4 March, 2024


GB ‘Happens’ In English

By Liyanage Amarakeerthi –

Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Finally, a collection of stories and poems of GB is available in English.

G.B. Senanayake (b. 1913) is a legendary Sinhala writer, who made a remarkable contribution to the development of Sinhala fiction and poetry during the mid-decades of the twentieth century. Vivette Ginige Silva has translated this collection into English and published a single volume (Tharanga Publisher 2020). Though Senanayake was an influential literary writer, a critic, and an essayist comparable with early literary giants such as Martin Wickramasinghe and Ediriveera Sarachchandra, this is the first time his work has been translated into English. Vivette must be commended for taking up a task that has been overlooked by many, including university scholars.

GB was a quintessential literary man committed to his art. He was self-taught. In his numerous autobiographical essays, he has described how he dedicated himself to learning literature. In early twentieth century, when books were hard to come by, he used to regularly visit the Colombo public library and to copy required books in his own handwriting. It is something that might sound ridiculously old fashioned to some of us, whose Smart Phones contain scanners and cameras.

His early essays on world literature often refers to Western classics and modern masterpieces. Many of them, he says, he has read from the Colombo public library. It is clear from his essays that he read those classics from cover to cover because he presents us with pleasingly clear summaries of those books. For example, in his early essays on the Western classics, he neatly describes the plot summaries of those huge books such as Odyssey. Those are not technical summaries; but representations of the classics with his own original insights. What he learned from by dedicated reading eventually enriched Sinhala literary culture for decades. And he developed an appealingly lucid style for his Sinhala essays.

While he was at grade seven at Ananda College, he had to end his formal education because of financial difficulties faced by his parents. He gave up schooling but not learning. The Colombo Public Library became his school and the university. By the time he turned to creative writing in his fifties, he was considerably learned in nearly everything about literature. His knowledge in English, not an unusual thing who attended a major school in the country those days, helped him greatly. He continued to write to newspapers until he caught the attention of none other than Martin Wickramasinghe, the editor of Dinamina. Wickramasinghe offered GB a job at the national daily. While working as a journalist GB continued to write books that belong to many genres becoming one of the most prolific writers.

In his late sixties, he became blind. Perhaps, it was the endless reading that destroyed his eyes. Even after he became fully blind, he wrote more than a dozen of books, some of which was published posthumously. During those later years, he dictated those novels to some relatives of him who copied them down for him, eventually for us. He often liked to introduce himself as a psychological writer who investigated complexities of the inner workings of human mind. It is surely a thematic line that runs through his fictional work.

Now VGS has translated GB into English- Seven stories and three poems. Though the slim volume is an admirable initial introduction of the great literary man to the English audience, I wish there was an introductory essay sketching out the significance of GB’s contribution. His early stories, some of which is translated in this book, demonstrate the influence of Edgar Alan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, and Anton Chekov. Poe’s influence was the most pronounced in his famous stories which has a certain grotesque quality. In fact, GB is the only major writer in Sinhala in terms of being influenced by the art of the American writer. His famous stories such as “The Human Heart” and “The Treasure Hidden” contain the grotesqueness found in Edgar Alan Poe. Of course, Poe was a greater writer. “The Treasure Hidden” was turned into a cinematic masterpiece by Lester James Pieris. Without the brilliant script by Tissa Abesekara, however, GB’s original story alone could have led to that unparallel cinematic classic.

The Craft of Fiction

Critics agree that GB Senanayake was one of the first writers to pay serious attention to the craft of fiction. He knew that the genre of short story was a unique art that required meticulous craftsmanship. In his early books, Duppathuna Nethi Lokaya (1945), Paligenima (1946) he paid careful attention to the techniques of telling a story. By now Sinhala short story has developed so much in its technique, the styles and the modes of representation. Without the early experiments of writers such as GB, we would not have achieved such a growth in fiction writing in Sinhala.

In “The Treasure Hidden”, we find a man who is looking for an ideal bride for him:

“Endless was the effort I made to find her. For several months I visited the theaters in Colombo. These visits were not watch dramas but merely to trace her. Having visited the theaters, I stood at the point where the tickets were being issued and carefully examined the faces of young  damsels who streamed in. I am not such a hard-hearted person incapable of deriving joy out of admiring the beauty of women. But I looked at them bereft of the idea of admiring their  elegance and grace. I only wanted to see whether the spots to identify her were visible at least on the face of one these women.”

Translator has beautifully rendered the famous opening of the most famous GB story. A man looks for certain ‘spots’ on his face of his future bride, as we learn, when the story ends, to kill her at the ‘door’ of a forest cave, in which ‘ a treasure’ is believed to have been hidden. To get it, a beautiful young woman with certain marks of beauty and ‘luck’ has be sacrificed. Perhaps, in a hardcore feminist sense any traditional marriage is a cave where women are sacrificed to get treasure (or pleasure) for men. Tissa Abesekara, a writer with much wider vision than GB’s, gave this story a different meaning situating it in a colonial/postcolonial setting. That was in his masterly filmscript of Nidhanaya. In the movie, Willie Abenayake a man who outwardly shows that he has all the refinements brought about by colonial education and ‘civilization’ but still believes in ancient treasures that can be retrieved by human sacrificed.

Poems in prose

GB’s prose-poems, in his 1946 book, Paligenima, are considered to be the precursor to Sinhala Free Verse. Free verse-proper was to be written in early 1950s by Siri Gunasinghe. But in 1946, GB indicated that poems can be written without conventional rhymes and meters. Vivette, in this collection, has included the translations of such poems. She could have included those originals too, one feels, so that the reader could see what ‘free verse’ looked like in Sinhala before it became so popular after 1950s.

Everything in this collection has been translated with care and sensitivity required in translating the work of a masterly writer like GB.

*Amarakeerthi is a professor at the University of Peradeniya

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi has presented a well-written synopsis of literary prodigy G.B. Senanayake.

  • 0

    Good one! As a kid I was quite fascinated by his translations such as ‘Ranarala’ (Masterman Ready) and ‘Diyamanthi Nimnaya (King Solomon’s mines) which took us, little kids, to an enormously beautiful, vivid world with his amazing language skills. He was one who definitely helped me to improve my Sinhala language skills as a kid. In my teenage I got hold of his legendary novels such as ‘Avaragira’ ‘Malapuduwa’ etc., which left me mentally so exhausted that I wondered how he got that talent to torture our minds with that kind of grilling psycho-analytical skills!! And later, in my life at the Uni, I learnt that he was greatly influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s work, who also happened to be one of my most favourite authors. Yes, Poe’s unmistakable, enigmatic shadow (Tell Tale Heart??? or The Cask of Amontillado???) is all over his work in ‘Nidhanaya’, no doubt!!

  • 0

    I thank Prof. Amarakeerthi for this valuable introduction.
    Bringing into English great Sinhalese writers hitherto unknown outside the Sinhala literary world is valuable.
    But having gone through Sinhala-English and Tamil-English translations for an important purpose not long ago, I was seriously concerned about the quality and/or precision of several of the well meant efforts.
    It would help the literary community and the translators themselves if Prof. Amarakeerthi made critical observations on the faithfulness and calibre of translation.

  • 0

    “…he used to regularly visit the Colombo public library and to copy required books in his own handwriting. It is something that might sound ridiculously old fashioned to some of us, whose Smart Phones contain scanners and cameras.”

    Actually “copying by hand” is like note-taking, during which some learning takes place. People using scanners may simply skim and then forget it.

    • 0

      Doctors too depend heavily on gadgets and engineers on black-box software, thus giving leave to their brains.

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