A reflection on what it means to remember | Print edition
Adilah Ismail speaks with Anuk Arudpragasam whose latest novel, A Passage North, was recently shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize
On weekends, I settle in to read Anuk Arudpragasam’s latest novel, recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021, photos of exhausted public health inspectors and medical staff punctuate my social media feed. A news article reports that the Ottamavadi cemetery – the only designated site for the burial of the dead infected with COVID – is approaching capacity. On one part of the Internet, people stock up on oxygen and medicine for patients unable to access medical facilities. In another social media corner, images of a perahera with more than 5,000 attendees are juxtaposed with a small commemoration in the northeast of the murder of more than 50 schoolgirls, held under tight military control. On a WhatsApp group, news of a death emerges and after initial condolences, mourning expresses relief that funeral rites may have been performed – there is a clear realization that engaging in mourning rituals is a luxury in these times.
In many ways, Arudpragasam’s novel A Passage North resembles an elegy written through fiction. He reflects on what it means to remember, what it means to bear witness and to fight against the guilt of survival. Reading it is a reminder that for many Sri Lankans, long before the pandemic, the space to mourn, cry and heal has always been a luxury.
A middle-class man living in Colombo with his grandmother and mother, Krishan is the novel’s restless and mentally traveling narrator. Physically he is in Colombo and then takes a train trip north to attend a funeral, but his mind travels through time and space. This narrative bustle is softened by long sentences and supported by thick paragraphs and thoughtful engagement with the world and the people around it.
In particular, there is no dialogue in the novel. Many characters converse in Tamil, and markers for class, region, colloquialism usage, and dialect changes that are otherwise visible when speaking and writing in Tamil would be flattened when translated into English, note Arudpragasam speaking to the Sunday Times.
In Tamil literature there is a strong emphasis on dialect and speech and although English offers dialect modules, it would be extremely inappropriate to try to model the Tamil dialectic difference into the dialectical differences that exist in English. , reflects Arudpragasam. Rather than erasing these cadences, the conversations are in reported speech.
“It’s just a point in the South Asian novel or the non-white, non-European, non-Western English-language novel where there is a historical contradiction that actually cannot be artistically resolved because you cannot solve the problems. policies with the novel. or with a work of art. This impossibility is there because of the ridiculousness of the idea of writing a novel in English about non-English speakers, and it exists because of colonialism and colonization. It’s also not my interest to pretend that such a problem doesn’t exist, or to pretend that there isn’t something ridiculous about me writing this novel in English, why do people read it in English, why is it being sold overseas – things like that. For me, canceling the reported direct speech and direct quotation is a way of recognizing the historical contradiction of this romantic act but also of trying to dissolve it without solving it, in a way that recognizes the insolubility of the larger problem ” , he notes. .
A starting point for writing the novel, Arudpragasam explains, was the relationship between Krishan and his grandmother, and then it gradually expanded from there over the years.
The most tender moments in the novel occur in the interactions between the characters. In Appamma and Krishan’s relationship, we see a portrayal of family tenderness and a reckoning of age, body, and time. With Rani – a character from the novel physically closest to war – and Appamma, we see how a caregiver resuscitates an aging body with tenuous links to the world, and how the act of healing anchors an aged soul also with tenuous ties. with the world. Krishan, reflecting on her relationship with Anjum, an activist in India, reflects on the push-pull intimacy that has tinted their relationship and “the tenderness that marked the transition from falling in love to actually loving someone.”
In his first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, Arudpragasam defamiliarizes the landscape, stripping it of its name and extracting it from any political context. In A Passage North, under Krishan’s watchful eye, detail is given to the place.
A Passage North’s treatment of time and characters echoes the modernist style of writers like Virginia Woolf. There is a simultaneous collapse and lengthening of time in the novel and the past, the present and the future are always linked – the action of the novel takes place over a few days but its narrative winds through the years. The narrative of the flow of consciousness opens up a rich inner private world. In A Passage North, the surface agitation (a call announcing a death, an email from an old lover) creates ripples that break the “circular reverie of everyday life”. The characters are in a liminal state and struggle with restless loneliness and yearn for something that cannot be easily named.
Like the characters in Woolf who felt “very young; at the same unspeakable age “and had a” perpetual meaning […]to be out, out, far at sea and alone ”, Krishan has a“ strange feeling of being thrown out of time ”, struggles with worry about the passing of time and often reflects on the dissonance between his inner world and outside.
Krishan’s stream of consciousness acts as a narrative scaffolding to connect a variety of cultural and political documents such as stories of the Buddha, war documentaries and films, citizen archives of the conflict, Tamil and Sanskrit literature, etc. In one case, the novel carefully reconstructs the events of the Welikada prison massacres in July 1983. Although the event is remembered by the general public, details of its seriousness are often erased and Krishan lingers on the story. of Kuttimani within the event – his wish to donate his eyes after death, the latest act of brutality that ends his life contrary to the words of the mural outside Welikada Prison announcing “Prisoners are humans”.
“I guess all the material was linked by this idea of desire, this idea of nostalgia. Because all of the characters in the book are nostalgic creatures, but it’s just that their nostalgia is directed in different ways – away from the world we were born into; towards the world in which we were born but from which we are now rejected; towards a world which no longer exists but which existed in the past and which contained the people we love; or towards a world which does not yet exist but which could exist, ”says Arudpragasam.
In Arudpragasam’s novel, we are finally reminded that “memory needs clues from the environment to function, can only function through associations between things of the present and things of the past …” As Writes A. Sivanandan in his book When Memory Dies “When memory dies, a people dies. What if we made up false memories? It’s worse, it’s murder ”. A Passage North is constantly navigating what it means to witness and remember. The book must be translated into German, Italian and Russian.
Arudpragasam always knew that writing would be a key part of his life. The writing of The Story of a Brief Marriage was a lonely undertaking and he considers himself lucky to have the beginning and the critical reception it had – he wrote it on his own, his sister was his only reader. , the book was sent to an agent, she liked it and the book was published afterwards.
The second novel was written in five years between New York, New Delhi and Colombo. With A Passage North there was an impulse to take on a technical and literary challenge and to attempt a very different process. He decided to experience sustained engagement with one mind and a narrative devoid of dramatic context and intrigue. “The first book deals with a very violent situation so I didn’t really expect this book to be published or to be well received or read widely, and I guess the fact that it was published made me feel good i did this thing i felt like it probably wasn’t going to work and it worked, now i maybe have more freedom to try something that is maybe even less likely to work, ”says Arudpragasam.
Arudpragasam, now 32, was born in Colombo and his first novel The Story of a Brief Marriage was translated into seven languages, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the award. Dylan Thomas. He studied philosophy in the United States and received a doctorate from Columbia University. He is currently a fellow of the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination. In the past six months he’s been working on another book.
Reflecting on writing as a private act and publishing as a public act, he compares it to throwing a party and the angst of hosting.
“I guess, in a way, posting always brings the possibility of humiliation,” he says. “Because nobody ever asked you to write, and all of a sudden you wrote something and you say, read it. And it’s kind of like having a party and being ambitious about who you want to have at the party, and how good the party is going to be, and you invite a lot of people, and then you know there’s always the possibility that you are left with maybe one or two close friends and a lot of people not coming to your party, ”he explains.
“… But now I have organized the party and the invitations have my name on it and now everyone will come or not and if they come they may have a good time or they may not have a good time but there’s a chance I’ll be humiliated here. And I think that’s how I feel about it, “he pauses and smiles.” Does that make sense? “