese Ambassador in Sri Lanka and Colombo-based High Commissioners and the Ambassadors of the other countries.

Can the SLPP government afford to ignore Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s actions, particularly against the backdrop of stripping Susil Premjayantha of his portfolio over criticism of the government? Similarly, can Ministers Vasudeva, Wimal and Udaya get away after having challenged their Cabinet colleagues over the US energy deal? The government needs to address these issues as the ruling coalition as well as other political parties represented in Parliament struggle to come to terms with a rapidly changing situation. Avoiding Chinese as well as Western moves and that of India seem a herculean task for Sri Lanka, trying to walk the diplomatic tightrope.

During the Yahapalana administration, the US pushed for three agreements, namely ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement), SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact. On the approval of President Sirisena, the government signed ACSA in August 2017 though the remaining agreements couldn’t be finalised. No one can forget how Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe authorised one-sided CFA (Ceasefire Agreement) or the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo allowed the Singapore Sri Lanka Free Trade Pact. If those in power and the Opposition are genuinely interested in protecting national assets, they’ll agree on a political mechanism to reach consensus on agreements with external powers/foreign parties.

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Midweek Review

What is so luring about John Steinbeck’s The Pearl: A translator’s view

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Book: Dimuthuwa (A translation of The Pearl)
Translator: K. A. I Kalyanaratne
Publisher: Sarasavi

By K. A. I Kalyanaratne

Having studied Sinhala and English since my early schooling, I thought of rendering into Sinhala an English masterpiece. I knew that such an exercise would help not only test my comprehension in that contextual setting but also measure my capacity to reproduce the ideas in idiomatic Sinhala so that the reader would feel that the rendering was not foreign to him or her.

I did not want to estrange the local reader.

Translator’s responsibilities

I began my search for a read-worthy book for that purpose. I came across a book, not so voluminous, I had attempted several times to render into Sinhala, without much success. I had given up all my previous attempts halfway upon realisation that the time was not opportune for me to undertake such a responsible task, for any writer has a responsibility by the society to uplift it to the best of one’s ability, and retain the ingenuity of the original writer. I was also concerned about the sanctity of the language, the most sacred tool of its users. It means that any writer should be mindful of the correct idiomatic expressions of that language.

‘THE PEARL’

Finally, I selected ‘THE PEARL’ by the American novelist and Nobel prize-winner John Steinbeck. Having read it a couple of times, I was familiar with its content. Considering the number of characters and the span of time involving the narration, many a writer treats The Pearl as a ‘novella’ or a ‘novelette’. As the story is full of dramatic episodes, it is also referred to as a ‘chilling-novella’. As Steibeck has himself expressed in his epigraph to the Pearl, he has re-told a Mexican folktale which relates a series of tragic events that unraveled with a scorpion biting Kino’s son Coyotito.

In his inimitable style Steinbeck says

“In the town they tell the story of the great pearl – how it was found, and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Juana, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind. And, as with all retold tales that are in people’s hearts, there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.

If the story is a parable, perhaps everyone reads his or her own life into it. In any case, they say in the town that…”

 

” මෙ වෙසෙයි දිමුතුව ලද සැටිත්, ඒ යළි නැති වුණු සැටිත් පිළිබඳ පවත ඒ නියැරියෝ පවසති. එ මෙන් ම, ධීවර කීනෝත්, ඔහු ගේ බිරිය ජුවානාත්, ඔවුන් ගේ පුත් කොයෝතිතෝත් පිළිබඳ ව ඔවුහු පවසති. තව ද, මෙ පවත නෙ වර පවසනු ලැබ ඇති හෙයින්, ඒ සෑම අයකු ගේ ම සිත්හි මුල් බැස ගෙන ඇත. මිනිස් සිත්හි එල්බ ගත්, එ මෙන් ම, යළි යළිත් පැවැසුණු පවත්හි රඳා පවතිනුයේ යහඅයහ දේ පමණි. ක`ථ-සුදු දේ පමණි. සිරි-දුසිරි දේ පමණි. මෙ අතරැ වූ කිසිවක් කවර තැනෙක හෝ තිබෙනු නො හැකි යි.

මෙ පවත උපමා කතාවක් සේ සැලැකෙන්නේ නම්, සෑම අයකු ම ඔහුට සීමා වූ අරුතක් ඉන් උකහා ගනු ඇත. තමන් ගේ ම දිවි පෙවෙත ඊට කාවද්දනු ඇත. මෙ කවර අයුරු වුව ද එ නුවර වැසියෝ මෙ සේ පවසත්”

Dramatic End of The Pearl

The Kino’s pearl of the world, incomparable in its beauty, radiance and size, around which Steinbeck spins the whole story with a few characters who in their peculiar contexts behave in self-centred ambitions and aspirations, ultimately meets its own playground, the big blue sea, in whose womb it was born. At last, when Kino realises that the pearl is evil, he throws it back to the sea. The humour, sarcasm and pathos, which Steinbeck aims to generate, is the last of such incidents he narrates when he writes:

“And Kino drew back his arm and flung the pearl with all his might. Kino and Juana watched it go, winking and glimmering under the setting sun. They saw the little splash in the distance, and they stood side by side watching the place for a long time.

“And the pearl settled into the lovely green water and dropped towards the bottom.

The waving branches of the algae called to it and beckoned to it. The lights on its surface were green and lovely. It settled down to the sand bottom among the fern-like plants. Above, the surface of water was a green mirror. And the pearl lay on the floor of the sea. A crab scampering over the bottom raised a little cloud of sand, and when it settled the pearl was gone.

And the music of the pearl drifted to a whisper and disappeared.”

යළි තමා වෙත ඇදගත් අතින්, කිනෝ මු`ථ වැර යොදා, දිමුතුව මුහුදට විසි කෙළේ ය. අවරට යන හිරු ගේ හෙළියෙන් දිලෙමින් ද බැබැළෙමින් ද, එය ඈතට විසි වී යන අයුරු කිනෝ ද, ජුවානා ද හොඳින් බලා සිටියහ. එ ඈතින් දියට වැටී හට ගත් දිය කැළැඹුම දෙස ද බලා සිටි ඔවුහු, දිගු වේලාවක් එහි රැඳී සිටියහ.

දිමුතුව ද, ප‍්‍රසන්න නිල් පැහැති මුහුදුු දියෙහි තැන්පත් ව, මුහුදු පතුළට කිඳා බැස්සේ ය. එ විට මුහුදු පතුළෙහි වූ මුහුදු පැළෑටිවල
සසල වූ අතු පත් අත් වනමින් දිමුතුව කඳවා ගෙන ගියා සේ යි. මතු පිටට පතිත වූ ආලෝකයෙන් ඒ කොළ පැහැ ගැන් වී, ප‍්‍රසන්න වී තිබිණි. මීවන වන් පැළෑටි අතරින් ගොස්, පතුළේ වූ වැලි මත එය තැන්පත් විය. එ මත්තෙහි වූ මතුපිට දිය කඳ කොළ පැහැති කැටපතක් බඳු විය. එ දිමුතුව දැන් මුහුදු පතුළෙහි රැුඳී ඇත. එ පතුළෙහි ම, දුව පැන යමින් සිටි කකු`ථවකු නිසා කුඩා වැලි වළාවෙකින් නැ`ගුණු වැලි යළි තැන්පත් වත් ම, එ දිමුතුව දැක්මෙන් ඔබ්බට ගොස් තිබිණි.

එ අනුයමින් ම, දිමුතුවේ සංගීතය අවසනැ හුදු මිමිනීමක් පමණක් බවට පත් ව අතුරුදන් විය

Here, one remembers a line from T. S. Elliot’s Little Gidding: “Dust in the air suspended, Marks the place where a story ended”.

“Language is the Dress of Thought.” — Samuel Johnson

The language of The Pearl is one of the enticing aspects which lured me to undertake this exercise to render it into Sinhala. I questioned myself on several occasions whether my Sinhala diction was rich enough to express, with the same efficacy, the nuances of human feelings and sentiments that Steinbeck conveys in The Pearl.

In his retelling of a Mexican folktale, Steinbeck relates the tale of Kino, fisherman, who finds the pearl of the world during one of his dives. Showing how money is the root of all evil, Steinbeck delivers a poignant tale. Fish and pearls are usually the common source of the livelihood of fisherfolk. However, the story tells how each member of the village desires part of Kino’s newfound wealth. Hence, rather than being pleased with and sharing the happiness of this prized discovery, each villager offers his/her unique suggestion as to how Kino should spend his winnings. Steinbeck thus not only exposes human nature but also through a few characters like the doctor who later came in to treat Coyotito, Kino’s son, the priest, and the pearl brokers who attempt to swindle Kino, tells how greed erodes the cherished values, and how people who come upon sudden wealth are affected. This story also teaches us how disastrous it is to take on its face-value and acts mindlessly. The Pearl is, thus, a tale of greed, exposing how people would act and react, if pitted against the circumstances as revealed in the story. In short, The Pearl is a true representation of the secrets of man’s nature, irrespective of time or clime, and the ‘darkest depths of evil”.

An Attempt to Add Depth to the Translation of ‘The Pearl’

I strove to make ‘Dimuthuwa’ go beyond a mere translation of Steinbeck’s novelette and presume that the reader should know the background of the story as well if he or she is to enjoy the translation to the fullest. Hence, the following additional pages have been added to the translation:

i. Background – which provides the geographical setting and the novelist’s objective of turning out a folktale to a novel.

ii. The historical setting revealing the discrimination and injustice that prevailed in society, which became the crux of the story.

iii. Specialty in John Steinbeck’s style of writing and his use of the figurative language especially in describing incidents and the surroundings.

iv. The Pearl Quotes – The products of famous writers contain sayings that will live have their value beyond times and climes. They become eternal truths, and therefore, they become universal truth that are of eternal value. Some describe these sayings as ‘Distilled Wisdom’. One such quote by Steinbeck is appended below:

“For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.”

All these quotes have been rendered into Sinhala in this special section.

John Steinbeck’ background

The Pearl is a novella, a seemingly simple book, woven around a story of classic simplicity, based on a Mexican folk tale. John Steinbeck was an American writer. He was the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, published in 1939 and the novella ‘Of Mice and Men’, published in 1937. He wrote 25 books, including sixteen novels,6 non-fiction books and several collections of short stories. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature. It so happened that after I completed translating ‘The Pearl’, I was presented a voluminous publication by a friend of mine, which contained five of his novels written before The Pearl, running to over 950 pages. Published in the UK by Octopus Books Limited, its introduction ends with a quote of H. G. Wells: “Steinbeck’s robustness was always mirrored by delicacy of feelings; his pride was always matched by modesty, humility even. He saw himself as a craftsman.” But his readers concur H. G. Wells on his assessment of Steinbeck – ‘THAT TREMENDOUS GENIUS’.

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Midweek Review

The Mod-Con Tea Party

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By Lynn Ockersz

They sure are ‘talking’,

But tongue-tied all the same,

And though at the same table,

Flushed with the thrill of partying,

There’s no mind-to-mind bonhomie,

And the only sounds to be heard,

Are the endless thumping of cell phones,

And the ritualistic rendering of courtesies;

A pantomime of voiceless souls it seems,

But let not this be seen as an ICT Age freak,

For, the land groans under a rash of pains,

With depression emerging a chief dread,

And the need for quality talk is dire;

But the crisis is not beyond repair,

For, a defrosting of hearts and tongues,

And the sensible use of mod cons,

Could some of this longsuffering help end.

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