Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Banana Tree Crisis by Insankya Kodithuwakku, a visit to Sri lanka

Occasionally a reader chances on a real discovery. A few rupees to spare in Colombo International Airport in Sri Lanka prompted the purchase of a few books by local authors. Travel, if undertaken with interest in the world rather than the self, has cultural immersion and experience as a requirement. Foods, art, history, religions, cultures and music are all on the list, but literature and writing must also figure. What a reader would not predict from a cover that featured bananas and little else would be the fact that this set of short stories would prove to be nothing less than a revelation sufficient to deserve the description of “masterpiece”.

The Banana Tree Crisis by Insankya Kodithuwakku is the book in question. It features seven short stories running to a total of around fifty thousand words, so is short enough for the traveller to consume before the west-bound aircraft out of Colombo even reaches Doha. But do not think that this implies something slight. On the contrary, the subject matter of these stories gets right to the heart of the social structure of Sri Lanka, its political and religious conflicts, its war, its highly unequal society, even its often fractious relationship with Britain, its former colonial master.

These stories address many issues and illustrate many arguments, but do not think for a moment that they are in any way didactic or heavy. The reality is quite the opposite, in that the writing style is sophisticatedly simple and transparent, the plots deceptively straightforward in their ability to convey complication with superb empathy. There is the Hindu-Buddhist-Muslim triangle, the Sinhalese-Tamil war, relations between the sexes and the generations, devastation by a Tsunami, the effects, intended and otherwise, of foreign aid, and even cricket. Anyone who has visited Sri Lanka will marvel at the brilliance with which these contexts are woven deftly into the tales of ordinary folk. A reader who has never been to this beautiful, troubled, welcoming and often frenetic island might even feel that these stories were the same as a visit, so vivid are the descriptions and so apparently real the scenarios. We even have a government minister being pushed though a crowd by the driver of his four-wheel SUV. Anyone who has visited Sri Lanka will recognise the requirement to get off the road. The reason, by the way, why minsters’ convoys behave so boorishly in traffic, is that they assume that bombs are never far away.

If this set of stories, The Banana Tree Crisis by Insankya Kodithuwakku, contained only The House in Jaffna, it would still be worth buying, just for those twenty pages. In just a few thousand words, Insankya Kodithuwakku addresses inter-generational and cross-cultural differences, captialism’s empty consumerism that sees personality as merely the sum of consumption, the nature of nostalgia, the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict, the fate of Jaffna and, overall, the appreciation of life being a process of change. It is nothing less than a masterpiece of the genre.

And Insankya Kodithuwakku’s writing style is always beautifully transparent, always engaging and regularly surprising throughout this set of stories. Insankya Kodithuwakku certainly displays a great talent. If you know Sri Lanka, you will adore these stories. If you have never been, then they will take you there for an authentic, enlightening and thoroughly entertaining visit. Please do read The Banana Tree Crisis by Insankya Kodithuwakku.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Though written in the mid-nineteenth century, The Warden by Anthony Trollope addresses themes that are highly relevant to contemporary issues. Prime amongst them is a consideration of the freedom and integrity of the press. In the novel, the eponymous warden, one Mr Harding, finds himself subjected to something of a public witch-hunt over payments of money that apparently cannot be justified.

Mr Harding is paid by the church, the Anglican Church, of course. At least that’s how things seem on the surface. He is the warden of a sheltered house that is home for a handful of aged and infirm workers, whose welfare is provided for by a long-standing trust fund. The legacy also provides for the allowance paid to their warden. The allowance is, shall we say, generous, especially compared to the funds that contribute directly to the inmates’ welfare.

Mr Harding has a daughter of marriageable age. She is courted by a Mr Bold whose character demands that he is duty bound to seek out justice where other may prefer continued indifference or ignorance. Mr Bold begins to take an interest in Mr Harding and the legacy. Stories - accusatory stories - begin to appear in the press. The newspaper, one in particular, is just not going to let the story rest. The unsuspecting Mr Harding is embarrassed in the extreme.

What the contemporary reader will find difficult in this scenario is appreciating the role and status of the church in the story. Mr Harding is employed by the Anglican Church. He is answerable to a Bishop, who lives in something known as a palace. A century and a half ago, the church was the very epitome of the establishment and respectability, whilst its employees and associates were professionalism and integrity personified. To some extent, they were above criticism and, crucially, they themselves believed this. And when the eight hundred pounds a year income that Mr Harding currently receives turns out to be misappropriated from funds that the bequest intended for the home’s inmates, all hell breaks loose.

The press continues its campaign. Both sides employ expensive, posing lawyers and both sides visit potentially influential friends in high places. And, in the midst of it all, we have Miss Harding on the opposite side of the argument from Mr Bold, her sweetheart.

But it is the involvement of the press that captures contemporary interest. Scandalised by the alleged mis-appropriation of charitable monies, stinking rich newspaper proprietors beat drums on behalf of the poor to make a hollow, if penetrating sound. The pursuit of celebrity, the nose for scandal, the propensity to claim a status above everyone else’s morals, all of these aspects of public posturing by the press remain familiar today. Apparently it was always in the public interest to sell as many copies as possible and by whatever means. And it always was the case that a public scandal over hundreds of pounds produced profits for the press barons measured in thousands.

The issues are all resolved, but not in a way that might have been predicted at the outset. A modern reader may well find the detail of the ending unlikely, but also it might be refreshingly unlikely. But it all goes to prove that in the last one hundred and fifty years some things have actually changed.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The School of Night by Alan Wall

At first sight, The School of Night by Alan Wall seems to be a novel about English social class. The childhoods of Sean and Daniel are spent in Yorkshire, Bradford to be precise, though the town remains recognisable but strangely anonymous throughout.  Social class differences can be keenly felt against a backdrop of contrasted industrial revolution profit and graft of the type presented by this city whose fortunes were spun in wool.

Sean, whose mother died young and whose father is usually inside – and that does not mean in the house, has been brought up fairly conventionally by his grandparents. His only eventual inheritance is his grandfather’s snooker cue. Dan, on the other hand, is from a professional family with a large car and a detached house. Daniel’s mother has the same vowels as everyone else, but she is also beautiful and made up to be different. She adopts a few airs and graces to keep the world at bay. The two lads, however, forge a pragmatic friendship. Both are academically gifted. They might just get to Oxford.

Sean does just that. He reads history and literature and develops what becomes a lifelong interest bordering on obsession with an Elizabethan group centred on Sir Walter Raleigh. Their name, The School of Night, gives the book its title and also figures in a rather opaque and otherwise perhaps inconsequential line in a Shakespeare play. Further research leads Sean to a quest into the authorship of Shakespeare’s work. He cannot accept that a man whose daughter remained illiterate could have authored such work. Sean seems to forget the example of his own origins, or perhaps he might be rejecting them? Of this we are never sure.

Daniel, on the other hand, does not make it to Oxford. He doesn’t get the grades and decides to stay on at school for an extra year to improve his scores. The friends are thus separated. Dan never makes it to university. He abandons school, enters the family business in perishables, takes up with the girl that Sean left behind, marries her, has children and builds businesses, successfully.

Sean drifts into a steady if undemanding job as a researcher in the BBC while Dan builds his mansions. Sean takes up with Dominique and soft gates open into the promise of a new life only to close again for familiar reasons. He continues to meander through the intellectual challenges presented by his study of The School of Night and the identity of William Shakespeare while his own life itself meanders from one day to the next. Dan, meanwhile, makes more money, pots of it, and intervenes occasionally. We know early on, by the way, that Dan has died, leaving Sean an immense sense of loss.

As the characters’ lives unfold, the reader begins to expect some form of resolution of the book’s multiple and apparently disparate themes. The School of Night, Sir Walter Raleigh, Kit Marlowe, William Shakespeare, literature, history, sexual awakening, education, social class, friendship, loyalty, Bradford, they all mingle without ever really forcing a mix. Surely there will be some significant event that creates a synthesis powerful enough to round off this admixture of elements into a single, plot-forming whole. But Alan Wall is far too good a writer to stoop to such banality. These are characters who retain their interests because they are interested in them, not because they can be made to serve some cheap literary trick.

When Sean is made redundant by the BBC, Dan reappears in his life with an offer he cannot refuse. New, previously only imagined realities unfold and an occasional, sometimes disturbing truth surfaces. But Sean realises it is better not to ask questions. It is amazing what we will do to help a friend, even if the friend might not deserve the attention, let alone the required and inevitably assumed devotion.

The School of Night is about deception and eventual resolution via discovery. We interpret any situation only with knowledge currently available and inevitably there remains much that remains unknown, even about ourselves, let alone our closest friends and acquaintances, let alone shady figures from history. The School of Night seems to be a novel about doubt and our insatiable desire to resolve it, always with at best only partial success.

American Scoundrel by Thomas Keneally

The title of Thomas Keneally’s American Scoundrel leaves little to the imagination. The only unknown is to whom the label might be attached. Before we begin the title tells us that the declared subject, one Daniel Sickles, is charged, sentenced and already committed. The fact that in reality he was charged but also acquitted leaves enough space of doubt to generate sufficient interest to prompt a reading.

Daniel Sickles, in short, was a cad and a bounder, but perhaps might not have appeared so by the standards of contemporary mores. An inhabitant of high society in mid-nineteenth century USA, he managed to achieve fame, notoriety, wealth, military success, national stardom and much else, apart form the Presidency, itself. He lost a leg at the battle of Gettysburg, a leg that had fame of its own, celebrity sufficient to find a place in a museum cabinet. It was an exhibit that the be-crutched Sickles liked to visit with his guests. “I’d like to show you my leg,” he would whisper to his female acquaintances, a phrase that from anyone else would not be suggesting a ride in a carriage.

Daniel Sickles was a member of the social and political elite of New York and Washington society. He was a member of Tammany Hall, and so had some pretty influential and powerful friends. He was a Democrat who leaned both ways on the issue of slavery until the split finally came, when he declared decisively for the Union. He became an officer in the army and commanded a unit at the Battle of Gettysburg. By chance, planning, talent or incompetence, depending on whose version of history is trusted, he led a decisive move in the battle. He also lost a leg. As a result, Dan Sickles became something of a famed hero as well as an infamous manipulator, his supporters worshipful, his detractors derisive.

His reputation derived from before the war. He had married Teresa, a beauty of Italian descent several years younger than himself. In what was at the time perfectly acceptable and even honourable behaviour, he continued to visit prostitutes - and even take them as travelling companions - while he expected a faithful and devoted wife to care for house and home and also provide for all his surplus needs. When Dan’s wife sought her own physical solace via an affair, Dan shot the fellow, out in the open in Washington’s Lafayette Square.

Along with descriptions of Gettysburg’s battle, Dan’s trial for murder forms a second major part of the book. Basically, Dan toughed it out on the basis that his wife was his property and her lover had violated that property. He was acquitted. He also, it must be recalled, had some significant friends. Thomas Keneally’s treatment of the case and its associated issues makes the book worth reading if, at times, tending to the prolix.

Overall, we appreciate that Dan was gifted with longevity and was an obviously powerful character. Equally, Teresa’s beauty, her passion, her lamentable marriage and her eventual withering demise from tuberculosis present a vivid and rather endearing picture. But then by the end we also feel that we have never really got to know either of them. American Scoundrel is a very good book, but one feels that its subject might have demanded better.

The Needle's Eye by Margaret Drabble

The Needle’s Eye by Margaret Drabble is at one level a story of two marriages, the Vassiliou and the Camish. Its focus is on two characters, Rose Vassiliou and Simon Camish who, even at their first meeting, find themselves inexorably drawn to one another.

Rose Bryanston was brought up in an upper middle class English family. The rambling country house in Norfolk figures large towards the end of the book when Rose and Simon make an unscheduled weekend visit to her parents. Rose has married Christopher Vassiliou, of Greek origin, and has settled near Alexandra Palace in north London. They have three children and have separated. Rose has also inherited and has given the money away, taking to heart the Bible’s advice on rich men and the eyes of a needle. Perhaps that’s why Christopher has left her. They are squabbling over the children, as one would expect when rational people, so capable in the area of analysis and reason, apply their powers selfishly.

Simon Camish is a specialist on labour relations and trade unions. He is also a writer and is co-authoring a book on aspects of his specialism. He is also resident in north London and also has three children of his own. He is married to Julie who, despite everything we are told, does not appear to be the kind of person who would fall for a man whose main interest was trade unionism. Her dismissive materialism is often tinged with a barbed anger.

These characters soon begin to develop their obvious penchant for thought and analysis. They seem to be capable of endless, un-paragraphed free association from almost any starting stimulus and leading to any imagined end. And it soon becomes a process apparently without end. Consciousness streams forth in long, unbroken flows, often appearing strangely directionless, sometimes almost repetitive. At times Simon and Rose seem to be so obsessed with themselves that they seek to analyse even the mundane, a process that always endows the mundane with deep, if passing significance. It seems that they seek implications in every catchable breath. Christopher, Rose’s husband, on the other hand, seems to be direct and largely pragmatic, while Julie, Simon’s wife,  is often short tempered, dismissive, prejudiced and more inclined to worry about the curtains than the eternal.

By the middle of the book, we are completely engrossed with these people but, to be charitable, we can hardly associate with them. They dwell on every thought, meander through past and future, while apparently taking any present for granted. Rose and Christopher are fighting over the custody of their children, but we feel that they themselves are the only people in their thoughts.

Eventually, The Needle’s Eye does develop its own direction. But it is a long journey and, despite a drive from London to Norfolk, we feel we have travelled very little from where we started. But then life is like that, isn’t it? How many plots do we live? In The Needle’s Eye we share the lives of people, perhaps live them a little. We become participants, not mere observers, but we never really know the characters because they probably don’t really know themselves. I suppose we are different nowadays…