The book under review is authored by one described as one of Sri Lanka’s foremost literary authors. According to the blurbs on the book, he emerged on to the global literary stage in 2011, when he won the Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSL [sic.] and Gratiaen Prize for his debut novel, Chinaman. And now he has garnered the Booker Prize. (Note: DSL seems another name for the Commonwealth Book Prize, but with no confirmation of this anywhere).
It is truly a great book in line with his achievements. Perhaps its great merit is in admitting as a Sinhalese, the great atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan state when most Sinhalese cover up saying the massacres are terrorist propaganda by the Tamil Tigers. A memorable line from the book is “We are inviting the Indians to invade us. We are making deals with Tamil Terrorists. We are killing our own Sinhalese.” It is a testament to the killing fields opened up by the state in 1989, when it struck deals with the Tigers to be rid of the Indians.” Another line goes, “Tigers and Army killing civilians. Indian peacekeepers starting wars.” Even for Tamils who see Tiger killings as altruistic, this should be an eye-opener, except that we wear blinkers and in the UN Secretary General’s report on the killings at the end of the war in 2009, we selectively choose to see only the blame on the Sri Lankan government in the report, ignoring the fingers pointed at the Tigers.
It should awaken the Sinhalese of whom many will read the book, rightly taking great pride in the Sinhalese author who has the Booker prize under his belt. It will be educative.
This madness is the setting of the book. Karunatilaka has chosen to tell the story through the interaction of ghosts of those slaughtered. His primary character vehicle for story-telling is the ghost of Maali Almeida, a photographer living off selling photos to the army and foreign reporting agencies and even the Tigers. Maali Almeida is killed. He has seven moons to recover his two photos from the 1983 massacre and atrocity as Karunatilaka calls it, unlike the misbegotten, sterilized phrase riots, which the Sinhalese try to project as if the Tamil victims of 1983 also rioted like the Sinhalese. The two photos show Minister of Justice Cyril Wijeratne as a bystander while his thugs burn Tamils. Although Wijeratne is hiding from the camera, his reflection is caught by Almeida’s camera on his Benz car window. Wijeratne’s attempts to recover the photos using Detective Cassim and, yes, Major Rajah Udugampola, form the meat of the story. In an interview Karunatilaka has said he used the real names of bad guys. It will not be lost on readers that real-life Ministers Cyril Matthew and Ranjan Wijeratne, and Udugampola are widely believed to have been behind murders of Tamil civilians, JVP Che Guevarists and the LTTE break-off Karuna faction that turned on Prabhakaran
All of Almeda’s photos are in a box. The narrative is about Almeida asking his girl friend Jaki (Jacqueline) to somehow retrieve the photos. The ghosts of the massacred and even of leopards play their part.
The book reviews are full of praise – astonishingly light touch, beguiling, unsentimental, by turns tender and angry and always unsparingly droll. We are plunged with an exhilarating energy into a rich and darkly comic world. This Sri Lankan history as whodunnit, thriller and existential fable teeming with the bolshiest spirits.
Karunatilaka questions the origin myths of the Sinhalese and Tamils and asks if there ever were lions and tigers among us to have them on nationalist flags. The book claims that the CIA trained Sri Lankan soldiers in the use of torture and that war material came from Diego Garcia.
Having said that, I wish to add a little to complement the very positive reviews derogating a little from those views. In an interview with Frontline in India, Karunatilaka says the book was first published in India in 2020 as Chats with the Dead (Penguin). However, many publishers “passed it on, saying that Sri Lankan politics was quite esoteric and confusing. Some said that the mythology and worldbuilding was impenetrable, and difficult for Western readers. Finally, Sort of Books agreed to take it on, but they also said they would need to make it familiar to Western readers.”
I humbly submit that some of the problems persist even after 2 years of revising. Many Sinhalese words (sena, thambili, boru, suliya, thathi, siri siri bag, pittu, to give some) remain. Sanskrit too (Rahu time, abhithiyas, nehi). Some grammar mistakes are surprising for a book published in England (“turmeric and lavender has been mixed,” deader, “a quarter of arrack,” “a pink paper,” “dumping bodies have broken their nerves,” “all manners of vice”, “plenty of ugly,” “neither of you get wet,” “you are not the first accuse me,” etc.). There are also the peculiar 3-word sentences” “What. The. Hell,” and “Did. You. See her?”
Then there are accidental spelling mistakes (fiv e, Homo sapiens (twice), fouth and fifth, kanatte, etc.). The phrase “cousin brother of the kissing variety” would make sense only to South Asians.
Some of those acknowledged by Karunatilaka by name do not remember being consulted. I believe he consulted some of their works rather than the individuals; citing which works would have been more accurate and less confusing since those supposedly consulted are long dead.
In renaming real characters to avoid defamation, the author says in an interview that Ranee Sridharan is Rajani Thiranagama – that is unfortunate because Sridharan was her close associate and married to someone else.
The line “the government forces, the eastern separatists, the southern anarchist and the northern peacekeepers are all prolific producers of corpses” might seem pithy and clever to those not familiar, but it certainly is not accurate of the peacekeepers who, as far as I know, have never shot back even when threatened by the Tigers or the Sinhalese.
Karunatilaka accuses Rajani Thiranagama (i.e. Rani Sridharan) of using Almeida’s photos without permission in a book. I am not aware of a book by her other than the Broken Palmyra (which I edited and published in the US from my Sri Lanka Studies Institute because it was not possible to publish in Sri Lanka when Premadasa and Prabhakaran were partners in murder). Her family is unaware of any other book by her. Later on in the book, what Karunatilaka called the plagiarized photos in her book, become photos in her article.
Usually, western artistes today work against negative stereotypes even when they are correct. So we have few Afro-Americans as doctors and lawyers in America but if we watch the TV series Law and Order, it would seem that almost every other doctor or lawyer is Afro-American. Likewise, almost everyone is made out to be a homosexual on television and movies. It is not unlike Shyam Selvadurai who like Karunatilaka left Sri Lanka in his early teens. Selvadurai outed himself and soon won many literature awards in Canada – after all, a South Asian openly calling himself homosexual is rare and a prize catch for the homosexual lobby. It is perhaps because of this trend that Karunatilaka tends to make out that everyone in Colombo is homosexual or bisexual. I cannot but help remark that both Selvadurai and Karunatilaka have had formative Anglican Church influences in their lives – Karunatilaka went to St. Thomas’ Prep, while although Selvadurai went to Royal College, the Selvadurai family is a well-known Anglican family from Jaffna of whom many went to St. John’s or St. Thomas’. Karunatilaka goes into explicit detail on sex between homosexuals to the extent that the book becomes pornographic. It seems that he is familiar with homosexual foreplay and horrors as a character engaging in homosexual sex pulls out a condom and asks his partner if he is HIV positive.
Yet, despite the homosexual tilt, one of the ugliest characters in the book, Udugampola, is homosexual. Udugampola sits across a young man putting his knee between the legs of the man to “smother his nuts with his knee cap” and in other places strokes another man’s crotch with his knees. I recall a teacher alleging in testimony to me that I forwarded to the Bishop that his Anglican priest-principal did the same with his knees to him. After the church took no action, the teacher fled to Canada. Nonetheless, Udugampola, apparently homophobic, objects to “homo photographers” and “queers with cameras” lest they bring HIV to his soldiers in camp. There is also a mysterious reference by Udugampola to a “homo cough.”
Karunatilaka would have us believe that in Colombo (which I think I know well) upper class women have casual sex with waiters in clubs and restaurants. And also that there are no committed couples. Girls there are projected as allowing themselves to be fondled in malls. Karunatilaka does not seem to understand class in the choice of sexual partners, nor that women tend to avoid free sex in their search for stable marriage.
There is even a little bit of hate speech in promoting the word ponnaya as standing for impotence and homosexuality. In another place he contradicts himself in giving a ponnaya as an impotent homosexual. Usually that should have got the book disqualified. (In Tamil ponnaiyah stands for a rustic fool rather than what Karunatilaka says). Likewise, “the croak of a Madrasi Tamil” seems a generalized put down of Tamils. Similarly, the claim that Asians do more screwing despite having the smallest penises also is a racist generalization. There are also lines intended to be humourous that would have been best avoided to make the book suitable for children – “why do deluded men crave virgins? Because a virgin cannot know how bad in bed you are.” Equally upsetting is the claim that the nuns at Colombo’s St. Brigette’s are liberal and can be kissed. This too is offensive and not suitable for a Booker Prize book. The Booker judges were wearing blinkers.
Karunatilaka sees no immediate acceptance of homosexuality in Sri Lanka: for he writes of the future of homosexuals being in having a girlfriend, sleeping with her and lying with the landlord’s son in the spare room. That does not say much for integrity in homosexual relationships. He writes of blow jobs being common and even obtainable for money in Anuradhapura. I doubt that. He also says a blow job is not sex because in sex one has to see the face of the partner. It sounds a repeat of President Bill Clinton’s claim that he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky because there was no penetration.
Another example of hate speech is “I am not a bloody Chinaman with a pony tail.” There is the stark generalization by a Minister that Negroes run faster, Chinese work harder and Europeans invent: our race, school and family will dictate how the dice of life will roll for you. Another is that our rich send their children to London, the poor send their wives to Saudi [sic.] and European paedophiles tan on our beaches. Another refers to the barbarism of India in ’89, the cruelty of Tamils out east in ’87 and the savagery of Sinhalese down south in ’83. An interesting phrase is about weaponising politeness as well as any Englishman.
There are factual inaccuracies too. Karunatilaka says Jaffna hospital was punished by the IPKF for the crime of treating the LTTE, whereas the LTTE deliberately fired at the IPKF and the retaliatory fire is what caused many hospital personnel to die. He is particularly off about Mahatiya (Mahathaya, the LTTE’s Col. Gopalasamy) who is said to have had a lover in defiance of Prabhakaran’s orders, whereas to the best of my knowledge he was happily married to a former Tiger woman. Mahathaya, says Karunatilake, was killed by putting him in a beachside cavern to drown as the tide came in. It is, however, well-known that he was arrested in 1993 and was taken to Mankulam during the 1995/96 displacement with his fellow prisoners and executed by gunfire with some of them after informing his wife Yogeswari (nom de guerre Kalpana), a former Tigress.
I am mindful that I am a ponnaiyah in the Tamil sense (not Karunatilaka’s ponnaya), a rustic brought up in Jaffna with all my schooling in the Tamil language. So how valuable is my criticism of a Booker Prize book? I found the second person narrative using you very difficult, not knowing “who” the word “you” referred to. The book unusually took me a few days to read. To balance, my wife who was schooled in Colombo did not understand what my problem was.
In the Sunday Observer of 13 Nov. 2022, Sri Lankan columnist Rajpal Abeynayake is claiming Karunatilaka has stolen off a manuscript he had given him many years ago while scouting for a publisher. Karunatilaka has since denied all allegations calling them ‘baseless and insulting.’ Abeynayake in turn claims he has evidence of Karunatilaka’s alleged plagiarism off his untitled and unpublished manuscript. I cannot judge.
But overall, Karunatilaka’s is an excellent book. Pithy. Interesting. Humourous. But dirty, vulgar, politically incorrect and even offensive in parts.
The Booker Prize judges need to be careful, and not use the prize to cook and advance their own liberal agendas
*S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, DSc (Eng) Lond, PhD Carnegie Melon, IEEE Life Fellow, CEng.