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â 2005 62 -
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Book Review!
Book Review!

Lutesong and Lament! 

- Stacey Solie -

On the world map, Sri Lanka appears a humble island nation. Shaped like a tear dripping off the Southern tip of India, its proportionally small geographic area belies the cultural diversity housed within its borders.  Lutesong and Lament, a recently released collection of Sri Lankan short works, translated from Tamil, is similarly a deceptively skinny volume, its cover binding together a remarkable variety of voice and perspective, style and subject.  This anthology represents the creative writing developments of a vibrant literary community over the past fifty years, and may surprise and challenge those accustomed to the casually urbane literary fare of, say, the New Yorker or the Best American Short Stories series.  The prose and poetry collected here for the first time since independence, reveal a rapidly evolving and diverse culture.  A steadfast reader, willing to wade through some initial disorientation when faced with unfamiliar literary and cultural references, will be richly rewarded with the breadth of experience and talent represented within. 

The anthology pulls together the works of thirty-three authors with diverse backgrounds, and includes the work of many ex-patriots.  Contemporary writers find their works inevitably influenced by the volatile political landscape that followed Sri Lankas (formerly Ceylon) attainment of independence from British rule in 1948, and especially the extreme civil unrest of the past twenty years.  However, Sri Lankans can trace their Tamil literary history back much further, to the Sangam poetry of the first century B.C.  The timeline over the next two millenia is marked by the flourishing and domination of the Jaffna kingdom, by colonial invasions, and by, among other influxes, the writings and doctrines of Christian missionaries and Islamic Moors.  Add to that the growing number of Tamils living in exile across the world and the regional diversity within the country, and it becomes increasingly apparent that it is not easy, if not impossible, to sum up the Tamil experience.  

One commonality amongst many of the pieces is evidence of a lively social consciousness. This awareness seems much more of a driving force than exists in most popular English literature today. Class analysis, nationalism, gender politics, filial duty and right behavior continually surface as thematic elements, and demand a certain level of attention to issues from the reader. One can easily recognize the play and power of status and social politics, and occasionally the message overshadows the characters particular dilemma.  However, in most of the pieces, something more, something harder to identify, emerges from the social predicament.  It is in these examples where literatures power to move the imagination and the mind is demonstrated, when it is able to stretch across political and class boundaries, across cultures and across oceans. For example, Ramiahs Among the Hills describes the dilemma of a young woman of marriageable age, who yearns for a certain suitor, but is held back by her familys dependence on her wages as a tea leaf picker.   Clearly the storys conflict is derived from a set of specific local conditions: the challenges posed to a woman from a certain class, as she struggles with the potential repercussions of challenging patriarchal decisions and the pull between her own desires and her sense of duty to her family.  The author guides us deftly through this thematically rich landscape, giving us a protagonist that is at one moment haughty, the next repentant and unsure, revealing in only a few pages a complexity that renders her actions both surprising, believable, and memorable.  

The civil conflicts of the last two decades provide creative fodder for many of the authors included in this collection.  The violence and the ability, or not, to escape from it has undoubtedly played a role in both simultaneously shaping ethnic identities, and differentiating between regional and class experiences.  One need only juxtapose Kosalai with The Dematoagoda Refugee to see this dichotomy played out. Kosalai, by Ranjakumar, traces a mothers hopeless anxiety as the favorite son abandons her to join in the fighting, and she is left to deal with wounded rebels bleeding in her living room and a growing resentment towards the son left behind. In The Dematagoda Refugee (A Santhan), protected by a fenced and latched yard and in the company of his mother, we see an upper middle class mans skeptical response to a beggar womans dubious plea for help.  He seems infinitely far from the refugee camp she claims to come from.  Add to this A.Muttulingams story of a quest for transcendence, to be found on the wings of a butterfly, but not without the invaluable aid of the visa, and we can get an idea of the vast terrain covered in this volume.  

The verse interspersed throughout the collection reveals an equally if not more diverse field of inspiration and influence.  The body of the anthology is flanked on either end by retellings of the myth of Indran and Ahalikali, but with markedly different results, reflecting many of the artistic and intellectual developments over the past several decades.   Some of the pieces delve into the abstract, like M Ponnambalams multi-layered Self Rule, and others read more like odes, such as M A Nuhmans Passion.  Several, again, demonstrate a strong social message, one of the more clever and powerful dictums issued by S Sivasegaram: Simply stop /dropping arms and ammunition /in the begging bowls /of those who ride on our hunched backs. The scope of work presented here is rich and many images linger on, despite the inevitable veils of diction and nuance that drape any literature-in-translation.  The quality of translation varies throughout the volume, often remarkably smooth, occasionally awkward, but almost always the force of the artist comes through, where the turn of a phrase evokes the waft of a river breeze, the shadow of swaying limbs, where the printed word casts a spell, if for a moment and the abstract takes shape in the mind. 

While many of authors included, according to the introduction by editor and collector Chelva Kanaganayakam, are well known within Sri Lanka, most will be read here for the first time in English, to the delight of any  who are so lucky to thumb through its pages.  This edition should serve to catapult the literary activities of Sri Lankans into the English-speaking and reading public realm, giving their writings the attention it merits.

sent by: 
Appdurai Muttulingam 
amuttu@rogers.com


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