Book Review Writer’s fantasy or critic’s reality?

1 December 2017 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Buddhadasa Galappaththi (Buddhi) is a prolific writer and ‘Mediyamaka Kaluwara’ (darkness at noon) is his fourth short story collection, though he’s better known for his poetry and journalism. He has compiled fourteen books of poetry and poetry criticism to date.  


In ‘Mediyamaka Kaluwara’, Buddhi is mainly concerned with a world of attraction and repulsion between the sexes. Out of the nine stories in the selection, only two – the first and the fifth – don’t fall into this category. He is able to tell his stories using word economy, with no superfluous detail. But, when it comes to making sense out of what the author is trying to say, I feel troubled, and that is because some of these stories have characters in situations alien to what I know from my cultural conditioning as a Sri Lankan.  


Call it the generation gap. The socio-cultural milieu I have known over four decades of life as an adult is conservative when it comes to most things; in matters related to sex, it is overwhelmingly so. But Buddhi’s characters experience a different reality.  


General yardstick  

I can only apply a personal angle when judging these stories because I must use the parameters of my past experiences and knowledge in this context, not someone else’s. If they differ radically from the society I live in, then problems would quickly arise. I’d say that while my views of many matters including the death penalty, the constitution, a secular state, abortion, torture and sexual relations are radically different from those held by most people I know (unless they are maintaining a façade), the general parameters of my life such as my clothing, job and the company I keep tally with the general yardstick. This isn’t due to hypocrisy. Otherwise, I’d surely be in jail by now.  

 

 

 

 

I’m not saying these are contrived situations. But they stretch my credulity to the limit. In Handunagaththoth Oba Maa, his successful debut actress Imashi Wathsala is a credible character; with only two A level passes, she sees television acting as the best bet to rise above the circumstances


I’m not saying that writers and critics can only write about what they have personally experienced. If that were the case, the world of literature would be severely limited. Imagination, extrapolation and even conjecture all contribute to a piece of writing. When it comes to criticism, however, the critic develops a hypothesis which has to be supported by his own observations about some aspect of the fictional world developed by the writer. In other words, the critic’s reality must match the writer’s fantasy at some level.  


Why am I going into such lengths to establish the difference between the conventional and the unconventional? It’s because the same principles which apply to my daily existence are useful when it comes to writing a book review. One reason why we read novels and short stories is because they provide us with insights about people. Their inner worlds and conflicts are revealed to us artistically. While it might take years to gain such an insight on a friend, acquaintance or even family member, a good fiction writer can do that in a single paragraph.  


Buddhi’s characters  

Even if the story is about an exotic culture, we can still recognize common traits and identify ourselves with characters and situations. What else do we mean by universal literature? I have never been to the Ireland of James’ Joyce’s Dubliners, nor to the Japan of Kenzaburo Oe, not even to the India of Premchand (it’s a different India that we experience as travellers). You can’t go to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County because it’s fictitious. But I know the people described in their stories. Unfortunately, some of Buddhi’s characters seem more alien to me because I can’t connect with their life experiences. 

 
Now, if you are reviewing science fiction, the critic’s personal knowledge of science doesn’t matter so much because science fiction is usually set in the future. No one knows the science we’ll have in 3000 AD or even 2064 AD. Therefore, the critic can only go by certain critical criteria applicable to all fiction in general – the quality of prose, powers of description etc. There again, characterization doesn’t matter so much in science fiction. What really matters is whether the writer can make the reader (and the critic) believe that in 3000 AD people could  make themselves invisible under certain conditions etc.  

All these stories are thematically interesting, and Buddhi is breaking new ground with that last story. But his treatment of these characters and situations leaves me wondering if Buddhi the short story writer has done an injustice to Buddhi the poet


But, when it comes to stories about our times and people like us, things are different. In any kind of fiction, credibility matters. Do we know these people and can we believe them? In the second story of Buddhi’s collection ‘Rathriya Digama Digai’ (the night is very long) Kasun Wickremasinghe is a young executive, married but with a mistress. It’s a story about all the anxieties which marital infidelity brings, with fears of being found out.  


In the third story, ‘Prema Thrikonaya’ (Love Triangle), Wimalasiri is a young three wheeler driver who already has two mistresses and acquires a third by the story’s end, with tragic results for himself. In the fourth, titled ‘May Palu Seethala Reyai” (In This Cold and Lonely Night), Maheshika is a young university undergraduate who sings in a karaoke club to supplement her meager income. She meets Milinda Jayasekara, a middle aged businessman who tells her that she bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife. In story no. 6, Yasodhage Katha Wasthuwa (Yasodha’s story), Wimalajeewa is an older journalist who marries Yasodha, a much younger lottery seller whose ex-husband was an abusive man.  


In the seventh story ‘Handunagaththoth Oba Maa,’ (If only you knew me), Imashi Wathsala is a young teledrama actress who garners her producer’s help to win the most popular actress of the year contest. In ‘Sudu Putha Yannama Gihin’ (Sudu Putha’s gone forever), Aravinda Weerasekara is a young journalist who, while doing an investigative story about a prostitution ring, recognizes his own mother working as a hostess in a karaoke bar. In ‘Samugeneema’ (Farewell), university student Achala rejects her oversexed boyfriend and enters into a lesbian relationship with fellow student Pabasara only to feel hurt when the latter falls for a businessman. 

 
Breaking new ground  

All these stories are thematically interesting, and Buddhi is breaking new ground with that last story. But his treatment of these characters and situations leaves me wondering if Buddhi the short story writer has done an injustice to Buddhi the poet.  


I’m not questioning the credibility of his characters and situations. But they do make me feel like a fish out of water. If we take the character of Maheshika, the young undergraduate from an impoverished family in Ratnapura, she accepts a visiting card from Milinda at the karaoke club where she sings with a calypso band. The next day, she takes the initiative and calls him, and agrees to go with him to his holiday resort. There, he tells her about the tragedy of his life – losing his wife, who looks like Maheshika, to cancer. She realizes he’s telling the truth when she sees his late wife’s photo in his room. They part as friends, and he promises to call her again. We are left wondering: what are they going to talk about?  

I’m not saying these are contrived situations. But they stretch my credulity to the limit. In Handunagaththoth Oba Maa, his successful debut actress Imashi Wathsala is a credible character; with only two A level passes, she sees television acting as the best bet to rise above the circumstances


Trouble for the critic  

It’s a charming story. But I can’t fit Maheshika in with the female undergraduates I’ve met. It may be that I’ve led a sheltered life, or that my experiences in life are strictly limited. But this is where, as a critic, I have troubled evaluating Buddhi’s story, and the same problem recurs when it comes to many of the other stories in this collection. Going back to his university student, she meets this older businessman at a karaoke club, accepts his visiting card, calls him on her own and agrees to travel with him in his car to his holiday resort. In short, this is a thoroughly modern young woman. None of the female university students I’ve met can fit that description. Therefore, she must be exceptional, but the story doesn’t tell us that. We are simply left wondering. 

 
I’m not saying these are contrived situations. But they stretch my credulity to the limit. In Handunagaththoth Oba Maa, his successful debut actress Imashi Wathsala is a credible character; with only two A level passes, she sees television acting as the best bet to rise above the circumstances. She doesn’t hesitate to accept her producer’s clandestine help to become the most popular teledrama actress of the year. But at what price? When invited to the spacious restroom which adjoins his office, she expects a seduction in return for his favour. Instead, he turns out to be a noble character who merely kisses her and sets her free. He’s a family man but yearns for some intimacy.  


I can believe that there are noble teledrama producers. Not all of them have to be Harvey Weinsteins. But he could have proved his quality by not inviting her into his rest room in the first place.  
Decent characters fill his stories. Milinda is one. The womanising three wheeler driver is decent enough to return the purse left behind by a passenger in a hurry. Udayanga Nanayakkara, the teledrama producer, too, is a decent man. Every writer has his central theme and personal universe. Buddhi’s outlook is positive in all these stories barring ‘Biyakaru Rathriya’, which is about a make up artist who takes a great risk during a time of political kidnappings and murder, and pays the ultimate price, and ‘Samuganeema,’ which is about a young woman’s search of  love which ends in sexual deviation and disappointment. 

Many of these stories have happy endings. I have nothing against that, and even Pushkin has used them to great effect. The problem is with the overall ambiance of these stories. Perhaps one should bear in mind that famous quote from Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

 
In the same way, when characters and situations become predictable, there is a loss of dramatic impact. Then again, what Buddhi describes is a sexually liberal world. It may actually exist, but I have trouble understanding it because the world I know around me is far more conservative. 


The writer may well counter that it’s my problem, not his. But there are other problems regarding these stories. The textures described 
are glossy. 


He touches upon deep-rooted problems of poverty such as the lottery seller’s daily struggle to sell enough tickets to eat. But we are constantly carried to glossy textures. You can’t escape the soft lighting of karaoke clubs and the smell of perfume and attractive women in bath robes with water still dripping down their bodies.  

No middle ground

It is entertaining. It can even make for compelling reading. But that’s a dangerous word when applied to literature. Good literature shouldn’t try to be entertaining in the same sense that television can be. Mature writers, while they entertain, present us with problems areas too, in their writing. One might think it’s easy to make literature out of descriptions of good living and beautiful people. But it’s very hard. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are among the handful who succeeded.  


The other problem is Buddhi’s descriptions of sex. I certainly am no prude (though I’m usually surrounded by them) but if the writer is aspiring to the level of literature (and I can’t expect any less from Buddhi) then we need a different approach. Otherwise, sex sounds just like sex, cheapening the entire effort. If we take an analogy from painting, a nude by Titian and a Playboy centerfold photograph both have lush surfaces. But they are worlds apart in terms of artistic achievement. 
Describing sex with words is just as tricky as painting or photographing a female nude. You have either art or junk, and there is no middle ground.  

Many of these stories have happy endings. I have nothing against that, and even Pushkin has used them to great effect.  Perhaps one should bear in mind that famous quote from Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  


I hope this criticism will be taken in good faith. I don’t want to brand these stories as commercial writing, because all writing is more or less commercial in that writers aspire to get published and make a living. But those ‘more or less’ are the operative words here. If Anton Chekhov was writing today, one can imagine him writing to hundreds of publishers and finally settling for self-publication or e-books. 


The same might happen to Hemingway’s short stories, because they have no gloss and nothing much seems to happen in them.  


That’s why modern writers bring in more texture, some of it glossy. William Boyd is a good example of that kind of writing. Lasting value is another matter. Trying to decide which writer’s which book will last is beyond any critic, or indeed, any writer. One can only do one’s best and hope for the best.  
This is where I expect more from a writer like Buddhi.  

 

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