Vihanga Perera’s Bodies in Art (2020), a deeply entertaining, memorable, provocative, and offensive work of part-autobiography, is designed at the same time to provoke and offend, be playful and poignant, and through the use of memory and humour to make a wholescale critique of the Sri Lankan literary landscape as we know it. It refers to people, places, and locations from elaborate descriptions of Perera’s hometown of Kandy, to cafes, resorts, and universities in Colombo where the literati fraternize. Among these, descriptions of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura provoke feelings of wistfulness and familiarity to those – like the writer of this essay – who was a part of that community at the time the incidents Perera refers to took place. With familiar references to the saints and sinners of the Sri Lankan academia, the sections that reminisce on our eminent seats of learning are both wickedly playful and packed with conceit.
The first two parts of the book provide a map of intimate encounters, sexually descriptive passages, and erotic intrigues in which the narrator’s inner-circle and others are implicated
Of the Sri Jayewardenepura experience, the “[h]eaps of rotting marked exam scripts-post-results” for which “the exams department no longer cared” taking the space of his room is Perera’s least worry. A more precocious comedic tone is reserved for asides such as where he refers to a student who slept in his class right across the semester, to whom he gifts a 200g Harischandra coffee packet closer to the semester’s end. Also, to a request from another student to postpone a scheduled examination (now suitably laminated) which he uses as a decoration in his “medieval” cave-like cubicle. Profiles of office peons, details of building architecture, analyses of memorial statues, and comedic renditions of his personal peaks and valleys frame the university episode of the story.
The book generates humour at the expense of the narrator’s cynicism and sarcasm, and through the use of a straight-up derogatory idiom. The fusion of scattered and intertwined memories of the past and the present are paced with flashbacks and strategic flash forwarding (from the past), as when he refers to a meeting with the daughter of an old acquaintance – a girl in her early twenties – with whom Perera walks the streets of Nugegoda while lingering on a past memory where he told the friend of that possibility; of his meeting her daughter one day to walk the streets.
The book generates humour at the expense of the narrator’s cynicism and sarcasm and through the use of a straight-up derogatory idiom
The first two parts of the book provide a map of intimate encounters, sexually descriptive passages, and erotic intrigues in which the narrator’s inner-circle and others are implicated. The book claims to be about artists and their work, but it is also deeply about personal relationships, and inter-personal negotiations. Not only does the writer weave a complex map of people and situations, but he also builds deliberations of his own emotions, pain, and disillusionments into it. In an instance, he voices his complex emotion at being unable to “ignore the plea of a lonely woman” who – “caught between two generations” – was trying to find a sense of gratification through a cyber-entanglement with the narrator.
The third part of the book is titled “A Brief Sexual History of the High School”. I found this section to be abject, depraved, and deeply disconcerting. References to institutionally-entrenched sexual abuse and harassment – supposedly routine and widespread in an all-boys school – are at the narrative’s forte
Apart from these, the narrator exposes the exclusiveness and hypocrisy of the elite circles among the urban milieu of Colombo (and, to a lesser degree, Kandy), from its literary and arts scenes to the Colombo media. At one level, the narrative also functions as literary criticism – albeit, one which is distanced from an academic punch, but with sweeping generalizations and conclusions – and comments on contemporary writers, their work, and their contribution to the Sri Lankan canon. The post-war literary scene in Colombo and the theatre of Kandy take the front seat in these discussions, with detailed sketches on the dramatic/literary work of persons like Dhanuka Bandara, Aslam Marikar, Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Vivimarie Van Der Poorten, and Malinda Seneviratne.
In a self-deprecating eye, the book records Perera’s “adolescent attacks on Carl Muller’s books” and the offensive gestures made on Jean Arasanayagam where, with fellow students at the University of Peradeniya, he presented as an ode to Jean – a nonsense poem they had composed. The author’s cynical tone and pejorative remarks are often complemented by the use of psychological time where, while narrating his interior monologue, the narrator is in a completely different external setting.
The third part of the book is titled “A Brief Sexual History of the High School”. I found this section to be abject, depraved, and deeply disconcerting. References to institutionally-entrenched sexual abuse and harassment – supposedly routine and widespread in an all-boys school – are at the narrative’s forte. From the banality of corporal punishment to the sexual abuse of younger and more timid boys, this section of the book turns back on adolescent rites of passage immersed in normalized violence and hushed up depravity.
Bodies in Art is an honest book. From literature and art, to politics, education, war industry, and perversity, it is also a book about many things. Over its power in commenting on society and other people, the book at its most fundamental floor, is a critique of the self.
The writer is a lecturer at the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka.