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Tracing the edge of the nation

The pages of fiction, said Gunadasa Amarasekara at the launch of his new novel Rupantharanaya, are enabled by the sensitively lived life, and the hundreds who had gathered at the SLFI, to hear half dozen intellectuals speak on his writing seemed to agree. I do too; it is difficult think of any other writer who exemplifies this art, who combines the rigour of sustained logical narrative, propelled by the subtlety of everyday descriptions, in syntax and vocabulary of breathtaking economy and beauty.

Amarasekara on that day disavowed giving an account of his new novel, or his oeuvre, leaving it to the panel; yet he has been most influential as a critic of his own work, rather more I think than he should be. The weight of the now conventional division of Ameresenkere’s fiction to the periods young and mature, can be attributed surely to his own endorsement of the view and frequent ‘repudiations’ of early work, that are thought to be D. H. Lawarencish forays into Sinhala fiction. There was much of this said at the SLFI, and there is much to be questioned, I think, in that division. While that argument must rest for another day, the benefits of examining nodes of the oeuvre of a writer so senior and so prolific as Amarasekara must not be neglected.

Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, pointed to this in his remarks, taking the non fictional critical text “Is Anagarika Dharmapala a Marxist?” as a node in the oevure as the text to re read. His point, if I may reformulate it somewhat, asked us to reconsider and re-read the author’s suturing of nationalism (Dharmapala) to Marxism in that work to enable the forging of a fresh alliance between left projects and older nationalist ones that both abhor crass consumerism, and violence as politics. Dewasiri, who to be fair, did correctly introduce himself as a political opponent of Amerekere’s, did not how ever rehearse what constituted that opposition. It is too well known, no doubt, and he was but a lone opponent on a panel of erudite and thoughtful proponents; tactically it was astute to seek points of agreement rather than disagreement.

But it’s Sunday now, and I’d like to go a little further. What are the boundaries of nationalism for Ameresekere? Wimal Dissanaike correctly walked us through an argument that underlined centrality of the nation to the novel, and Malinda Seneviratne built on this by invoking Liyanage Amarakeerthi, another opponent of Amarasekara, who has questioned the intersection between nationalism and fiction. Yet none bothered with telling us what counts as the nation. It echoed quietly in the room I thought, politely unsaid, but not unthought.

Dharmapala wasn’t given to such politeness. Writing to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, on the 15th of June, 1915, after the death of his brother Edmund in remand custody after the riots of that year he said, “…there will always be bad blood between the Moors and the Sinhalese.” Indeed he says more, in a broadside of criss crossed epithets, he calls the Moors of Ceylon both Jews and Germans, in his attempt to make clear to the bounds of his nation to the British. How does this sit with us today, after “Dambulla”? Should we really re read Dharamapala with a view to conserving something of utopian nationalism, in a socialist struggle against the crude venality of a society that has undoubtedly ceased even to understand the meaning of the word ethics?

I’d rather not. I’d rather take a cue from Dewasiri and go further back, yes, in Ameresekere’s ovoure to 1964, to one of those bad old novels that everyone has set aside, because it’s supposedly an exploration of sexual desire that’s really foreign to our national sensibilities.

Gandabbha Apadanya, ‘a life story in between incarnations,’ was published in 1964. It’s been republished twice since, suggesting that indeed it is widely read, but hardly commented on in contemporary times – the only critical paragraph I have read on it, is by Gevindu Cumaratunga, the tireless publisher-intellectual who has done so much to make Amekeresere’s work available to us. Yet that comment is all too brief. The trace of awkward triangulation of romance, utopia and communal boundaries between the Sinhala Gunaratne and the Tamil Rita, surely is of great value? There are no traces of the crude Dharamapala here; rather its description of 1958 ‘disturbances’ – I know no other in Sinhala fiction – are integral to, and ring true to the most sensitively lived life.

It will not do, I am very much afraid, to simply say, we are for or against the intersection of nation and the novel and then not tell us what counts as the nation and why. Ameresekere himself, has done so and well. I would urge we attend to his work, in all its fullness and power, even as we celebrate each new gem of his pen.