Epigraphs: The easiest thing of all is to die; the difficult thing is to live (Kierkegaard) “We learnt life through pain. Now we must overcome pain in life” (Poisoned Dream, p. 122).
The author, born 1974, was a Tamil Tiger soldier. Captured, together with thousands of others at the end the war, he was interned and tortured, escaped from ‘the Paradise Isle‘ (paradisiacal in geographic and scenic, rather than in ‘man-achieved‘ political and economic, social and cultural terms), and now lives in exile. The book’s rear cover describes it as a work of “autofiction“ which suggests that the core experience – capture, torture, escape – is autobiographical, factual, here presented in fictionalised form. (To distinguish it from autobiographical fiction, the ‘voice’ in autofiction is usually that of a first-person narrator who has the same name as the author. See also, “fact” plus “fiction” going to form “faction”.) Page reference given within brackets is to this text. Yeats in his poem, ‘A Prayer For Old Age‘, writes: God guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone. Karthick Ram Manoharan’s Afterword‘ combines perception and passion, and his contribution deserves reading by itself. Incidentally, the Afterword begins on page 215 and not as given in ‘Contents’: “After word (sic) 213”. The two translators (and the author) should have been better served by the printers: there are several mistakes and blemishes. Words are not infrequently run together as if they were one: the result either of carelessness or, more likely, an unrealized unfamiliarity with the English language.
Posthumous atonement is not possible, except in imagination: see, for example, Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement. Those who suffered and died are dead: they can’t be extended a posthumous restitution. And yet there’s the human drive to articulate; to express (ex-press); here, to give voice both to the dead and to the victims who are either unable or unwilling to speak. Recollection is not presented by an omniscient third-person narrator but through the voice of a subjective, fallible, first-person. The very first words are “Nothing to lose, nothing to look forward to“: we are plunged in medias res, and share the narrator’s disorientation and closeness to despair.
In several literary (and non-literary) works, a character either at the end of life or in an extreme situation of crisis or sorrow asks: How did I come to this? What were the steps? Were they fortuitous or inescapable? To what degree am I to blame for what I now endure? As Kierkegaard wrote, life is lived forwards and understood backwards. This introspection, this mental investigation, is not to alter the present which is often beyond the ability of the character, nor even to shape the future. It is the human desire to know; to understand: knowing for the sake of knowing. So it is that Shakespeare’s Othello, even though he knows he’ll be dead in a few minutes, wants to know why Iago destroyed him. (Iago declines to answer and Othello dies, like many others, uncomprehending.) Poisoned Dream is a retrospective, introspective and inquiring work. Despite all the external brutality and humiliation, it is essentially a work of interiority: “Why were [are] we cursed like this?” (37).
Turning to the title of this book, W B Yeats in his poem, ‘Among School Children‘, asks: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?“ Similarly, there can be no “dream“ without dreamers. This leads to questions such as who is the dreamer? What led her or him to dream? What was the dream? That one dreams implies present reality is unsatisfactory or unhappy. What then was or is that reality? Dreams can be said to be of two kinds. The one, following Freud and his work on the interpretation of dreams, is often mere wish-fulfilment. Such dreams, whether asleep or awake, are an indulging in fantasy. In contrast, when Martin Luther King famously declared, “I have a dream“ it was a wide-awake call to action. Dreams do not by themselves become reality, and Martin Luther King’s call to “dream“ was with the full knowledge that it meant effort, pain, sacrifice and, in his case, death. He dared to dream and died so that his people would lead a better life. (So when answered, prayer is answered it’s because of, and through, human effort. As I have written elsewhere, prayer is prelude and preparation for effort, and not an easy substitute for it.) The “dreamer” in Poisoned Dream, the first-person narrator, is called Gouthaman; sometimes Gouthama. Ironically, it’s a name Sri Lankans associate with Gauthama Buddha, “the Soul of Greatest Compassion“.
Injustice can be reacted to with passive endurance or by an ‘active’ dream, as in the sense in which Martin Luther King used the term. In his novel, Great Expectations, Dickens observes that nothing is so “finely“ perceived by children, and so finely (sharply, painfully) felt as injustice. And, one might add, by adults. John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice states that it’s a sense of fair-play that leads to justice. Decree 1V of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (1975) states: “the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. For reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another”. Human beings must be reconciled with each other before they can be reconciled with God, and this reconciliation can be based only on true justice. One cannot be at peace with the divine while not at peace with the human. A Hadith of the Prophet Mohammed expresses it differently: You will not enter Paradise unless you believe. And you will not believe unless you love one another. In other words, love for and among humankind is the basis of religious belief and salvation. The dream in this novel is to be permitted to live what ought to be (and is in some other countries) an ordinary life, a life of freedom (37). With defeat, that dream is shattered.
The debate and discussion among the imprisoned soldiers is how and why their defeat came about (67). They believe their cause was just, and they had fought with commitment and courage. Then why did they lose? (72). What had they done wrong? (163). Is it that, unable to go further forward, they were yet unwilling to “back-off”? (65). “A powerful and successful liberation movement had been destroyed… What is the root cause of this defeat? How many generations will suffer because of this defeat? Will my people face their end with this defeat?” (38). Military defeat cannot be entirely explained on military grounds: there are several other factors at play. Gouthama and his former fellow soldiers are prisoners; cut off from the wider discussion; newly arrested, disorientated by torture, pain and uncertainty. They cannot be expected to provide anything like a comprehensive answer.
Torture, extreme, degrading and often resulting in death, was carried out in secret camps known only to the then Minister of Defence and his associates (87). Since the camps didn’t officially exist, neither did the prisoners and so anything could be done to them. Lord Acton’s famous observation that absolute power corrupts absolutely finds one of its most horrific truths in such officially non-existent camps. For most of us “torture” is fortunately a word and not an experience, and so we can dismiss or discuss academically; deny or minimise. But one of the gifts of literature is that it enables us to enter the life and experiences of others, even those far removed spatially or experientially. Gauthaman, a soldier trained to observe, gives us not only a description of the minutiae of daily life in a concentration camp – one is reminded of Solzhenistyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – but even of the construction and layout of buildings.
The torture victim in a sense never recovers fully; he or she remains injured for ever. The wounds of humiliation never heal 81). What’s more, the effects of torture can be passed on to succeeding generations. For example, the effects of torture can make a man or woman an unsatisfactory parent, in turn adversely affecting the child or children. The harm may not only be mental and emotional but biological. In the London Review of Books (10 May 2018, p. 5) it’s claimed that transgenerational epigenetic inheritance has been demonstrated.” My nephew Dr Mithran Somasundrum, a research scientist, explained it to ignoramus me as follows: Trauma can cause a change in the activity of a particular gene, and this altered gene activity can then be passed on. So, basically it’s “Yes”, a trauma can cause a change which can be inherited by the offspring.
On torture, I quote a few lines from Song of Prisoner by Okot p’Bitek (perhaps best-known for his Song of Lawino) “Ten uniformed stones / Break into my tiny hell…/ The earth shakes her belly, / The walls jump / And dance, / The stone floor / Urinates”. In Poisoned Dreams, inebriated soldiers share pictures they have taken on their cell-phones of their torture-victims and of the gang-rapes they participated in. Swift in ‘A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms’ (Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels) writes that what distinguishes us from animals is our intelligence but that same intelligence, if perverted, can result in horror. I used to tell students that the not infrequently heard statement “He behaved like an animal” is unjust – to animals. Animals are unable to devise torture both excruciating and prolonged; they never indulge in gang-rape. The reaction of the majority of people to allegations of torture is one of outright denial, minimising or, in most cases, a deliberate looking away: they have their own life, its preoccupations and pleasures to pursue, and they simply cannot be bothered. But willed ignorance is not exculpation. Silence makes one complicit in that it enables torture to continue. (Ref. ‘The Silence of Others’, a 2018 documentary on crimes committed under General Franco.)
To see Poisoned Dreams as an anti-Sinhalese work would be a simplistic, if not crude, reading. The picture the author presents is complex; it’s not a simple ‘black and white’ opposition. There’s a Sinhalese sergeant who tries to soften the harsh edges, though his powers are over shadowed by others, and he must be careful not to endanger himself. Another officer tells his prisoners: “We fought each other in the war… Who won and who lost is also a different matter. But we must not forget we are all soldiers. I have seen your fighting skills [and] am really surprised that you were defeated” (p. 138). The escape of Gouthaman and three comrades is significantly enabled by a woman at very great risk to herself. She even hides Gouthama in her house, thus endangering her old mother as well. That woman was a Sinhalese, in love with one of the escapees. The autobiographical novel ends will Gouthaman heading to the home of someone who he thinks will help him escape the Island – again despite very grave danger. If the friend does help, it will not be for payment or for material reward of any kind. That man is a Sinhalese. Besides there are Tamils who collaborate, spy, help in running the camps and in torture.
The author’s intention, as I read it, is not to apportion blame, not to cry “J’accuse” but to share both experience, and reaction to that extreme experience. I will not rehearse details, dwell on the physical aspect of torture where crude men and women, devoid of culture and religious doctrine; bereft of morality and compassion unleash suffering on the helpless. Human nature is such that, in some, degraded specimens of humanity excite and justify degradation. What is central is the narrator’s observations and reactions. Lord Byron in his sonnet, ‘On the Castle of Chillon’, asserts that though one can be imprisoned physically, the human mind is “chainless”. And so it is with the narrator who finds patches of “freedom” through using his mind (146). The mind sometimes, even in dire situations, registers the inconsequential, such as the military trucks making the wet ground muddy and slippery (154). In extreme physical and mental pain; disorientated, he wonders why he now hears the wind. How could it now burden his mind? “Was the mind in the heart?” He registers the paradox that silence, the sudden absence of sound, can explode violently like a bomb. He observes an imprisoned father seeing his baby for the first time and tenderly stroking its soft hand through the cruel barbed-wire. A heavy darkness descended: “Does darkness have weight?” (23). There’s no ‘human nature’ in the abstract, separate from wider, external factors. In battle, comrades would risk their life to carry away the wounded. Now defeated; fellow comrades become fellow prisoners; without hope, ideals and goals. Some of them turn spies; lie and betray in order to save their lives or to gain slightly better treatment. As I have written elsewhere, Lord Acton’s words are thought to apply to those who possess and wield power, but power also corrupts some of the powerless in their struggle for survival. As the narrator observes, they have been made tattered pieces of cloth caught in thorny bushes. Gauthaman notes that what appears to be sympathy for the vanquished (“Vae victis!”) in some could in reality be a covert expression of arrogance (64). I suppose it’s rather like the rich man who throws a coin to a beggar not out of sympathy but as a demonstration of his own material superiority.
Milton’s Samson is pained by thoughts of “what once I was, and what am now” (‘Samson Agonistes’, line 22). No longer functioning as a group, each prisoner is thrown on himself, and each reacts differently. The struggle was begun because community dignity was being constantly violated (102) and now “debased” men force them to lose their dignity. Without individual dignity, there can no community dignity. “We laboured so hard to build something. Why these unbearable lashes on our back?” (214). Morality and justice are lies. In such a state, suicide becomes seductive. The ultimate dishonour for a Tamil Tiger fighter was to save her or his life at all cost, surrendering every other consideration. Then why not strike at the torturer and be killed? Isn’t it dishonourable to survive in these circumstances? (82). The cyanide capsule he has successfully concealed is comfort and temptation. And we leave Gouthama in the bus, journeying into an unknown and uncertain future: the subtitle of Stud Terkel well-known work, Hope Dies Last, is Making a Difference in an Indifferent World.
And the light shines in the darkness (New Testament. John 1:5)