New York Times
"In this country now everybody is frightened," declares Peter, an obese business tycoon, in "Monkfish Moon," the title story of Romesh Gunesekera's melancholy first collection of short fiction. Peter is talking about Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, a country whose knotted political history has led to ferocious battles between Tamil and Sinhalese factions and, most recently, the assassination of its president. Not surprisingly, the Sri Lanka of Mr. Gunesekera's stories is a profoundly uneasy place. Mayhem threatens behind the simplest act, from visiting a beach house to preparing chicken for dinner; even recluses and emigres can't escape the violence.
But in Peter's mind, the people of Sri Lanka are frightened because "they feel guilty for all the things they have done and all the things they haven't done." "Guilty people," he adds, "are frightened people." Peter himself had always wanted to be a monk and write poetry. Instead, he chose to make money and live like a sybarite, growing fat off his country's troubles by skillfully exploiting one political upheaval after another. However, Peter claims to be fearless, guiltless, with "nothing to hide." Indeed, there's no disguising his debilitating corpulence, the result of a greedy, brutal life. What sounds like bravery is only fatalism: he couldn't hide if he wanted to.
Everyone may feel guilty and scared in Mr. Gunesekera's stories, yet the most startling aspect of this slender, evocative book is how distinct one tale proves from another. Certain ironic details are repeated -- several characters, for instance, refurbish dilapidated buildings as Sri Lanka falls apart -- and the question "What's happened?" becomes a plaintive refrain, but despair bred by civil unrest has endless variations, as Mr. Gunesekera eloquently demonstrates. Characters range from a wealthy aristocrat in "Ranvali" who becomes a Communist and gives away his money only to see that gesture wasted, to a middle-class young woman in "Carapace" who is trying to choose between boyfriends and leaning toward the one she doesn't love because he can take her to live in Australia.
No matter how rich or idealistic or romantic, no one who cares for Sri Lanka escapes the conflict that festers there. Behind the hibiscus, the frangipani and the palm fronds prowls an ugly disturbance, sometimes manifested only in rustling leaves and snapping twigs, at other times in the burning down of a shop or the hanging of somebody's brother, a constant menace everyone accepts but can never ignore. As an anxious hotel manager says of the nighttime jungle in "Captives," it can "flex and move"; one can hear "the jungle grass growing . . . things slithering around, searching, circling, fornicating," and in between, "the terrible sound of metal on metal."
Like a pest-borne plague, Sri Lanka's political havoc travels across the water and infects expatriates as well. In "Batik," Nalina and Tiru, a Sinhalese wife and Tamil husband, live in "perfect agreement" in their renovated London house until fighting explodes back home. Tiru abruptly stops caring for anything but "the frenzied immolation of the island," and their relationship fractures as violently as the teacup Nalina flings away in anguish. Even the sanguine little clerk of "Storm Petrel," who dreams of owning a guest house by the Indian Ocean, will soon beg "What's happened?" along with everyone else. Unbeknown to him, "in just two months the whole island would be engulfed in flames," his sunny beach "mined and strafed and bombed and pulverized."
While these sad, spare stories focus on the guilty fear engendered by Sri Lanka's political strife, they illustrate the shocking fragility of the whole modern world. "History is not a simple matter," one of Mr. Gunesekera's characters reminds us, and where it's most tangled, as we should all know by now, bloodshed usually unties the knots.
Published: August 1, 1993
There is something to be said for uncertain times: they catalyse the production of good literature. Wars in particular, from the two great ones to the Spanish civil war and the Vietnamese fiasco, have resulted in masterpieces. There is only one way of dealing with emotional stress and physical danger, stress, through language.
By this reckoning, Sri Lankans ought to be belting out telling books. Gunesekera's Monkfish Moon is one such slight effort. The volume is slight in scope, not talent. In fact, the nine stories that comprise this collection are brimful with the promise of better to come. The London-based Gunesekera has a finely honed descriptive pen, and each page is vivid with atmosphere and sensations, bringing alive the tropical island.
The tension of ethnic strife is palpable in most of the stories, but like a good writer, Gunesekera treats it like a dangerous undertow forcing people to redirect their lives, rather than an overwhelming tidal wave wiping them out. Strangely, the stories that steer clear of Serendip's problems, such as 'Carapace' and 'Straw Hurts', prove weakest, lacking a unique centre.
Yet Gunesekera's staple is precisely that of every short story writer. There is the exploration of loneliness, loss and nostalgia: a father remembered, a servant lost, an emptiness contemplated. But like the best of his breed, he can make his stories resonate, haunt you with elusive truths he never named.
Tarun J Tejpal
January 4, 2013
Batik, boutiques and bulletins on barbarity
Fictional dispatches from India have never been in short supply. But Sri Lanka, her island neighbor has been less communicative. Romesh Gunesekera, a young Sri Lankan, eloquently rectifies this with his first book, Monkfish Moon. The nine stories it contains fan out across the island, from international hotels boasting gem stores and batik boutiques to jungle villages in whose wells demons are reputed to lurk. Characters are correspondingly wide- ranging. An
obese Colombo businessman hosts a dinner party in a room furnished with Dutch antiques and carved ivories. Skinny saronged youths stir pans of squid in restaurant kitchens, or chatter in the dim yellow light of a street tea-stall as hundreds of crows circle overhead. Specimen intellectuals - a reclusive Anglophile bookworm, an old-style communist - are ushered into view. Sri Lankans overseas are observed, too.
But although Gunesekera scatters a colourful diversity of Sri Lankan life across his pages, your attention is most acutely alerted to what isn't there. Just out of frame from his vignettes, you're never allowed to forget, are the terrorists and army patrols embroiled in the civil strife that is ripping his country apart.
Tropic lushness burgeons from every cranny of these stories. Parrots flutter round mango trees. Fireflies sparkle; There are spice gardens, flame trees, frangipani and hibiscus hedges. But all this merely seems a luscious veil behind which violence and viciousness hide.
In the opening story, which sets the mood of grave, fastidious melancholy suffusing the book, an Englishman inherits a decaying bungalow in the south of Sri Lanka. With the help of a patient, perfectionist young workman it is handsomely restored. Then as arson and murder flare out in the vicinity, the impeccably renovated house is vandalised and the idyll ravaged. The damaging of something that has been painstakingly created is a motif that recurs. Character after
character shows a desire to construct or conserve: Savagely, these aspirations are then smashed down.
The vulnerability of buildings - and the people in them - is repeatedly stressed. Aware of the precarious future for her and her boyfriend, a girl notes how the cane and bamboo beach-hut where he serves meals will eventually split apart; already its window frames are warping. In England, a couple (the wife Sinhalese and the husband Tamil) lovingly convert their grey-brick north London terraced house into an exotic haven. But as the troubles erupt in Sri Lanka and he becomes increasingly obsessed by the Tamil cause, the marriage starts to fracture. In angry despair, the wife flings down a china cup that bursts "into a hundred tiny pieces of shrapnel". Glued together, she reflects, it would show "a web of hairline cracks like a real batik pattern".
Such a pattern is steeped into the fabric of each of these stories. Little divides manifest themselves between even the best-intentioned characters, Husbands and wives become estranged. Brothers are alienated. Friends separate. Uncomfortable distances make themselves felt. between employers and employees.
In one of the best stories, the spruce manager of a newly opened hotel near one of Sri Lanka's ancient sites, Sigiriya, a rock fortress built during a fratricidal war, eagerly tries to strike up a friendship with an English couple who are his first guests. Rebuffed and snubbed, he finally learns they are not the honeymooners he romantically took them for, but illicit lovers who will go their separate ways back in England.
Rapport is never sustained in these narratives. From relationships to houses, crockery, hopes and machines, things keep falling apart. In miniature and moderately, Gunesekera replicates the extreme disruptiveness - the chaos of atrocities and reprisals - raging elsewhere. Into his little microcosms, he now and then lets drift passages of ominous imagery. As a Sri Lankan working as a clerk in England in the early 1980s talks euphorically of his plans to open a guest house on the island, "the sun slipped behind a cloud and shadows rushed the ground". In another story, storm clouds "bunch up into angry blue-black fists".
As such effects show, there's an element of symbolic sameness and thematic repetitiveness in these stories. But variety of character and setting usually overlays this. Graceful and grim, they constitute carefully civilised bulletins on barbarity's reverberations.
by Peter Kemp
8 March 1992