The Independent

Review of Reef : Faint Grumblings heard in Serendip

by Candia McWilliam  

 IN HER introduction to Edith Wharton's novel The Reef, Anita Brookner suggests that 'to follow a scruple to its ultimate conclusion is Edith Wharton's whole concern'. Chaos theorists tell us that a butterfly that stamps may begin a sequence that ends with the crashing of a typhoon upon a city. Romesh Gunesekera's Reef manages to align and illustrate these two congruent ideas. The staggering consequences of delicate shifts and subtle notions and the vast disjunction caused in society by small initial breaks in civilisation are each, in this book, embodied in the danger posed by poison and technology to the polyp, the tiny creature that built the coral reefs which form the ramparts of Sri Lanka. It is the microscopic polyp that gives the protective but dead, and sometimes deadly, reef its living skin.

So immanent a metaphor offers risks for a writer. He may start to introduce all sorts of irresistible but artistically ill-mannered facts that distort the story and shorten its breath; or he may get carried away and interpenetrate the whole book with an interruptive cleverness that is distracting and dull. Gunesekera, however, has written a book of the deepest human interest and moral poise. His central character is Triton, kitchen boy to the marine biologist and humane pessimist Mister Salgado, always so addressed in Triton's thoughts even as their friendship loses all sense of separate levels. The book begins before the start of the political horrors in Sri Lanka, before people disappeared perhaps to be washed up months later, scraped out not by rocks but by knives. The many nationalities of the island that was Serendip are still living harmoniously. Singhalese, Tamil, Burgher, Christian, even English - the most recent violence the majority of these are able to recall is that of the Second World War. The story gives the reader so much that is delicious to apprehend that he longs to ignore the faint grumblings to be heard in this Eden.

The quiet rhythms of Ranjan Salgado's bachelor life and Triton's kitchen are so satisfying that the usual readerly appetite for human conflict seems, in this context, a corrupt one. It is enough to see Triton teach himself the recipes favoured by Mister Salgado and his friend Dias: steamed stringhoppers and a series of small eats described with devoted attention. Triton is a character of gentle innocence. Despite his wider experience, Mister Salgado's own prevailing traits are seriousness, application and appreciation.

Their Eve is the slender Miss Nili, for whom Triton cooks a love cake with 10 eggs. Its sweet, golden lightness begins her seduction. 'After tea she said she had to go. I went to get a taxi for her. She stayed with him alone in the house while I went up to the main road. It didn't take long. A black tortoise of a taxi came with a butter top.' So clear are Gunesekera's descriptive metaphors that one needn't translate; there is no learned halt in the reader's pleasure. Sri Lankan taxis look just like that. This unerring ease with other ways of saying things is one of the several beauties of this book's sure and delicate style.

There follows a happy time, a courtship in which Triton is the culinary seducer, his master's circumspect ally. He concocts, despite the humid tropical heat, an elaborately stuffed Christmas turkey and steams a pud, since Miss Nili is a Christian. There are rumours of political fissures around the island, but they are veiled by the douceurs of civilised conversation taking place in the foreground. Miss Nili and Mister Salgado become lovers. Triton's status in the arrangement is dignified and taken for granted. He loves and admires his master and knows his own value. The importance he attaches to carrying out his domestic tasks suggests his own almost scholarly genius for making life good.

For a time the idyll holds, although one can sense the sweet air leaking out of the story. Mister Salgado neglects his work. His new frivolity becomes more burdensome to him than work. The suggestion of doom suffuses the incidental graces of the writing. When the break comes in the organic filigree of Triton's and Mister Salgado's life together, it is ruinous but not terminal. In being thus merciful with his tactfully realised characters, Gunesekera brings his book to its balanced, sad, enlightened conclusion, which is also, for Triton, a beginning. Very few contemporary novels combine at so high but natural a pitch qualities of epic strength and luminous intimacy.

 from The Independent


Review of Reef

by Neil Gordon

In contemporary London, a Sri Lankan man stops at a gas station, pumps his gas, goes to pay. In the face of the boy in the cashier's booth, he sees a great familiarity, "almost a reflection" of his own. It is night, they are alone, and although compatriots, their only common language is English, of which the boy speaks little: the man is Sinhala, the boy Tamil, the two sides of their country's long civil war.

As they exchange a few words inside the lighted booth, the Sinhala envisages the Tamil's home, Silavatturai, "[o]nce a diver's paradise. Now a landmark for gunrunners in a battle zone of army camps and Tigers." Then the Tamil boy closes shop, flicking off the lights, and as the stars appear beyond the window in a London winter, the Sinhala experiences a long fugue of memory that transports him 30 years and 6000 miles away to his boyhood on an island off the southwest coast of India called until 1972, Ceylon.

Romesh Gunesekera's acclaimed first novel, Reef -- shortlisted for the Booker Prize in Gunesekera's adopted country, England -- is this Sinhala man's narration in flashback of his life, from his boyhood to young adulthood. It is a servant's life that he tells us: as a boy, Triton is steered into the service of Mister Salgado, a bourgeois Sinhala intellectual from a landowning family. At first he is a houseboy on a staff of three, but before long, with his cool efficiency, he supplants the other two, becoming Mister Salgado's cook and caretaker.

Over perhaps ten years Triton becomes indispensable to Mister Salgado and when, some time in the 70s, mounting Tamil terrorism forces Mister Salgado into exile, there is no question but that Triton, by now attending to all of Mister Salgado's domestic needs, will go with him. It is after twenty years in London that Triton stops at a gas station in Mister Salgado's car and meets the young Tamil refugee. But those twenty years in England are only briefly described: Triton is concerned with narrating, in detail, the ten years or so he lived with Mister Salgado in Sri Lanka.

Mister Salgado, in '60s Sri Lanka, is a marine biologist, and his tracking of the island's protective coral reef's slow destruction by pollution and over-fishing provides the title and central metaphor for this story -- set, as we will very soon understand it to be, in a world heading for self-destruction. He is a kind man, and while he accepts without question the social hierarchy of his household -- Triton's first job is to serve Mister Salgado his morning tea in bed -- still Triton is never so much subservient to a master as he is respectful of a teacher.

Triton is a deeply creative and intelligent boy -- the descriptions of his cooking and quiet command over the houshold are some of the novel's most satisfying passages -- with some education, and he's smart enough to learn everything Mister Salgado can teach: "...I watched him, I watched him unendingly, all the time, and learned to become what I am." He learns his habits, the intimate details of his tastes for clothes and food; watches his work, listens to his coversations with his friends. When Mister Salgado travels on his marine studies, Triton travels with him. When, ultimately, Mister Salgado will go into exile, Triton will go with him. And when Mister Salgado falls in love with Miss Nili and so undergoes the great -- the only -- sentimental education of his life, Triton, never transgressing his observer's distance, falls in love with her too.

So far, it sounds like we're dealing with an essentially domestic tale, and that's true. But only to a point: there is another perspective within the narration that breaks the unity of the very young houseboy's view; Gunesekera insists on injecting references to the evolving disaster of Sri Lankan politics in the late '60s and early '70s. Of course, since independence from Britain in 1948 -- and even more so since the 1956 de-anglicizing of the country by the Sri Lankan Freedom Party, which so fatally decided on Sinhala as the national language -- these politics are always immediately present in the story. This is a place on the verge of massive political upheaval, with social inequities and ideological rifts deep enough to find expression in terrorism, and then in decades of civil war. And yet when Gunesekera refers to the historical or political, always within the narrative point of view of this young boy, the integrity of the book's voice seems broken. Describing Mister Salgado's cook, he writes

She had served Mister Salgado's grandfather whisky and coffee during the riots of 1915. She had seen politicians with handlebar moustaches and tortoiseshell topknots, morning coats and gold threaded sarongs, barefoot and church-shod. She had seen monkey suits give way to Nehru shirts; Sheffield silver replaced by coconut spoons.

Instances of terrorist violence, too, rock the placidity of Mister Salgado's household, a violence that not only in its occurrence but in its very nature is a harbinger of change.

There were no death squads then, no thugs so callous in their killing that they felt no pleasure until they saw someone twitch against a succession of bullets. In my childhood no one dreamed of leaving a body to rot where it had been butchered, as people have had to learn to do more recently.

This is no doubt perfectly true, and a sense of the tragedy, the brute waste of the violence that will soon tear this island paradise apart, does inform the text. And yet, Gunesekera never really manages to make it an organic part of Triton's story. "I was trapped inside what I could see, what I could hear, what I could walk to without straying from my undefined boundaries, and in what I could remember mud-walled school." So centrally important, to the narrative voice, is this limitation that the political observations -- of the cook's background, of the growth of terrorism -- no matter how beautifully written, feel tendentiously imposed on the text instead of implicit to it, as if the author, more than the characters, feels the importance of the march of history on his plot. And it feels labored, as if, doubting the inherent dramatic interest of Triton's domestic life, the author were stretching for a Naipaul-esque relevancy to his story. And in fact there are strong commonalities with Naipaul. There is the long reach of the British Empire, and there is the brutal irony of independence leading to violence beyond that which the British imposed. Gunesekera captures, like Naipaul, the peculiarly apt blend of British formality and tropical fecundity, as if the cold cultural eye of the English made even more movingly colorful the parrots, gekkos, orioles -- the "promise of cinnamon, pepper, clove" in this "jungle of demons"; the "perpetual embrace of the shore and the sea, bounded by a fretwork of undulating coconut trees, pure unadorned forms framing the seascape into a kaleidoscope of bluish jewels" -- of the island paradises they corrupted or, Gunesekera will suggest, were corrupted by.

But the prose is too original to allow much comparison. The story relies less on Naipaul-like telling detail than on the nostalgia, the regret that the prose captures in structure as well as subject, a careful progression of exactly described venues, like photographs of the past, a succession of tableaux more than a sequence of dramatic scenes. It seems forged in the timelessness of the tropical noon, etched on the eye by the sun. And the sensation is carried down to the nicest decisions of syntax, when in its subtlest and most impressive moments the language conjures a temporal suspension in its rhythms, constantly throwing the reader off guard in his expectation of lyricism with an unexpected word. This is wholly original, very ambitious language, and it is often, like the descriptions, exquisite.

Most of all I missed the closeness of the . . . reservoir. The lapping of the dark water, flapping lotus leaves, the warm air rippling over it and the cormorants rising, the silent glide of the hornbill. And then those very still moments when the world would stop and only colour move like the blue breath of dawn lightening the sky, or the darkness of night misting the globe; a colour, a ray of curved light and nothing else.

As the book progresses, it is the prose rather than the wider political framework that involves the reader, the power of the descriptions and the emotional complexity of Triton's world that carry the story, and the wider perspective begins to seem less relevant. And that's difficult, to dismiss the central, tragic injustice of the political turmoil that is engulfing Sri Lanka as less important than a servant's domestic tale.

But emotional realities are what this book, in its perceptive, quiet voice, is most convincingly about. Of course the "distant thunder" of political events is always present, and often foregrounded: when it becomes loud enough, Triton and Mister Salgado go into exile. But in the continuum of Triton's consciousness, as it is here narrated, Gunesekera fails to assign these exterior political events a believable place. Of course the historic tragedy of Sri Lanka is implicit to the story -- so implicit, perhaps, that Gunesekera's explicit insistance weakens its importance. History may be a nightmare in which Gunesekera is struggling to entrap us, and yet no matter how often these political realities are referred to, they never become as relevant as the more immediate, more compelling emotional realities of the story.

Nowhere is this better shown than in Reef's central scene, the Christmas dinner that Mister Salgado hosts, and which will usher in his love affair with Miss Nili.

The preparation, serving, and consuming of the meal at Salgado's house -- eight to dine with Miss Nili -- compose the most sustained dramatic seqence of the book. Sitting at the middle of the story, the action of the dinner scene proceeds with sure logic, rising tension, and entire believability. And within its pace Gunesekera is able to make us understand something about the place he comes from, beyond its meticulously described locales, and far beyond its distant politics. As Triton listens to Mister Salgado talking to his guests, he is "spellbound."

I could see the whole of our world come to life when he spoke.... The past resurrected in a pageant of long-haired princes clutching ebony rods; red-tailed mermaids; elephants adorned with tasselled canopies and silver bells raising their sheathed, gilded, curved tusks and circling the bronze painted cities of ancient warlords. His words conjured up adventurers from India north and south, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, each with their flotillas of disturbed hope and manic wanderlust. They had come full of the promise of cinnamon, pepper, clove, and found a refuge in this jungle of demons and vast quiet waters.

The tensions between the characters at the table -- all revolving around Miss Nili -- come as dramatically clear as the perfectly-cooked turkey cleanly parting from the bone under Mister Salgado's knife.

Perfume rose up from her, and when I moved in to spoon the potatoes on to her plate it seemed the scent was stronger. It rose up from below her throat down inside her flapping dress. She had her elbows on the table her body was concave. She must have smeared the perfume with her fingers, rubbing it in like honey paste to enrich the skin.... My sarong, tight around my hips, brushed her arm. She didn't notice. She was looking across the table. Robert had caught her eye; he was smiling, his head shyly cocked to one side. A piece of turkey tumbled from her fork. She quickly retrieved it and said, 'Jesus.'

Everything is here: the American Robert's attraction to Nili that will later cause Salgado's fit of jealousy and Nili's flight; Triton's deep attraction to Nili; the insistence on the British trappings of mashed potatoes and turkey that, with all it represents, has thrown this island country into permanent political turmoil; the deeply-felt background of jungle myths and generations of colonialists. An entire narrative at this pace, with this sure subtlety of touch, might sacrifice some of Gunesekera's description, as well as analysis, but in exchange it would gain a terrific level of intensity, and the payoff in terms of emotions it could encompass would be huge.

A writer who would have made this dinner his whole story is Joyce, and the result would be, like that other story of an evening's entertainment, "The Dead," both a classic of English language but also cinematic enough for John Huston to make it a film. Gunesekera is the only contemporary writer I have encountered good enough to do the same. The perceptive, thrilling drama of his narration seems to burst the limits of his framing device, a tribute to the power of his story. I look forward to reading every word he writes, not only for the pleasure of following one of the two or three best writers I've encountered among my contemporaries, but also in the hopes of seeing his stories escape his rather tendentious narrative bias toward literary relevance and speak more simply and dramatically for themselves.

Originally published in the April/May 1995 issue of Boston Review

New York Times

No Island Stays an Island

By Edward Hower

"IT was small, and yet its voice could fill the whole garden," says the narrator of "Reef," describing an oriole that alights near his house. "In blissful ignorance it is completely beautiful; unruffled until its last moment." Lost innocence in the final years before a war is the theme of this eloquent first novel by Romesh Gunesekera, whose "Monkfish Moon," a collection of stories about his homeland of Sri Lanka, attracted critical attention here in 1993. "Reef" was a finalist for Britain's Booker Prize last year.

Now an adult in exile in London, the novel's narrator remembers his Edenic childhood in Sri Lanka in the post-independence era of the 1960's, when at the age of 11 he became an apprentice houseboy for a marine biologist, Mr. Salgado. The boy -- appropriately named Triton for the son of Poseidon, the sea god -- loved the kindly ocean ographer's home. "Even the sun seemed to rise out of the garage and sleep behind the del tree at night," he remembers. His master's praise thrilled him as if it had come from "a channel cut from heaven to earth right through the petrified morass of all our lives, releasing a blessing like water springing from a riverhead, from a god's head."

The aristocratic young scientist, as Mr. Gunesekera presents him, is himself an innocent, preoccupied with his studies of the sea and oblivious of the forces of darkness gathering around him. He has no understanding of the potential brutality of people like Joseph, his head house servant. But Triton does. Joseph terrorizes the boy, who can combat the older man's menace only with prayerful fantasies inspired by Buddhist folklore. He imagines the gods in the sky "crowded on a bamboo raft on a blue lake surrounded by rolling hills, holding silver spears and peering through peepholes in the clouds, searching for Joseph, determined to destroy him."

The prayer seems to work. Joseph, returning home drunk, is fired, and Triton is put in charge of the house. The pride he takes in his position brings to mind that of the butler-narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel "The Remains of the Day," but without any of the distancing irony of that work.

All the home lacks, Triton feels, is a woman's presence. Enter graceful Nili, a desk clerk from the local hotel, who captivates not only Mr. Salgado but the now teen-age Triton as well. The buttery "love cake" that the boy cooks for her and his employer has a magical effect: Mr. Salgado gives up his bachelor ways and invites Nili to move in. Their happy conversations on the veranda enchant Triton. "In the dark," he says, "the voices had a life of their own; they moved around me as if I were deep underwater and they were fish swimming, leaving a trail that could be felt but not seen, small currents, waves."

The novel is rich in sensuous descriptions not only of the gardenlike loveliness of the countryside, but also of the pleasures of cooking, which Triton discovers as a creative outlet. His culinary artistry, like Mr. Gunesekera's literary skill, produces "a kind of energy that revitalizes every cell. . . . Suddenly everything becomes possible and the whole world, that before seemed slowly to be coming apart at the seams, pulls together."

Other recurring themes, threaded subtly throughout the narrative, gradually become visible. The reef surrounding the island nation has always protected it from the outside world, but now the coral is being torn up by developers and turned into cement for tourist hotels. Capitalism is ravaging the country as aggressively as the revolutionary ideas spreading among the exploited people who insist that "we have to destroy in order to create."

The benign, protective aspects of Triton's religion are also shattered, as sectarian violence erupts, pitting Buddhist against Hindu. Triton recalls a folk tale about a gentle young prince who is told by his corrupt teacher to make a necklace out of a thousand human fingers and as a result becomes a blood-crazed mass murderer. He learns how naive he was to assume that the tale was merely an exaggerated fantasy.

Triton's efforts to retain the harmonious atmosphere in the household, like Mr. Salgado's crusade to protect the reef and Nili's attempts to save him from despair, cannot preserve the innocence of his world. Nili leaves; Mr. Salgado takes to drink. The oriole in the garden will sing no more -- except in memory.

Romesh Gunesekera's powerful novel preserves that memory beautifully. Like "Running in the Family," Michael Ondaatje's reminiscences of his Sri Lankan childhood, "Reef" is peopled with colorful, memorable characters. Mr. Gunesekera, a masterly storyteller, writes about them with great affection, casting a spell of nostalgia with his lyrical prose.

At the story's end, Mr. Salgado, who has fled to England, returns to his homeland intent on finding his lost love -- going after "a glimmer of hope in a faraway house of sorrow." For its exiled author, who now lives in London, this novel itself must represent such a glimmer. For his fortunate readers, the book is incandescent. Everything was Motion

In my childhood, at school, I learned language and history, some geography and sums; but science was a big black hole. My eager schoolteacher abandoned science to nature, assuming we would absorb the essentials through inquisitive play. Language, he used to say, was what made us different from the apes, and that was what he wanted to teach. But from my Mr. Salgado I learned the reverse: language is what you pick up naturally -- everyone speaks, no problem -- but science has to be learned methodically, by study, if one is ever to emerge out of the swamp of our psychotic superstitions. It is what transforms our lives. The electrification of the village or the illumination of the mind, which comes first? he would ask his friend Dias. . . . But Sir, I wanted to ask, how do you thread magnesium filaments and copper alloys and turn electric longings into attractive voltage without learning to read and write and tell the past from the present? How can you tell that the brightening of the bulb on the wire follows from you flicking a switch on the wall without a sense of history and narrative? Otherwise it may seem that somehow a divine light, emanating from an all-powerful bulb, had caused in its infinite wisdom your hand to stroke that beautiful baroque switch, rather than the other way round. My Mr. Salgado had studied all these things. He had traveled all over the earth. That was probably why for him everything was motion: motion explained everything. But it was not obvious to me. From "Reef."

March 26, 1995, The New York Times

India Today

Elegant prose

by Shashi Tharoor 

When I turned the last page of this elegantly simple and accomplished novel, I found it difficult to believe that it is the author's first. Through an earlier collection of short stories (Monkfish Moon) and his nomination this year on the Booker Prize shortlist, Romesh Gunesekera is already at the crest of the wave of ex-colonial writers who have breached Britain's literary shores.

Reef amply demonstrates why the high regard bestowed in London on this soft-spoken, unassuming Sri Lankan is richly deserved.

It is 1961. An 11-year-old boy. Triton, unwanted at home, is engaged as a domestic servant in Colombo by a languid, independently-wealthy young marine biologist, Ranjan Salgado. Triton-sweeps floors and brings his master's tea: he is merely the third of the three servants, tyrannised by the major domo, Joseph, but indulged (and trained) by the old cook, Lucy.

Soon, however, his fortunes improve. The hated Joseph (who "thought just because he knew the habits of his superiors he could become one") is dismissed for returning drunk from an unauthorised absence. Lucy retires; and Triton becomes his master's all-in-all, cooking, cleaning, gardening and even organising elaborate Christmas parties.

Meanwhile Salgado begins to work for the Government, mapping the erosion of the coral reefs off the island's south coast. A young women, Nili, enters his life. She comes over for tea, and is won over as much by Triton's culinary skills ("her face floated happily in the warm afternoon haze while huge chunks of the richest, juiciest love-cake disappeared into her") as by Salgado's almost wordless devotion.

Soon she moves into the house. They - and Triton - are briefly happy. Then Salgado's decline begins, ending in drink, failure, and - ultimately - return, to Sri Lanka and a Nili both driven mad by communal violence.

The tale is told from the worm's-eye-view, as recalled by Triton, now a middle-aged London restaurateur, after an encounter with a petrol station attendant, a Tamil refugee whose anxiety and bewilderment remind Triton of his own childhood fears and hopes.

The petrol station prologue seems to frame Reef as another diaspora novel but, in fact, it is set thereafter entirely in Sri Lanka, a land Gunesekera intimately and intricately evokes.

The writing is clear, lyrical, precise; through the elaborate accumulation of details, social encounters seen from the perspective of dishes cooked and washed, car journeys described in terms of the items packed in the boot, characters delineated by their drinking habits and orders to the servant, a world emerges, that many Indians will find achingly familiar.

Always present, initially in oblique references, then harshly intruding into the plot, is the spectre of national disintegration, as the killings mount - at first distant, the affecting a prominent neighbour, next taking away a close friend, finally touching a loved one.

Reef is a novel strong enough to sustain the burden of allegory, with Salgado typifying the life of ease and order too many Sri Lankans took for granted, Nili emblematic of the country itself (generous, fun-loving, ultimately torn apart by hatred she cannot understand or protect herself against) and Triton, the voice of the underling who fled, ignorant of the passions of those his servitude sustained. The erosion of the precious reef of the title, built up over millennia but thoughtlessly destroyed by man, offers a haunting metaphor for this larger theme.

But such a reading is by no means necessary to appreciate the strength of this exquisite, compelling novel. "You know, Triton," Salgado says at the end, "we are only what we remember, nothing more. ..all we have is the memory of what we have done, or not done." By what he has done in Reef, Gunesekera has given us much to remember, and to savour.

India Today  November 30, 1994