Noon Tide Toll
The Guardian (c) 2014.
Review of Romesh Gunasekera’s short story collection.
Sri Lanka is a land of arguments. Arguments that cause punch-ups on live TV, shoot-outs during elections, riots over religion, and wars that go on for decades. Our civil war may have ended five years ago, but the arguments never stopped. Arguments over why we harass minorities, why we silence journalists and why even countries with dodgy human rights records find us offensive. Then there are the arguments over who the island belongs to, who deserves justice and how the war was won and lost.
The gracefully crafted road stories of Noon Tide Toll play out amidst these arguments in a post-war Sri Lanka simmering with the unanswered and the unresolved. We follow the adventures of Vasantha the van man as he transports tourists, soldiers, entrepreneurs, aid workers and exiles to the ravaged north and the renewed south, all the while observing his passengers, keeping his thoughts to himself, and staying out of arguments.
Thankfully the reader is privy to Vasantha’s nuanced reflections as he navigates this nebulous landscape with eyes on the road and ears to the ground. His thoughts are the soul of the book, rambling and poetic, wrapped in folksy wit and shrewd observation. Through him, Romesh Gunasekera examines the central argument that continues to rage across the island and its many roads. How should Sri Lanka address its past? Do we dig it up or do we bury it?
Vasantha begins the book as a pragmatist. “The past is what you leave as you go. There is nothing more to it.” Elsewhere he says, “There comes a point when you don’t want to know.” It is the narrator’s ambivalence that makes him good at his job, and keeps the book’s tone from veering into polemic. “What they saw, what they heard, what they thought, what they remembered was their problem, not mine.” It is his voice that elevates this collection to something greater than the sum of its episodes.
Wry, knowing and highly entertaining, the tone is at times wise, “A young mind, like a young heart, is so easy to break,” and at times glib, “I have never been married but I… know that intimacy is one thing that disappears on the night, even if virginity might have dissolved long before.”
There may be criticisms of the voice, the same ones leveled at the heroes of White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire. What driver or tour guide born of poverty in the subcontinent would speak like this? Could a Colombo van driver sound as erudite and polished as our Vasantha? This matters a great deal to some, less so to me. To dumb down or to patois the speech of non-native English speakers is an exercise in snobbery, which may not deliver the authenticity it hopes for. I’d rather spend time with Gunasekera’s eloquent narrator than endure a monosyllabic oaf placed there for linguistic verisimilitude.
That said, Vasantha serves more as a point-of-view device than as a genuinely rounded protagonist. While there is mention of his past, his family and his regrets, Noon Tide Toll is less about his journey than about those he transports. Through his eyes we see snapshots of war zones, portraits of those who visit them, and sketches of what they seek.
Some seek justice like the priest tracking the war criminal in an early story called Mess. Or money like the Chinese entrepreneurs in Scrap, the soldiers taking marketing classes in Fluke and the location hunting film crew in Shoot.
The remorseful soldier in Ramparts seeks guidance, the guilt-ridden general in Humbug seeks forgiveness and the Dante-reading Romeo at the Jaffna library in Renewals seeks an exit. Others revisit the past like the exiled Tamil father in Deadhouse, or conceal it like the ex-terrorist turned hotelier in Roadkill.
Noon Tide Toll comes from the same wellspring as Gunasekera’s early work, the Booker-shortlisted Reef and the underrated Monkfish Moon. In all three, simple stories told in delicate prose reveal unexpected insights, powerful ideas, and painful losses. Gunasekera makes reasoned arguments without raising his voice and answers questions of Sri Lanka’s past by exploring memory and imagination and evaluating the degrees of usefulness in both.
Many Sri Lankan writers face internal arguments when describing this isle of contrasts and contradictions. Do we write as outsiders, observing without taking sides, or do we speak as insiders pointing fingers and admitting complicity? How truthfully can we describe Sri Lanka? Do we parade the horrors like a human rights documentary or peddle the pretty lies like a travel brochure?
Romesh Gunasekera, a storyteller at the height of his powers, manages to do all the above without having to change gear. The book is an elegant balancing act and a pleasure to read. His snapshots capture the island’s terrors and its treasures, and give you an insider view of the many outsiders drawn to this troubled isle.
The story is littered with symbols, some subtle, others less so. The journey and the road as metaphor features throughout. “We believed a line could be drawn between the mistakes of the past and the promise of the future… I should’ve known better. To go from one to another you need a road.” And of course the van, once white, now blue, the symbol of Sri Lankan death squads and abductions, a reality that we wish were fictitious and in the past, though we know this reality to be neither.
Gunasekera shows us that fiction can do what the documentary battles between Channel 4 and the Sri Lankan government could not. Gunasekera uses lyricism and a lifetime of seeing Sri Lanka at its worst, to convey the beauty and the despair, without getting tangled up in politics. Through Vasantha, he tells us that in a country of no consequences and no clean slates, “You need to check your rear-view mirror, but you can’t be looking back all the time–not unless you are in permanent reverse… if you are on the move, there is always hope…”
Overall, the stories of the north are stronger than those from the south, reflecting where most of Sri Lanka’s unresolved arguments reside. One hopes there will be a sequel featuring the east and the west, maybe even the coast and the hills. Tragedy in Sri Lanka does not suffer from geographic bias.
Do we dig up the past or do we bury it? Or do we try to understand it and avoid repeating it? As the post-war era continues to mutate through extremism, militarism and a xenophobic suspicion of the west, these twelve stories tell us that Vasantha, his creator, and the scarred island they travel have plenty of fuel left in the tank. And remind us that there are many places, arguments and ideas still left to explore.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. His scribbles can be read at www.shehanwriter.com