It is interesting for a Professor of Writing in Sydney to encounter literature in English from another country in what we call the Commonwealth, but what used to be called the British Empire. Our relationship, then, is historically an intercolonial one. We come together through the English language. But there is such a diversity of experience and expression of that experience that the English I encounter in this novel is already defamiliarised in a charming way. I cannot judge if it is an authentic Sri Lankan vernacular or not.
Boange uses the device of travel to enhance this defamiliarisation of everyday life, as he boards a bus in Southern India. He thus takes his own and his character’s subjectivity roaming in yet another intercolonial space, as it discovers an enhanced romanticism in the shape of the chance encounter with the lovely Rachana, a young woman whose name means ‘writer’.
The main character, Jaliya, has one of those intense romantic experiences, which are enhanced all the more because of the brevity and the inevitable parting at the end of the long night of conversation, where they confide in each other about their sweethearts and their likes and dislikes. Speaking in English as a common language, they express the modernity of a new generation looking into the future.
It is fascinating the way the author weaves in traditional myth, and even creates one of his own with a mysterious word, the eponymous Omunkashyu, a word designating the intense value of the capacity to bridge four mythic nations with this Omunkashyu, ‘a gemstone of unimaginable power and indescribable beauty’. Like the Vedic verses that can bridge nations, the story told to the acquiescent Rachana touches her also, and even distant readers speaking different kinds of English.
But Boange takes it one step further to the meta-level implied by the magical realism that he makes references to in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, or in Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These literary allusions make the novel more than just a romantic tale with mythological underpinnings. It also reaches metafictionally for that bridge that is a common literary understanding reinforced with theory. At this point, the mystery of the word ‘Omunkashyu’ is suspended in the theoretical relationship of signifier and signified, the two faces of the linguistic sign. This theoretical proposition from the first great modern linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, is even explained in the text. I guess that the use of ‘theory’ of this sort in a novel may be unique in Sri Lankan literature, something in Australia we would call ‘fictocritical writing’, a writing where the concerns of philosophy and narrative are woven together.
Without spoiling the tale by giving a way the ending, let me recommend, from afar, this complex and innovative novel, coming as the fourth major work from the now accomplished Colombo novelist, Dilshan Boange.
The reviewer is a Professor of Writing at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He is one of the pioneers of the genre of writing known as fictocritical writing.