December 13, 2012 by markstani
Island Of A Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera, pub. Perera/Hussein
It’s a fine time for Sri Lankan fiction. Hot on the heels of Shehan Karunatilaka’s DSC Prize-winning ‘Chinaman’ comes Island Of A Thousand Mirrors, the debut novel by Nayomi Munaweera, longlisted for this year’s MAN Asian Prize and poised to make an equally big impression on the literary scene.
Spanning the entireity of the quarter-century long Sri Lankan civil war, it is a book embossed with beauty and tragedy in equal measure, documenting both the island’s many voluptuous pleasures and its indescribable, senseless pain.
The story is alternately narrated by two girls: primarily Yasodara, from a relatively well-off Sinhalese family in the south, whose langorous youth is scented with jasmine blossoms and pungent coconut and cardamom curries; where ‘the greatest wars are fought over the mango tree’; and Saraswathi, a Tamil from the poor, disputed north, where the death-defying exploits of the Tiger martyrs, to whom she has already lost two brothers, are bawled from loudhailers and pasted high on bullet-peppered walls.
It’s highly accomplished for a debut novel, unravelling as it does the roots of a complicated conflict and seeing it right through to its uneasy conclusion, but at the same time using it as a framework for what in itself would have been a touching enough tale of arranged marriage and emigration.
After the murder of their uncle, the young Yasodara and her sister Lanka are taken to live with distant relations in Los Angeles, a “desert city of swimming pools” with freeways like “octopus coils”. Growing up increasingly Americanized, the girls’ links to their homeland fade, restricted to occasional shards of news footage of suicide bomb blasts.
Then too something else profoundly painful has begun. On the island we have left there are stirrings and then outright bloodlettings. There is a new group. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam coalesced around a Leader who is ruthless, unafraid of death. They are calling for secession, for a separate homeland. They desire a long curving slice of land along the northern and eastern coasts of the island. They call it Eelam. They are willing to kill and die for the maternal comfort of this homeland, for the possibility of belonging. The government too is willing to send Sinhala soldiers to kill and die to protect this sliver of contested homeland. I don’t remember the first time I heard the term ‘civil war’ in reference to Sri Lanka. Civil war? How was that possible? We could not fathom what this term meant or the implications of what would be.
Saraswathi, meanwhile, is not so lucky. She dreams of being a teacher in her home village, but she is soon forced to conclude, in the most brutal way, that her only route to escape is the same one which has already claimed her brothers. It is inevitable that the paths of the increasingly militant Saraswathi and Yasodara, by now unhappily married and convinced by her impetuous sister to return home to help war orphans, will become tragically intertwined – yet the plot loses none of its momentum for its sign-posting.
As documents to the senselessness of war goes, this book is pretty high up the list. Munaweera writes with incredible passion, even a barely suppressed fury, in the story’s concluding pages – there is one particular stand-out passage I would love to share, but can’t possibly for spoiler reasons: you’ll know the bit I mean when you reach it, because its power will poke right at the pit of your stomach.
The best thing about this book, besides its sheer scope, is the author’s refusal to spare us any of the horrors visited upon her homeland. She offers you no option of looking in the other direction, no page-skipping: juxtaposed with its abundancy as a coming-of-age-as-an-emigrant tale, the effect is shocking and stunning.
To me, this book encapsulates all that is great about Asian and more specifically sub-continental fiction. As far as I can see, so far it’s only been published by the small Perera-Hussein publishing house in Sri Lanka itself, which is all together surprising, because believe me, just like ‘Chinaman’ before it, this is a novel that is ready to take on the world.