The Prisoner Of Paradise

It's often said that a dependence on modifiers is the sign of a weak writer.

But Romesh Gunesekera is a man who knows how to use an adjective: "When she put her fingers to her lips, she nearly swooned. Here at last was the true nectar of the south she had so longed for: strong and sweet, amniotic and electric, laced with a hint of the immortal."

In 1825, Lucy Gladwell leaves England for Mauritius. Her parents are dead and she's to live with her buttoned-up aunt Betty and uncle George, the usual choleric, alcoholic, riding-crop-wielding official, in this newly British place. Lucy is a forthright, well-read but lonely girl, whose only companions in life have been books, such as Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh and Keats's Endymion; books that may or may not be good for you if you are a forthright but lonely girl. So far, so 19th century. But in this blisteringly lucid novel, it's as if Jane Austen, John Keats, Charles Dickens and even William Burroughs have clubbed together to render a masterful double-take on the 19th century's own ideas of romance and empire, rendered in a colossally skilful, flexible hybrid of the best of English prose and prosody.

Gunesekera lays out a recognisable situation: Lucy is introduced into society, her guardians helping her negotiate the complex world of Mauritius – part British, French, Ceylonese, Indian, African – and hoping she will find a mate. British would be best. French, maybe. However, Lucy quickly falls in love with Don Lambodar, secretary to a Ceylonese prince under house arrest on the island. Don is equally taken with her, and one of the real, multilayered delights of this novel is watching two hyper-romantics deal with burgeoning love and the demands of Victorian romance.

Trouble's afoot, too, in the shape of the inhuman treatment of those on Mauritius who are not white – which is just about everybody. So having set up this quite familiar tableau, almost the stuff of lurid bilge, Gunesekera sets about twisting it, playing with it, and subverting it with a great deal of wit and subtlety, while maintaining his own rapt attention to the entire history, it would seem, of English style.

For example, a po-faced discussion between Lucy and her aunt about "the tragic consequences of miscegenation", in a botanic garden full of genital-shaped fruits and vegetables, is interrupted by the figure of Jeanette, a mass of giggles and jiggles whose blushing is mapped by the author with the zeal of a hydrologist. And in one of many linguistically astonishing scenes, Don Lambodar nervously attends his first real "English tea" under the influence, he realises, of a little too much opium. This goes from a risible scene out of Shaw to a Hunter Thompson hell in the poor suitor's head, as he struggles with civilised conversation, gagging on tea cakes made of saffron and concrete, being squawked at by a mynah out of nightmare. He finally reels out, convinced he's tripping over his foreskin, and lands in a bed of prize geraniums. Put that in your bodice and rip it.

Seriously and movingly, The Prisoner Of Paradise contains a very modern message: a plea for the book. It has as much to say about writing as it has about love and colonial misery – words are one of the chief attractions between Lucy and Don (in fact they're the only two on Mauritius who give a damn about books other than the Bible): "She would wonder - how it was that the markings of a nib, or the scratches of a stranger's sharpened quill, either by itself or through reproduction in the more formal pressed letters on a page, could result so unerringly in a blue ribbon of sea, a strip of white sand, a red boat -" As do Gunesekera's words, and his Mauritius. But in the face of opposition, Don Lambodar and Lucy Gladwell manage to write themselves on, into, each other. They are determined to remain known, because of simple acts of writing.

What is a real novelist's proper approach to history? Certainly not to detail how tightly laced the ladies were at which fete and exactly what kind of ices were served, and Gunesekera masterfully avoids that kind of junk: Betty's party gown is "white", Lucy's is "sharp". In every scene he gives us what people are like, what they think, not what they "would" think. Mr Amos, a philosophical former slave who purchased his freedom, opines at one point, "A settlement seen from the sea is a very curious thing - who are these people who have come together to live in one place? And why?" Here are the genuine answers, colourful, arresting, fresh and enormous as any opera. Right here.

by Todd McEwen

Scotland, 11 February 2012, The Herald

India Today

A Fragile Paradise

I love the word 'miscegenation'. It is an archaic and darkly racist word, but with the thrilling whiff of illicit passions and forbidden lust, and it's the first word I spotted when I opened Romesh Gunasekera's new novel at random. It also happens to be one of the themes that runs through this book. The Prisoner of Paradise is set in 1825, in Mauritius, which was then not just a 747 flight away but five weeks' sailing time from England.

The beautiful island is going through various upheavals, all at once: the British have just wrested political control from the French; the slave trade that has long sustained its plantation economy is in the process of being abolished; the Indian convict labour, imported to replace the African slaves, is seething on the brink of uprising. Into this fragile paradise Gunasekera introduces Lucy Gladwell, a young Englishwoman. Her head is filled with anachronistically liberal ideas, Keats's poetry and a fascination for the Orient acquired from the pages of Lalla Rookh, and "her heart like a drum in a symphony of sensualities". She has come to Mauritius to stay with the Huytons, her beefy, racist uncle and her kindly aunt, at Ambleside, their country estate. It is actually a long, long way from the cold, dismal skies of her childhood.

Gunasekera then plots to introduce Lucy to the exotic Don Lambodar, the interpreter to the exiled Prince of Ceylon, with his fluency in 12 languages, his "large, long eyes" and his silk costumes, like some "king of the corsairs, sailing into his Mauritian lair, with his ruffles all puffed, having plundered the seas". The author then sits back and lets biology take its course-which it does, treading hesitantly through the intricacies of 19th century social and sexual mores, not to mention forbidden racial boundary lines. It is a passionate but delicate mating game: one step forward, two steps back, over a series of Jane Austen-esque social calls, picnics, chaperoned walks, theatre evenings, soirees and chance meetings, the heat slowly building up to the point where one of those devastating Indian Ocean hurricanes finally comes crashing down on the island, literally and metaphorically.

Gunasekera is a Sri Lankan, with an islander's innate feel for the rhythms and textures of Mauritius. He is also is an extremely lyrical and sensuous writer, as a result of which The Prisoner of Paradise is an intensely visual book. In fact, reading it one can almost see the film playing inside one's head: directed, perhaps, by Joe Wright, of Pride and Prejudice fame, or maybe Mira Nair (who could pick up where she left off with Vanity Fair). It would probably feature Keira Knightley as Lucy, Bob Hoskins as the boorish Uncle George and, oh yes, Amitabh Bachchan as the exiled prince of Ceylon. The music would be by the Oscar-winning Alexandre Desplat, with his eclectic African-Brazilian influences, and the cinematography would be by John Seale, who filmed The English Patient so lushly. The only question is, who will play the brooding Don Lambodar? If Irrfan Khan had been fifteen years younger, he would have been ideal, but maybe one could look instead at Nawazuddin Siddiqui, that wonderfully talented young actor from PatangPeepli (Live), Firaaq and New York.

My guess is that discussions on the film are already underway. Knowing how savvy the Mauritian economic affairs ministry is, their representatives are no doubt already at work, networking in Hollywood to catalyse the project with a view to promoting and giving a boost to their tourism industry. But if you've read the book, it will probably be unnecessary to see the film. Which is a tribute to Gunasekera's rich, imagery-laden prose.

by Anvar Ali Khan

February 24, 2012  India Today 


Lush Life

How paradise becomes lost through the depravity of mankind is a perennial theme in Romesh Gunesekera's novels, as in his Booker shortlisted novel, Reef (1994). He continues his exploration of flawed idylls in The Prisoner of Paradise. It is 1825 when Lucy Gladwell disembarks in Mauritius from England to live on her uncle's capacious - plantation property, Ambleside. She is "stuffed full, of sea dreams, excited to be on the brink of a new life", but harsh realities dawn about the iniquities of that life, for imperial Britain is shipping in convicts to work on the island. Differing mores collide with the arrival of a dashing young translator from Ceylon, Don Lambodar, with whom an attraction develops. "Our societies are prisons for my sex, and your race", Lucy tells Don and the influence of Thomas Hardy is clear as the unflinching tragedy unfolds. 

Physical and psychological imprisonment are themes at the heart of this haunting, lyrical novel. In The Sandglass (1998), Gunesekera captured the yearning to "free the future from the shadows of the past", and in The Prisoner of Paradise he likewise shows people not only shackled by handcuffs, but captives to their class, gender, race and painful pasts. The novel asks if it is ever possible to escape the background into which we are born. 

Gunesekera captures a world on the cusp of ideological change. Adam Smith's view that slavery is detrimental to the wealth of society is juxtaposed with the brutal, illogical realities of racial discrimination still practised in the colony. Marriages between different races are illegal, a belief in "the tragic consequences of miscegenation" commonplace. Gunesekera skilfully crafts memorable characters for whom the political intrudes on the intimately personal. The freedom Lucy's grandfather had given her "was her most formative experience"; he had urged her to be "independent of mind and circumstance". Loathing constraint, Lucy fmds "the rigidity of plantations abhorrent"; everyone "seemed like the cane itself: regimented, narrow, controlled". She observes that Don is "a man ensnared; caught in a web of obligation and custom no less crippling than the strictures of a prison". Attempts to escape the "aristocracy of skin" are doomed. Don grapples with disturbing questions about fate and free will, fearing that he is not in control of his own destiny, but slave to "some greater force working out its own design ... like the current of an ocean". 

Meanwhile, although the megalomaniac colonial masters of the island try to exert control over it, the place teems with wild, natural life that Gunesekera conjures in lush and beguiling prose. The colony is designed to keep people in their place, but "Lucy could sense again the great chaos of vegetation pressing in from the periphery". As in his previous novels, the master/slave relationship is paramount: when Lucy is told to instruct the servant Muru, she wonders how, for this is a "land where even the flowers run riot". "We have them under complete control here", asserts Lucy's uncle, shortly before a bloody uprising. The wildness of the sea becomes a powerful metaphor for the raging internal life which threatens to burst through the carefully crafted carapace of "English propriety". 

Lucy, the "prisoner of paradise", reads books to escape. Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" recurs; this is indeed a world in which the "heart aches". The novel becomes a passionate paean to the power of words and how to live - and write - best. Yet Don, the translator, struggles to interpret Lucy. 

This ambitious, captivating novel with its engrossing plot and striking style, has a bleak conclusion. But it succeeds in convincing that "the scratches of some poor scribe trying to climb out of a cell" are not in vain. 

by Anita Sethi

27 April 2012, Times Literary Supplement


Trouble in Paradise

Romesh Gunesekera is the celebrated author of Reef (1994), an elegiac and subtle work of fiction that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Born in Colombo in 1954, his myriad works (Monkfish Moon and Heaven's Edge, among others) explore the variegated terrain of his island world. Like before, this new novel too is about a desecrated and despoiled paradise. His purist mind is disturbed by colonial currents that historically churned a heady brew of immense power and exploitation.

The place is Mauritius, the year 1825, and the British have just defeated Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. The wave of revolutionary spirit in America and Europe has laced the trans-continental air with cries of 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'.

Slave trade, as a result, is abolished. This lush island too has just changed hands. Enter Lucy Gladwell, fresh from grey foggy England to the bright luminous warmth of the island, where her Aunt Betty and her bigoted Uncle George Hugton, the British Superintendent of Administration, reside. Sugar cane is its main business.

But the newly acquired sugar plantations are now depen -dent on convict labour from all over the British Empire. Indentured labour from India was yet to be exploited, and the island's mixed population of Creoles, French, English and Indians happen to co-exist on a precarious equilibrium.

Lucy, an orphan, takes to helping her aunt run their beautiful colonial bungalow, Amberside, with its large, profusely resplendent garden. In the first few chapters of The Prisoner..., Gunesekera paints this idyllic life with seasoned craftsmanship and deft prose, so that his words bring to the imagination a compellingly sensual world. He describes, too, the social scene with the French and English, in fact, living amicably, with balls, races and parties to entertain them in the season.

The Prisoner of Paradise paints a dreary portrait of Mauritius caught in colonial cross-currents. But the seeming serene existence has deep dark undercurrents that only surface slowly. The exiled Kandian Prime Minister (he's Sinhalese) and his entourage, along with his translator, Don Lambodar, witness an ever-growing unease.

Their activities become an expose of British colonial imperialist designs. Don writes a petition for Narayan, a Malabarese Hindu ex-slave to George, asking for the rights of Hindu slaves for a temple they have built on land not theirs. Its rejection leads to unrest and rebellion of the Indian workers which is brutally suppressed and their leader Kishore, an ex-convict brought from Malaya, executed. Don and Lucy are active sympathisers of the workers for personal and emotive ends.

Against this larger backdrop, Aunt Betty tries to find Lucy a husband, a French plantation owner, as no suitable Englishmen are available. Lucy resists, for a marriage of convenience is not for her. She finds her aunt's choices, and that of other women like her, extremely distasteful.

For Lucy is waiting; in two years she will come of age, and secure an independent means of livelihood, which she thinks will give her a chance for a freer life.

Meanwhile, the physical and emotional attraction between Lucy and the Don are brought out obliquely. The surface calm of Paradise is finally both figuratively and literally torn apart with a small hurricane - a violent strike by labourers and a symbolic party by Betsy. Here East meets West in a final declaration of mutual love by the chief protagonists, Lucy and Don, which ends with Lucy then seeking freedom in an overwrought dramatic gesture.

by Manju Kak

New Delhi, April 1, 2012,  Mail Today