Nationality: British (originally Sri Lankan, immigrated to England). Awards: Rathbone prize for philosophy, University of Liverpool, 1976; Writers' Bursary, Arts Council, London, 1991; Yorkshire Post Best First Work award, 1995.
Reef. London, Granta, 1994; New York, New Press, 1995.
Monkfish Moon. New Delhi, Penguin, London, Granta, and NewYork, New Press, 1992.* * *
On a photo depicting "India's leading novelists" that was printed in a 1997 special issue of the New Yorker on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence, Romesh Gunesekera is half concealed by another writer. Never has the young Sri Lankan received a mass audience's attention like, say, a flamboyant personality such as Arundhati Roy, nor has his work provoked a literary sensation of any sorts. Salman Rushdie's quipping identification of Sri Lanka with a drop of goo dangling from India's nose in Midnight's Children shows well enough how the notoriously problem-ridden island is regarded by "Mother India." Nonetheless, Gunesekera's quiet and elegant, yet sharp and precise prose deserves without any doubt to be counted among the best writing from the literary flourishing subcontinent, and—as he has made a second home in London—in the same measure among the best young writers in the British literary landscape.
The immigrant experience informs all of Gunesekera's writing, but in a decidedly different vein than Rushdie's comic grotesquerie, V.S. Naipaul's venom, or Bharati Mukherjee's uncompromisingdisdain. If a comparison had to be suggested, probably Amitav Ghosh comes most closely, especially with regard to Gunesekera's The Sandglass (1998)—which is strongly reminiscent of Ghosh's The Shadow Lines —a fascinatingly controlled novel whose narrator's mind continuously shuttles between home and away, building a kind of uneasy bridge between Sri Lanka and England.
Gunesekera's first volume, the short-story collection Monkfish Moon, received much acclaim. The nine stories revolving around the turmoil of Sri Lanka's civil war are haunted with the striking violence introduced to the Edenic island by the fighting groups. It is only obliquely, however, that the violence enters the stories. Gunesekera focuses on personal misunderstanding and the breakdown of communication, on the parting and fracture of human relationships. So in "A House in the Country," the developing comradeship between master and servant is sundered as the trace of destruction comes closer and closer; "Batik" sees the split between Tamil husband and Sinhala wife (though the story ends on a more optimistic note); the protagonist in "Ranvali" visits her father's beach bungalow after many years and cherishes nostalgic reminiscences of a time before her father turned to political activism and estranged himself from his family; the final story, "Monkfish Moon," elaborates on the whole collection's title. As we learn from the fat, aging business magnate Peter, who always wanted to live like a monk in complete detachment, for good meat you need a good moon. An introductory note informs us that "There are no monkfish in the ocean around Sri Lanka." While there is no political hiding place in the now spoilt paradise, Gunesekera tries to capture and maybe thereby aesthetically to salvage his home country.
Gunesekera's powerful first novel, Reef, shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1994, puts even more emphasis on the domestic space while the grim violence of the war looms large in the background. Reef is the story of young Triton, who works as cook and factotum for the marine biologist Mr. Salgado. Throughout the novel the first-person narrator emphasizes an ahistorical perspective, focusing on the different household chores, rather than on the serious political problems of the island. More than anything else, Reef is a culinary novel, a mouthwatering tour through the joys and virtues of the country's cuisine. The reader learns the right temperature for a perfect string-hopper dough, how to prepare coconut kavum, a love cake or a curry in a hurry, and how to disguise the dubious taste of a parrot fish with a sauce rich with chilli sambol. The exoticism that arguably accrues from this gastronomic reduction of Sri Lanka has evoked rather polarized responses. While the novel received high critical acclaim in Britain where it was published, critics from Sri Lanka often took short shrift with Gunesekera's "blinkered attitude" to his country of birth. Gunesekera was accused of merely restating western stereotypes about Sri Lanka. This critique, however, seems overstated, misreading Gunesekera's fine chisel for a broad brush. In fact, Triton, who uncompromisingly idolizes his master, plots against the brute servant Joseph, and eventually leaves Sri Lanka for England where he opens a restaurant "to show the world something really fabulous," is a character whom Gunesekera has quite consciously drafted problematic. Like Monkfish Moon, the novel is powerful in its treatment of personal relations, especially after Miss Nili—with whom Mr. Salgado falls in love—enters the household. The novel, which gets its title from the vanishing coral reef in the south that points to the threat of the encroaching sea, has most convincingly confirmed Gunesekera's promise as a fine writer.
In his second novel The Sandglass, Gunesekera's style seems even more refined, his language even more tactile. The narrative is set in London, on a February day when Prins Ducal arrives from Colombo to attend his mother Pearl's funeral. Again, the story's events are complexly filtered, this time with a strong emphasis on time, as Prins unravels his memories in the company of the narrator, who adds his own flashbacks on the seventeen years he has known the Ducal family. These bits and pieces form a chronicle of four generations of the Ducals, a family that is intricately related to another clan, the Vatunases. The hatred between the neighbouring families, which started after Prins's father Jason had bought a house on Vatunase ground (ironically called Arcadia), reflects the situation on the wartorn island. Once more Gunesekera abstains from depicting "the inferno back home" in terms of bloodshed, but focuses on family warfare, comprador corruption, and political power struggle. The mysterious death of his immensely successful father troubles Prins even forty years later, while the curiously evasive narrator who lives vicariously the Ducals' fate wants to read Pearl's life, "hoping to find something that would make sense out of the nonsense of my life."
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