A friend of mine recommended this book because she knew of my affinity for Proust. Tissa Abeysekara shares that poetic digression into nostalgia, the lingering description of a taste or a sound, and the endearing affection for mother. The attention to sensation is similar, even though we follow Abeysekara’s narrator through late twentieth-century Sri Lanka, not turn-of-the-century France, and the flavor that remains is not a saturated madeleine but the metallic taste of water tinged with sardines.
A combination of memoir and fiction, these four stories follow the adolescence of both the man and his country. In the narrator’s mid-twentieth-century home of Ceylon, the stale breath of four decades of colonial rule is still discernable. Locating an individual identity in a land focused on discovering itself is a daunting task. The narrator is boy from a privileged native family whose fortune failed after World War II. The family is forced to leave behind the Big House and the red Jaguar and Tony, the faithful family dog. The boy’s mother would have him learn to adapt, and his father would have him hold onto a former world. These stories explain the consequences of this division, evidenced in the narrator’s internal and social world. When revisiting the native home of his grandmother, he encounters a monk on the mountain who asks, "’From where are you?’ This question in my language implies much more than your place of residence. It wants to know your origin." This is the question the narrator pursues and the one that provokes the deep introspection of these stories.
It isn’t only because Abeysekara has worked as a filmmaker in his native Sri Lanka for over three decades that this book feels cinematic. The colors are rich, the light palpable and the combination of action and dialogue is seamlessly maneuvered. By mixing screenwriter’s direction into the prose and dialogue of his first story, he creates an appropriate blend of proximity and distance, a reflection of his own relationship to the nostalgia that motivates the book.
Like many post-colonial authors, Abeysekara’s metaphors carry substantial weight. I found myself searching for the colonial face in the deep descriptions of abandonment, power and the decay of bodies, from mangy Tony, his weakening father and the rotting man on the rubber plantation. But Abeysekara is a craftsman who allows subtext to remain so, and we are able to focus on the intimacy of the narrator’s own story of aging and memory. When the boy rescues his dog, marching him the distance between the Big House in Depanama and the poor one in Egodawatta, or when he rejects his father’s gift, rediscovers his adolescent lover or travels to the central hills where his grandmother was born, we understand that we are being shown more than just these incidents. We are following the narrator as he learns, finally, the meaning behind the episodes in his life. There is clarity in the distance he has gained and in remembering things past, much like glimpsing the sea from the mountaintop. As the monk he encounters near his grandmother’s home explains, after years of looking it will happen suddenly: "through that little break in the long line of hills, like through the eye of a needle, I saw the water, blue and glistening like a crest gem. Ever since then I see it. I need glasses to read, but I see faraway things." Abeysekara has paused in the middle of his life to reflect on a world he no longer recognizes, and which has ceased to recognize him, and to glimpse the world he was unable to see before now.
Reviewed by Kristianne Huntsberger