Wall Street Journal
Book Review: An Extract
(for full review go to WSJ)
‘So much is kept off limits these days,” muses Vasantha, the brooding and keen-eyed driver who steers us through a Sri Lanka trying to build a new future after 30 years of civil war in Romesh Gunesekera’s beautiful and haunting set of connected stories. “There are things we don’t speak of, things we not only don’t remember but carefully forget, places we do not stray into, memories we bury or reshape.” Better not to wonder why that brisk hotel manager in a gray suit doesn’t seem to know a thing about hotel management, but has a trigger finger that is “callused and discoloured at the edge.” Better not to ask what anyone was doing five years ago, when so many are dead and those who aren’t may have killed them.
Better just to drive on the new tollway toward a future of historic sites turned into a heritage industry and navy ships converted into whale-watching pleasure boats. Better to tend to the Russian playboys looking for massages, the Germans hungry for sun and sand and “plush aromatherapy.” Vasantha believes—or wants to believe—that “If you are on the move, there is always hope.” But he is too honest not to note that “wishes are a risky business.” Off-duty soldiers moonlighting as tour guides do not inspire confidence …
Not a word is wasted or a detail extraneous in the clenched, explosive vignettes Mr. Gunesekera strings together: … Almost every sentence carries a hidden charge. “If you don’t start the fight,” blusters a navy man who’s decided to call himself “Lucky” and go into tourism, “you don’t get to throw the first punch …
“Noontide Toll” says more in its 235 short pages, about Sri Lanka’s “war within” and the “Gulfers, gangsters, pilgrims of pain” eager to turn it to advantage, than many an epic could. And in the process, it poses questions about Cambodia and Rwanda and, perhaps, one day, Syria, as all work hard to move past the sins and sorrows of the past without simply pressing a button that says “Delete.”
by Pico Iyer
Wall Street Journal, Oct. 3, 2014
War in Pieces
In Romesh Gunesekera’s worlds, time remains a constant motif. The past, largely unresolved, is employed as a tool to look at the present and into the future. “Writing was invented to subvert time. Any kind of writing, especially fiction, is a device of dealing with time. A writer has to intensely connect and negotiate with time,” says Gunesekera. The Sri Lanka-born, London-based writer’s oeuvre flits between memory and loss, the agony of exile and the appended idea of an eternally elusive home.
In his sixth and latest novel, Noontide Toll, Gunesekera, 60, explores the desolation and devastation of war in his homeland, and while many of his time-tossed characters share fractured relationships with the past, redemption can only be achieved with reconciliation.
Noontide Toll is partly reflective of his first book, Monkfish Moon (1992) — a collection of short stories — as this is a novel of linked-up stories. “The novel form is very flexible,” says the writer, who allies himself with the tradition of “saying more by saying less”. So, while war and its aftermath form the backdrop of the novel, he doesn’t dwell on the details, his prose hovers on the periphery — a word here, a sentence there, nothing more. “I want the story to grow in your head. If a sentence has to be written in five words, I will write it in four,” says Gunesekera, who frets over the form of his novels, always striving to get the structure right.
The novel, told through the voice of a driver named Vasantha, careens through the island country from north to south. Vasantha’s for-hire van ferries a clutch of people through the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, giving us a glimpse into what war has done to the country and what the future might hold for its people — a lovelorn and emotional soldier, an enterprising hotelier and an eager student.
It’s through Vasantha’s reflections that we get to know the story “of a country at war with itself for three decades, of mad artillery shelling, of armoured divisions and Tiger troops, of air-to-surface missiles and suicide bombers”. Jaffna is a “ghost town”. War has changed the attitudes of the younger generation, they have become accustomed to the idea of a disposable society. “So much is kept off limits these days. There are things we don’t speak of, things we not only don’t remember but carefully forget, places we do not stray into, memories we bury or reshape. That is the way we all live nowadays: driving along a road between hallucination and amnesia,” muses Vasantha in the novel.
Gunesekera has always written with a sense of urgency. His short stories (Monkfish Moon) and novels — Reef (1994, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Sandglass (1998), Heaven’s Edge (2002), The Match (2006) and The Prisoner of Paradise (2012) — may be “explorations into particular moments” of time, but they also capture human vulnerabilities that echo across time. “All these stories needed to be written. Writers, like historians, value the past a lot. The past does affect the way things pan out. The past controls the future; if you can’t control the past, you can’t control the future. Our memory is difficult and untrusting. And writing is about memory against forgetting. Everything has to be done before the world ends,” says Gunesekera.
What fiction offers you, he says, is a chance of living a life other than your own. “Fiction allows you to reach a point where it’s relatively easier to deal with certain things. If it’s good fiction, it enters into your bloodstream. It offers you something more complete than real life,” he says. Good fiction, Gunesekera feels, creates empathy, perhaps more than any other art form.
“Human history is always a story of somebody’s diaspora: a struggle between those who expel, repel or curtail — possess, divide and rule — and those who keep the flame alive from night to night, mouth to mouth, enlarging the world with each flick of a tongue,” reflects Triton, marine biologist Mr Salgado’s houseboy, in Reef, Gunesekera’s first novel. By writing about people who keep the flame alive, from a clairvoyant domestic help to a philosophical driver, he offers a glimpse into his own life: “Our lives become our stories. And, in time, these stories become us. I have appropriated a bit of me in my characters.”
by Nawaid Anjum
March 8, 2014 Indian Express
After the Carnage
For almost a quarter of a century Romesh Gunesekera's imagination has been haunted by the civil war that has devastated his native Sri Lanka. His fictional debut, Monkfish Moon (1992), recorded the conflict's early stages in stories where terrorists and army patrols lurked behind lush tropic beauty. Sri Lanka's continuing catastrophe sent reverberations through the five novels he went on to write. Now, Noontide Toll, a second collection of fine stories, complements Monkfish Moon by portraying the aftermath of the 30 years of carnage.
Reflecting the divisions that ripped Sri Lanka apart, half of the stories are set in the north, once the stronghold of the Tamil Tigers; the other six in the Sinhalese south. Linking them is the narrator, Vasantha, a middle-aged hire van driver who ferries tourists, aid workers, returned exiles and foreign entrepreneurs around the island. Unillusioned, perceptive and receptive behind his politely neutral demeanour, he roves an ideal guide to the toll taken by the war.
As his van lurches down pot - holed roads, vistas of dereliction loom. Bomb rubble and bullet-pocked buildings are frequent sights. Skull-and-crossbones signs warn of minefields. In one surreal seeming stretch of terrain, broken bicycles are heaped 20ft high for half a mile, followed by enormous hillocks of wrecked lorries, buses and container trucks, all confiscated enemy vehicles.
Chinese businessmen calculating the scrap value of these mounds of metal are just some of the opportunistic visitors Vasantha drives around the island. Tourists head for cut-price "boutique" hotels with their "pleasure pools". Russian playboys romp in steamy spas. Film directors seek out damaged locales for "new angle" fashion shoots.
Where there was once a murderous sectarian divide, there is now a gulf of another kind: between outsiders and those who lived hrough the war. Reminders of its atrocities keep being glimpsed: a crumpled scar on a hotel manageress's neck, a discoloured callous on a trigger finger. Guilt, shame, fear and disorientation torment survivors, too. Quietly telling details are briefly focused on: a menacing brigadier wearing his rings close to his knuckles, an amputee fretfully fingering his "pointless knee".
Often giving his stories titles that turn out to be bitter puns - Mess, Scrap, Humbug - Gunesekera writes in sentences prickling with irony. Reading about "light pollution" in a copy of Time magazine, Vasantha reflects: "We could do with some of that pollution here. Especially if humanity is what causes it. "
Ambivalences also quiver. Characters believably never seem fully known. Ambiguities linger around them - and around the issues the book raises of whether to forget or remember the war. In these outstanding stories, its repercussions are documented with humane appeal and masterly finesse.
by Peter Kemp
London 20 July 2014, The Sunday Times
‘Noontide Toll’ by Romesh Gunesekera takes us through Sri Lanka, where wounds of the civil war are fast fading but scars etched in memory are failing to heal, writes Chethana Dinesh.
Wars leave indelible scars on a nation’s psyche. Scars that may or may not fade. Scars that alter a nation’s course in history... Sri Lanka, as a nation, is dealing with such deadly scars. After nearly three decades of conflict, the civil war is over and the country is tottering into the future. With the baggage of its troubled past, life is not easy. Romesh Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll captures precisely this — life in the aftermath of a civil war. And poignantly so.
A collection of stories strung together as vignettes of Sri Lanka’s present, suggestive of the past, the book begins as the narration of Vasantha, a van driver. The same Vasantha, who retired from the state corporation early, bought himself a van, and now drives people around the island. He takes the reader from the army camps of the north to the moonlit beaches of the south, across streets and villages of Sri Lanka that’s grappling with the sense of loss — of losing one’s heritage, culture and, most of all, its people and their trust in each other. The journey that begins thus offers the reader a peek into the lives of Vasantha’s passengers, who range from Chinese businessmen looking to cash in on the remains of the bloody war to a father-son duo coming back to the island nation to pick up the pieces.
As the stories unfold, Noontide... introduces us to some uncomfortable truths about Sri Lanka’s past. How about Vasantha’s experience of driving Father Perera and his friend from England, Patrick, to meet a Major, to begin with? Yes, what seems as a simple meeting with an Army Major turns out to be a headhunt for a soldier for brutal war crimes in the story titled ‘Mess’. Or, the mystery surrounding Miss Saraswati in ‘Roadkill’? The pretty lady who manages the Spice Garden Inn at Kilinochchi, the epicentre of the civil war, seems to have had a terrible past rooted in the civil war — after all, the thick scar on her neck suggests it. But, she seems to prefer to remain silent about it. “After a war, it is best not to ask about the past,” she says, voicing the thoughts of many of her compatriots. However, Vasantha disagrees with her.
According to him, knowledge of the past helps to avoid repeating mistakes.As we turn the pages, heartrending stories start tumbling out, and skeletons in the cupboards too, piquing our interest. A young Sihalese soldier longs for his Tamil lady love whose brother, a LTTE cadre, gets killed by him; a doctor who had fled the country during the war comes visiting his homeland with his son to look for his past, but is not sure whether he should come back home for good; the many junkyards across the nation serving as graveyards for the LTTE-confiscated and abandoned bicycles, buses, lorries and vans, are silent reminders of the gory past; the irony of Czechs seeking refuge in Sri Lanka as an escape from their own problems...
Each story, a recollection and reflection of Sri Lanka, is a journey from the gruesome past, seen through Vasantha’s eyes. However, they all intersect with each other in their eagerness to understand life in the island nation, as it is today. It is a country bursting with hope — hope of a better future, better life, better prospects. Natives want to leave the past behind and march towards the future. But, one wonders if the past can be left behind at all. Vasantha, on his part, embodies this dilemma faced by most Sri Lankans. His profession, driving, is employed by the author to explain the predicament of Sri Lanka — a nation that has to move forward, but with a watchful eye on its past.
The book has a distinct Sri Lankan flavour to it, a sense of calmness that is waiting to burst out of the pages. Not to forget the sweet sound of waves that seems to be playing out in the background, constantly. The narrative begins slowly, but quickly picks up steam, enticing the reader to thumb through the pages at a frenetic pace. Proof enough of the author’s flair for writing. His careful choice of words makes almost every sentence pregnant with meaning. For instance, “In this world, we must be the lucky ones if we survive from one day to the next”, “There comes a point when you don’t want to know”, “So the look is all make-believe — an art we seem to excel at in this country, north and south”, “What was left was rubble, and what had healed was scarred”... Steering clear of verbal wizardry, they convey the sentiment of a people caught between a disturbing past and a present that promises dramatic possibilities.
Along with simplicity of language, captivating characterisation further adds to the allure of the book. The prose reveals, on the one hand, a curious, observant mind and a subtle sense of humour, and on the other, hope, that forms the leitmotif around which the myriad stories in this book are woven. In short, it’s a book you wouldn’t mind reading, over and over again, for its realistic feel.
by Chethana Dinesh
18 May 2014 Deccan Herald
Simmering with unresolved tensions
“Two of them have come from a lot further. From Holland in Europe.” Kanna laughs again. “But not from Hague, no?”... How a small Dutch town like that on the edge of Europe became the conscience of the world is a mystery to me. We could all learn something from that.
Vasantha is a driver who takes tourists around Sri Lanka in his van. “I preferred being behind a wheel — going somewhere — than behind a desk. That’s why I started this business with the van the moment I retired from the corporation.” (He was earlier a chauffeur to the Coconut Corporation’s deputy governor’s wife.) He is Sinhala, but this is never explicitly mentioned. There are only clues about his identity especially, in his acquaintance with the languages. He is more at ease with Sinhala though not particularly bad with Tamil, all though outside his van he never quite knew his place.
His clients include people like Mr. Patrick, Englishman; Mrs. Cooray with her two Dutch tourists; Dr. Ponnampalam who left in 1952, returning to see what is left of the “nightmare” accompanied by son Mahen, expats from England; four Chinese executives; Mr. Wahid, a Malaysian; the seven-months pregnant Mrs. Arunachalam and her husband going to Jaffna to review a property deal; Mr. Desmond, a Sri Lankan, “who know things and can do things or at least get them done”; three Russians; Mr. Weerakoon from Singapore; Giorgio, an Italian photographer, accompanied by Sanji, Italian of Sri Lankan origin and his team; Eva and Pavel from old Communist Czechoslovakia; Brigadier Bling; two Iranian New Age anglers; Miss Susial and her husband Colin from England. Vasnatha travels to the North and South of the country; he visits a military base near Jaffna called Samanala Camp, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi (capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for years), Dambulla and Ambalangoda ... He prefers to take foreigner tourists around “because it gives me a glimpse of a place that is different in touch, taste, smell, sound and look from the place I am stuck in. I watch how they sit, how they walk, how they talk, and I try to see what they want to escape from and then return to.”
Noontide Toll is divided into two parts — North and South. Each section is a collection of stories set in different parts of the Tamil-dominated and Sinhala-dominated towns. Vasantha never engages in beyond what is necessary with the locals or his passengers. He is careful about what he says; his introspection is sharp with only the reader being privy to his thoughts. He observes that “language plays hell with our politics. Always has.” He discovers fairly early that using words like ‘guerrilla’ doesn’t help and ‘terrorist’ is a word that always seems to be cause more complications than it is worth. A war-ravaged land that is limping back to normal faces a number of challenges. It could range from contending with the ‘loose memories’, the nightmare of those who were children during the war. It is a trait that seems to be universally experienced judging by Vasantha’s conversation with Eva — “What good could possibly come from such bad happenings. We thought at least we won’t have to talk about it here.”
There are other alarming nuggets of information about war hidden in the text. For instance the number of people rescued from the landing at Dunkirk was 350,000 — a “helluva big operation” — was equal to the “350,000 to contend with too, in the humanitarian operation after the final fight” during Sri Lanka's civil war — 70 years later. Irony is when equipment was not very sophisticated nor warfare a business as it is today. Everyone was rescued safely from Dunkirk, whereas the Sri Lankan government and military is still trying to manage internally displaced people. It dawns upon Vasantha that “there comes a point when you don’t want to know.” Despite this gloomy atmosphere, there are moments of hope as he witnesses the young couple in the library; the girl is Tamil and the boy, who speaks Sinhala, remarks “she, like me, has no family left alive here.”
For a book that deals with war, it is surprisingly very calm. Yet it is a detached and meticulous documentation of civil strife and its management. Of course there are politics deeply embedded in the stories as with the reference to IPKF by Sanji who seethes with rage “when the Indians came, the politics became bloody Machiavellian...Indian bloody Peace Keeping crap. It was a game I didn’t like. Something had gone wrong. I could see that right at the top people had their own ideas. Personal interests.” Good literature is inextricably mixed with politics. Romesh Gunesekera told me during a conversation that writing has to and will outlive war. Noontide Toll is a remarkable piece of writing.
by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
19 August 2014 The Hindu
Poetic and full of wit
Sri Lanka is a land of arguments. Arguments that cause punch-ups on live TV, shoot-outs during elections, riots over religion, and wars that go on for decades. Our civil war may have ended five years ago, but the arguments never stopped – over why we harass minorities, why we silence journalists and why even countries with dodgy human rights records find us offensive. Then there are the arguments over whom the island belongs to, who deserves justice and how the war was won and lost.
The gracefully crafted road stories of Noontide Tollplay out amid these arguments in a postwar Sri Lanka simmering with unresolved tensions. We follow the adventures of "Vasantha the van man" as he transports tourists, soldiers, entrepreneurs, aid workers and exiles to the ravaged north and the renewed south, all the while observing his passengers. Vasantha's thoughts are the soul of the book, rambling and poetic, wrapped in folksy wit and shrewd observation. Through him, Romesh Gunesekera examines the central argument that continues to rage across the island and its many roads. How should Sri Lanka address its past? Do we dig it up or do we bury it?
Vasantha begins the book as a pragmatist. "The past is what you leave as you go. There is nothing more to it." The narrator's ambivalence makes him good at his job, and keeps the book's tone from veering into polemic. "What they saw, what they heard, what they thought, what they remembered was their problem, not mine." It is his voice – wry, knowing and highly entertaining – that elevates this collection to something greater than the sum of its episodes.
One might level the same criticisms as those directed at the heroes of The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire. What driver or tour guide born of the subcontinent's working classes would speak like this? This matters a great deal to some, less so to me. That said, Vasantha serves more as a point-of-view device than as a rounded protagonist. While there is mention of his past, his family and his regrets, Noontide Toll is less about his journey than about those he transports. Through his eyes, we see snapshots of war zones, portraits of those who visit them, and outlines of what they may be seeking.
Some seek justice, like the priest tracking the war criminal in "Mess", or money, like the Chinese entrepreneurs in "Scrap", the soldiers taking marketing classes in "Fluke" and the film crew in "Shoot". The soldier in "Ramparts" seeks guidance, the guilt‑ridden general in "Humbug" seeks forgiveness and the Dante-reading Romeo at the Jaffna library in "Renewals" seeks an exit. Others revisit the past, like the exiled Tamil father in "Deadhouse", or conceal it, like the terrorist turned hotelier in "Roadkill".
Noontide Toll comes from the same wellspring as Gunesekera's early work, the Booker-shortlisted Reef and the underrated Monkfish Moon. In all three books, simple stories told in delicate prose reveal curious insights, powerful ideas and painful losses. Many Sri Lankan writers face internal dilemmas when describing this island of contradictions. Do we write as outsiders, or admit complicity? How truthfully can we describe Sri Lanka? Do we parade the horrors like a human rights documentary, or present the beauty like a travel brochure?
Gunesekera, a storyteller at the height of his powers, manages to do all the above without having to change gear. The book is an elegant balancing act and a pleasure to read. His snapshots capture the island's terrors and its treasures, and give you an insider view of the many outsiders drawn to this troubled nation.
The book is littered with symbols, including the van, once white, like many that feature in reports of political abductions. The white van is now a symbol of Sri Lanka's intolerance of dissent; while the characters seek peace and reconciliation, the vehicle they travel in reminds us of how far away those destinations are.
Overall, the stories of the north are stronger than those from the south, reflecting where most of Sri Lanka's unresolved arguments reside. One hopes there will be a sequel featuring the east and the west, maybe even the coast and the hills. As the postwar era continues to mutate through extremism, militarism and a xenophobic suspicion of the west, there are many places, arguments and ideas still left to explore.
by Shehan Karunatilaka
26 July 2014, The Guardian
A voluptuous collection of stories reveals the beauty and chaos of Sri Lanka
There is something about people who drive for a living that nudges them towards the philosophical. “Philosophical”, of course, can simply mean “resigned”: there is something fateful about that trapezium of tarmac unfurling relentlessly before you.
In this acute, sensuous cycle of interwoven short stories, Romesh Gunesekera surveys his native Sri Lanka after nearly three decades of civil war (and a tsunami, for good measure). His narrator is Vasantha, a “van for hire”, whose business is increasingly taking him to the north of the island, heartland of the Tamil Tigers until their violent extirpation during the late 2000s. Here fashion photographers, development agencies and business gurus are starting to set up shop; while a library, destroyed in sinister circumstances (libraries are never destroyed innocently) and rebuilt, needs only books before it can flourish again.
Vasantha notices a lot, but mostly he knows when to avert his eyes and shut up. Yet curiosity can get the better of him. In one of the most arresting stories, he picks up a notorious army hard-case, now, improbably, a champion dancer, marooned when his car hits a bullock. They drive to visit a mother and her son, mutilated and embittered by the war. Afterwards Vasantha asks the generalissimo one too many questions and experiences a prick of fear: “I felt the weight shift in the van.”
On a stopover at a new hotel in Kilinochchi, until 2009 the Tigers’ provisional capital, he is impressed and a little smitten by an assistant manager with a scar on her neck, calluses on her trigger finger and alarmingly acute pest-control skills. Here too he nearly oversteps the bounds of discretion: “It is best not to ask about someone’s brother or father or mother or sister.”
As a representative figure of the new Sri Lanka, a kind of everyman with a van, Vasantha seems plausible enough. Certainly his apolitical, pragmatic outlook is understandable after a period when any outward commitment to this language or that religion might be enough to get you killed. And he is voluptuously attuned to the beauties of his homeland, hanging in the ocean like a tear shed by the subcontinent: the sea, the coconut palms, the thick heat.
by Keith Miller
London 21 July 2014, Telegraph