RUNNING IN THE FAMILY
“ The only occupation that could hope to avert one from drink and romance was gambling.”
This fictionalized memoir is a dreamy and wildly atmospheric foray into the chequered history of the author’s eccentric Burgher family. In trying to understand more of his absent dipsomaniacal father Ondaatje digs through the myths, rumours and scandals that surrounded him, recreating the heady upper class frivolity of 1920s in Ceylon that would make Gatsby wither with envy – skinny dipping at Mount Lavinia and tennis matches in Nuwara Eliya, sudden engagements, reckless affairs and casual tragedies.
It’s an easy book to get into, melancholic and funny in equal measure, with a whiff of magical realism about it. Highly recommended.
“I wanted to find one law to cover all of living. I found fear…”
Set against the backdrop of the civil war and the JVP insurrection, Anil’s ghost tells the story of a young Sri Lankan forensic pathologist returning to the island after decades abroad as part of a UN Human Rights investigation.
While I found the writing to be disappointingly bland and haphazard when I coincidentally stumbled across this novel in the summer before my trip, the book sort of clicked into place during my stay in Sri Lanka. It is based on thorough research and does a good job of portraying the undercurrent of brutality and institutionalized denial which marked the civil war era and its aftermath.
A VILLAGE IN THE JUNGLE
“All jungle is evil.”
Leonard Woolf (better known as Mr. Virginia Woolf) spent seven years working as a colonial officer in Sri Lanka, which inspired him to write this bleak little novel, first published in 1913. Woolf taught himself Tamil and Sinhalese and travelled widely through his district, learning about the daily hardships of the villagers. The story is told from the indigenous perspective without being patronizing, making it pretty unique for the era, and is peppered by local expressions and speech patterns.
The book is a vivid and thoroughly depressing account of one family’s hopeless struggle against the jungle, fellow men and their own backwardness. It’s a quick read, but one that lingers. You might need some arrack before rejoining society – I recommend Mendis Old Arrack.
THE CAGE: the Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers
“States . . . reveal themselves in the way they are defended.”
This book is the first comprehensive, unbiased account of the mass killing of civilians that took place during the final four months of the civil war. Weiss provides ample context and analysis and doesn’t patronise the reader by descending into sentimental hand-wringing but rather explains the inevitable role of civilians as a tactical element in warfare and the ways in which international law seeks to limit it.
The question that the book seeks to answer is “What does the Sri Lankan government have to hide?” and the answer is, in short, “a whole lot”. But this book focuses on understanding the conflict, rather than assigning blame – after all, there is plenty to go around. The conduct of the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers receives the bulk of the book’s attention, but the diplomatic blunders of third party observers (most notably the UN and the IRC) and the self-serving interference of the region’s superpowers are also well covered. Spoilers: nobody comes out clean.
This is a deeply unsettling but in my opinion crucial book for anyone interested to delve beyond the glossy veneer of Sri Lankan tourist brochures.
A HISTORY OF SRI LANKA
KM De Silva
This definitive history of the island has 800 pages and you’d have to be very determined to read it from cover to cover, but it makes for a very good reference book, covering events from prehistory to the late twentieth century. My attention span was found lacking, but history buffs should get a kick out of it.
That’s it from me – have you read any books on Sri Lanka or by Sri Lankan authors that you would like to recommend? Comment below!