Talking about literature, we tend to get divided and hover between extremes. The ‘westernised’ set of readers are firmly rooted in England and the West(mostly 19th century, with some Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and others, followed by Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters and D. H. Lawrence).
The Sinhala medium readers are more inclined to Russian classical literature, from Pushkin to Gorky, followed by Soviet writers. English and French literature follows behind (all in translation). This is a broad outline, and a few will be comfortable in both zones, with American writers such as Hemingway and Steinbeck too, being perennial favourites.
Then there is a post 1970s set, mostly university-educated, who prefer ‘new literature’ from Asia, Africa and Latin America. They know about Soyinka, Marquez, Naipaul, Rushdie and Vikram Seth, because they have studied these books at university.
But there’s more to literature than this. It’s astonishing how narrow the sights can get as you wade in. There are people who have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez but haven’t read Graham Greene, while some have read Naipaul but haven’t touched Le Clezio, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2008. There are some who have read all the above but haven’t even heard of Giuseppe di Lampedusa and his classic novel ‘The Leopard.’
In this series of articles, I propose to discuss a number of books and authors, some well-known, some nearly forgotten now except by the most fanatical of book hunters.
"Sinhala medium readers are more inclined to Russian classical literature, from Pushkin to Gorky, followed by many other Soviet writers"
I should start with something like ‘The Leopard’ or ‘The House of Sleeping Beauties’ by Yasunari Kawabatha, rather than Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. But Greene too, is one of those underrated authors. For one thing, he didn’t win the Nobel (a feeling shared by Emile Zola, Leo Tolstoi, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabakov, W. H. Auden, and others).
Perhaps that decision by the Nobel Committee has something to do with Greene being known as something of a thriller writer. This is not true. But some of his books dealt with criminals and the underworld, or the equally dark ‘mafias’ of Latin American dictatorships. Two of his novels which became famous films (Brighton Rock and Third Man) deal with such dark themes.
That shouldn’t lead to any dismissal of Greene as a thriller writer. But that’s what Brighton Rock, Greene’s first novel and one that made his name famous, is classified as. But you know as you read it that Greene’s concerns are beyond the normal range of crime and detective work, the cat-and-mouse games of thriller fiction. It has revenge as its main theme, but it’s a woman called Ida Arnold, an unlikely heroine, who seeks revenge. The man she hunts is Pinkie Brown, a disillusioned, God-fearing gangster.
Religion is a big concern with some major writers, from Tolstoi to Dostoevsky. I prefer secular writers but you need to be broad minded in dealing with literature just as you need to be in dealing with taxi drivers. Greene was Catholic, and his orthodox religious views permeate his writing.
Interestingly, while Greene’s heroine Ida is a worldly type with a realistic view of the world, his evil gangster Pinkie turns out to be an idealist who fears hell. His tragedy is that his personality won’t allow him more than a glimpse of heaven (offered in concrete terms as human affection. He doesn’t feel that for anyone, not even for Rose, the young woman he’s married for a very practical reason).
Pinkie wonders why he should be denied that bliss; in short, why didn’t have his chance, “like all the rest, seen his glimpse of heaven, if it was only a crack between Brighton walls.” The answer is that the trouble is within himself. He can’t feel for others.
But he has a vivid idea of hell. Green’s feeling for religion is interesting because many of his British predecessors, including Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Bernard Shaw and of course D. H. Lawrence preferred social ethics to religious values. But Greene’s Pinkie as right out of Dante’s medieval world, seeing hell as “flames and damnation.”
Brighton Rock isn’t one of my favourite books. Brighton, the famous British seaside resort, has registered in my mind as grey and menacing after that first reading as a schoolboy many years ago. Greene’s Brighton (he describes it vividly) is actually two contrasting worlds, with a front of cheerful commercial bustle and squalid inner areas. In Greene’s view, the place contains both heaven and hell. Pinkie, with his keen visions of hell, hates Nelson Place, a poor area where he was born.
Eventually, Pinkie runs out of options. Suicide was the last one, but even that, he has to do alone as Rose doesn’t keep her part of the pact. What didn’t strike me about the novel in my school days and what I realize so clearly now is that many of our gangsters and criminals are deeply religious. They are popular social workers and pious followers of their faiths, whether they are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or Muslim. Unlike in Pinkie Brown’s Brighton Rock, this is the first, firm step towards political power and true corruption in Sri Lanka.