Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

"Noontide toll" by Romesh Gunesekera (Granta, 2014)

Linked short stories (there's are "North" and "South" sections) centred about Vasantha, a man-with-a-van in Sri Lanka. He retired from a desk job at 55. He's better with words than you'd expect, e.g. - "Her entourage - two Dutch visitors caught in the slipstream - looked crumpled as though they had slept together in a cramped cot" (p.10); "The blue bruise in the distance fattened like a mirage and began to sparkle" (p.13)

He's learnt a lot by observing his employers. He has opinions, but he keeps them to himself.

Those who hire him and those he meets have stronger opinions. An assassin describes his killing of a suckling mother - "I watch her on a stool, cradling him in her arm, you know. The head just there in the bend of the elbow. I see her lips move, very softly lullabying. She thinks she is safe but I am there. So close, I am hearing her. Same tune, you know, that we have. Tamil words, but the same sweet tune we all hear when we come into this world. I wait for her to finish the song and for the baby to have his fill. Let her pat the back and burp him, no? I don't know why but I think it is better if the little one is not left hungry. I watch the sun spread on her face. I see the chain around her throat, with that cyanide capsule of theirs, catch the light" (p.21)

In "Deadhouse" a man from England returns to the house he left 50 years before. It's rundown, about to become a shabby guest house. His son, who's accompanying him, had doubted that it existed. Now he suggests that his dad move back. Vasantha thinks (using words so fluently that I find them distracting) "He left long before the Tigers could even miaow, years before their great leader took his first popshot. Now the big shot was dead with a hole in his head and the blood of thousands has soaked the land, while Dr Ponnampalam has a balding head and a hole in his heart which he can't seem to fill for love or money". Later Vasantha thinks "A straight road going nowhere. That has been the story of my life.".

"Scrap" has a plot with political and symbolic overtones. He's driving 4 Chinese people about. As often, there's a guide, and some tension between Vasantha and the guide leaving Vasantha in the dark about the journey's purpose. They pass thousands of bicycles, abandoned, and armour-reinforced lorries. The Chinese are assessing the scrap value. At the coast they arrive at a scrapped ship, surprised to find a film-crew there. They're filming a pop video. The film crew aren't interested in the past. They see themselves as the future.

"Ramparts" didn't work for me. In this, the first story where we learn why he's unmarried, it's probably no coincidence that ramparts and a light-house figure - "I go everywhere in this country, but nowhere in my mind. Maybe you can never really leave the past behind. It is in your head and outside your control" (p.119)

"Humbug" has a neat plot and punchline, though it's rather long. Not for the first time, tourists come to see the past that the locals are trying to modernize.

In "Turtle", Czech tourists help introduce another data-point to contrast Sri Lanka with - "Everything had to have a double meaning otherwise there was no meaning" (p.171).

Overall, some of the symbolism seems too contrived but the stories are all entertaining reads. Given a different past (why not make him a failed journalist or poet?), Vasantha's fluency and knowledge of the world would be more easily believed. I liked how we could build up a portrait of him through the various story settings.

Other reviews

  • Shehan Karunatilaka (Guardian) (Vasantha begins the book as a pragmatist. ... It is his voice – wry, knowing and highly entertaining – that elevates this collection to something greater than the sum of its episodes. ... One might level the same criticisms as those directed at the heroes of The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire. What driver or tour guide born of the subcontinent's working classes would speak like this? Overall, the stories of the north are stronger than those from the south)
  • Steven Heighton (New York Times) (Each story in “Noontide Toll” raises the same quandary: How do we balance the need to remember, so as not to repeat our mistakes, with the need to forget, thus transcending them and moving on? ... One measure of literary merit is how well a work resists simple thematic summary. In “Noontide Toll,” unfortunately, the schematic purpose of almost every element is all too evident ... And yet, despite such patches of awkwardness, “Noontide Toll” succeeds as a sort of elegy, both for its narrator and for the old Sri Lanka)
  • Randy Boyagoda (Financial Times) (In “Roadkill,” the book’s most impressive story ... the book’s weaker stories offer too much preachy and pedagogic formulations about Sri Lanka’s recent history, or string up the messy ends of otherwise well-wrought tales. As much happens in “Humbug”)
  • Pico Iyer (Wall St Journal)

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