New York Times
The Past is a Foreign Country
The nation-state is a creation of empire, but for a generation of postimperial subjects the legacy of colonialism has been one of homelessness and exile. Romesh Gunesekera was born in Sri Lanka in 1954, six years after independence. He left soon thereafter -- first for the Philippines and then, in the early 1970's, for the imperial homeland, a star that glowed brightly from afar but, up close, offered the chill of alienation and racism.
Gunesekera's fiction, unsurprisingly, is preoccupied with various kinds of rootlessness. His first novel, ''Reef,'' which was a finalist for the Booker Prize, is a heart-rending tale about losing the innocence of childhood; ''Monkfish Moon,'' a collection of stories, is bathed in a similar nostalgia. ''The Sandglass,'' Gunesekera's second novel, addresses the search for a personal and national sense of belonging. All three books are set primarily in Sri Lanka, or an imaginary place very much like that island. Each, in its own way, is about the plight of postcolonial exile.
''Heaven's Edge,'' Gunesekera's third novel, has much in common with these earlier books. Like ''The Sandglass,'' it is the story of a narrator who travels from England to his ancestral island, again a thinly disguised Sri Lanka, in search of a missing past. It is also Gunesekera's most accomplished work yet. Wistful, melancholy and mysterious, ''Heaven's Edge'' is a complex novel that entwines the individual's quest for wholeness with a country's longing for lost -- and better -- times.
There are many forms of exile in the novel, many opportunities for Gunesekera to meditate on the irretrievability of the past. Marc, the narrator, visits the island that has been described to him by his grandfather and father, both of whom spent much of their lives in England. At some point in Marc's childhood, his father made his way to the island and died in a plane crash while defending it from a military threat. Marc is in search of his father, and he is in search of his roots. His existence in England has been hollow; he is also, as he says, a man ''in search of himself.'' To these preoccupations, another is soon added: Marc meets a young woman named Uva, with whom he falls in love, but their idyll is interrupted by a paramilitary intrusion. The bulk of the novel consists of the attempt by Marc (accompanied by two of Uva's former acquaintances) to be reunited with his lost love.
Hovering over all these personal quests is the sadness of a country that has also lost itself. Sri Lanka was once the jewel of the subcontinent, a rich island with an educated and sophisticated population, a place where various ethnic groups coexisted harmoniously. For two decades, however, it has been racked by a separatist civil war that has claimed some 65,000 lives, many of them in brutal suicide bombings. (Although recent peace talks have offered hopes for an end to the fighting, they are still fragile hopes.) As in other recent Sri Lankan expatriate novels -- notably ''Anil's Ghost,'' by Michael Ondaatje -- the exile's journey is clouded by this violence: Marc wants to go home, but the home he anticipates exists only in his imagination.
''Anything was possible,'' he thinks early in the novel, recalling his father's and grandfather's idealized descriptions. ''That was the point . . . about an island of dreams.'' But by the end of the book, as his quest for Uva drags him ever deeper into a confrontation with the island's brutality, there are no dreams, only nightmares. His ancestors' paradise has become a war-scarred land where soldiers roam unchecked and a military government controls every aspect of its citizens' lives.
In its bleakness, this landscape resembles a tropical version of the urban desert in Terry Gilliam's film ''12 Monkeys.'' Indeed, although Gunesekera might bristle at the classification, his novel is a work of science fiction. It takes place in some unspecified future after an unspecified disaster has driven the population from its homes into an underground existence as hunter-gatherers. Although the island's name remains unspecified as well, the novel is filled with futuristic-sounding places like Samandia and Farindola and with fabulous, abandoned mansions ''at the top of the world.'' In one scene, Marc makes a quick getaway from soldiers in a flying machine shaped like a peacock -- a mythical ''Trojan peacock'' invented in 2525 B.C.
We never do learn exactly who these soldiers (or their masters) are, and we never learn the precise nature of the disaster that has taken place on Marc's island. This indeterminacy can be troubling: the narrative sometimes unfolds in a state of delirium, and there are moments when it veers dangerously away from storytelling toward vague metaphysical ponderings. (''Our lives,'' Marc tells himself, ''were ethereal links in a great sacred chain that must not be broken.'')
BUT Gunesekera's prose is spare and muscular, and ultimately it is the writing that rescues his novel from its ''ethereal'' digressions. For every moment of vagueness, there is a precise -- and often beautiful -- description of nature, a vivid action sequence or an all-too-real encounter with violence. Gunesekera's story may be dreamlike, but his prose is resolutely grounded, and the result -- as in the best science fiction writing -- is a story that uses realism to transcend reality, to hint at deeper mysteries and more profound truths.
Lurking within the story of Marc's exile is, of course, an allegory about the human condition. ''Heaven's Edge'' is a somewhat self-conscious reworking of the Edenic myth, but what gives the novel its power is an awareness of the irredeemability of that condition. By the end of the novel, Marc succeeds in tracking down some of his roots. But something is amiss: we sense the violence lurking below the surface, and the melancholy refuses to lift.
Marc says early on that he is looking for something ''primal.'' Ultimately, he comes to the conclusion that ''too many deaths had blotched our separate lives to allow for a simple return to our beginnings.'' His exile, like all exile, is chronic -- after the passage of time, there is no home left to return to.
Drawing (Julia Vaksar)
Akash Kapur is a contributing editor for Transition magazine.
You know this island, though Romesh Gunesekera doesn't give it a name. Steeped in myth and mystery, this is the island whose first inhabitants had been awakened by "butterflies splashing dew at the dawn of time"; this is the hallucinogenic island where "the chance migrants of history" had found their original home; where the most beautiful woman in the world was brought in a Trojan peacock, "away from the tedium of a husband whose only passion was playing with bows and golden arrows".
Where coconut estates "float like oasis in the forest", where wild flowers and coloured birds and fragrant air and primeval lakes exist as tropical expressionism's lush shades. And today, ransacked by war, drenched in blood, enveloped in fear, it's the lost Eden that lives in emerald memories.
On its shores of eternal return arrives Gunesekera, once more, to reclaim, to relive, a dream, as a voyager of love, as a chosen child powered by ancestral karma. And what you have from this Sri Lankan who lives in London is a novel of terrifying beauty. A passage to memory where the history of the land and the mystery of the mind come together in a magnificently choreographed performance, dark and lyrical, tender and violent.
When Marc, the traveller from London, arrives in this island where his grandfather was born and where his fighter pilot father died in the flames of a shot-down plane, he, the chaser of a dream, first discovered in an antiquated video cassette with his father's name printed on it, is weighed down by this knowledge: in this island "dreamers often have to destroy their dreams, if they are not to be destroyed by them".
A chance encounter in the forest with Uva, rebel and ecowarrior who releases emerald doves and other threatened lives to freedom, sets off the translation of the dream. It's the beginning of a deadly romance, and it's Marc's entry into a world whose distance from his grandfather's garden in London can be measured only by the wayward genes of memory.
He loses Uva and becomes the adventurer in search of the beloved, and in this adventure, spanning the hills and valleys and lakes, abandoned villages and rebellious underworlds of an island at war with itself, the political and the personal become one bloody liberating experience. Secrets are revealed, ancestry is exhumed and blood is spilled as Marc, along with two par tners he collected from the alleys of rebellion, journeys to heaven's edge.
It's payback time for the returning child, who alone survives the journey, and reaches the last garden, Biblical in its primal spell. And for those who are familiar with Gunesekera, Heaven's Edge is a more evolved variation of Reef, his Booker-shortlisted first novel in which the tragedy of Sri Lanka, the cracked paradise, is an elegiac echo.
Here it is awesomely intimate, and Gunesekera, the most accomplished stylist from the subcontinent, captures with so much elegance and control the intimacy of the homecoming in a language that is chiselled to perfection. And there is no mystery in the imperfections of the situation.
For, two years ago, when Michael Ondaatje, another Sri Lankan living in Canada, also a lyrical perfectionist in fiction, did his own homecoming in Anil's Ghost, violence was wrapped in mystery, the fantasy of the lost island was unravelled by forensic pathology and archaeological anthropology. In Heaven's Edge, there is moonlit clarity.
Marc, the child who once worried about the pain of the drowning ants in his grandfather's garden, pulls the trigger and kills to keep the edge of his heaven intact, like an Adam sinned by father's dream. If Sri Lanka is Heaven Lost, fiction has regained one, emerald and enduring.
by S Prasannarajan
April 22, 2002
Despoiled paradises and desecrated Edens have always been at the heart of Romesh Gunesekera's subtle and often elegiac fiction. Heaven's Edge, his most powerful and compelling novel to date, recreates the mythic fall in the Edenic garden. It shockingly reimagines his birthplace, Sri Lanka, as an unnamed tropical Asian island in the near future: familiar yet disturbing, magical and pervasively violent, a post-nuclear dystopia peopled by traumatised orphans and rebel eco-warriors.
The narrator, Marc, a Londoner who has spent his life within earshot of Heathrow airport, puts his belongings in storage and heads for the "emerald island" that his grandfather, Eldon, had left to come to Britain before the second world war. Marc's life is shrivelled by loss: of his father, Lee, an RAF pilot shot down on a mysterious mission to the island when Marc was small; of his mother, an Englishwoman who committed suicide after her husband's death; of his grandfather, who died when he was 12; and of his grandmother, Cleo, a "strong, quiet woman" from a Caribbean island, who brought him up. Their coffins have vanished "behind a motorised curtain in a succession of heartbreak, suicide and old age; the flames of my father's aircraft, falling, flaring behind each of them, again and again".
Marc, despite antecedents in four continents, has lived an "ultra-cautious" life, believing trails of migration are cruel or futile; that he should stay close to home. But the discovery of an antiquated video of his father spurs a quest. He lands on his grandfather's island by moonlight, a "man in search of his father, or perhaps in search of himself". The only guest at a seaside tourist hotel in this postwar trouble spot, he finds the erstwhile land of ancient ruined cities, cool tea hills and coconut plantations enduring a "peace" imposed by terror.
There are beach executions, hi-tech surveillance and compulsory sterilisation of rebels. Yearning for somewhere to "keep faith" with, Marc finds Uva, an eco-warrior, releasing emerald doves into the air - symbols of a green peace amid ecological devastation. Like other "secret farmers", her goal is biodiversity in soil depleted not only by scorched-earth warfare but by past imperial cash crops and "coconut kings". For Marc, "All I wanted from my life, from everything around me and before me, coalesced into her."
His safe world shatters when soldiers, for whom food is a weapon of war, destroy Uva's farm and capture him. On his quest to find her again, Marc meets Jaz, an effeminate barfly, and Kris, a taciturn killer who Marc fears is Uva's former lover. Their journey takes them through a prefab concrete town atop ruins, a subterranean shopping mall built for tourists and now an almost mythical underworld, a solar-powered clifftop palace, and a struggling sanctuary for birds and butterflies to which Marc descends in a peacock-shaped glider - only to find his fragile "little Eden" menaced.
War and pacifism, and the dilemma of killing for personal and national freedom, are probed in a novel that contains Gunesekera's most explicit violence. Marc's love for Uva - his Eve - brings a fall, as he recognises her truth: that "sometimes you have to sacrifice your innocence to protect this world that you care so much for".
The island's history is left vague - a "past choked with wars, disputes, borders as pointless as chalk lines in water" - as are its competing ideologies. Yet as armed conflict abates in the real Sri Lanka, the novel obliquely questions what peace can mean in a country riven by almost 20 years of war. The separate traumas that create distance between the reunited lovers are like those of a divided land, where "too many deaths had blotched our separate lives to allow for a simple return to our beginnings".
Through mythic imagery of freedom, flight and rebirth, multiple themes resonate without being forced: migration and settlement, love and loss, the fragility of dreams and of the innocence lost to preserve them. A landscape almost hallucinogenic in its abundance is matched by a lushness of language, with images of flying fish, blue plumbago shrub and wild aubergines, and the scent of citrus and citronella. In a book that confirms the vivid originality of its author's vision, Gunesekera has created a palpable, terrifying world that, for all the precariousness of its beauty, harbours love and hope.
by Maya Jaggi