Romesh Gunesekera was born in 1954 and grew up in Sri Lanka and the Philippines before moving to England in 1972. His story collection, Monkfish Moon, was published in 1992 by Granta, and his first novel, Reef, was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize. Here, he answers questions for Ka Bradley about his new collection of stories, guilt and manipulating the past.
KB: ‘Mess’, your story in the Granta 125: After the War, draws on the ideas of forgiveness and guilt, particularly the idea of guilt as a quantifiable attribute that can be apportioned or measured: the major in the story is ‘more’ guilty in the pastor Patrick’s eyes because of his confidence and authoritative calm, and ‘less’ guilty by the van driver Vasantha’s reckoning, because of his hospitality and quiet humanity. What drew you to those subjects?
RG: I tried to see the situation through Vasantha’s eyes. As I rewrote the story again and again the issue of guilt, and what it means, and how we see it, became increasingly important. Vasantha intuitively understands, as most of us do if we are put in a judicial situation, that justice, guilt and doubt are all knotted together. Untangling them is not easy. Vasantha, Patrick and Father Perera all know a crime has been committed and that someone is guilty, but they each have a different way of looking at the world and in deciding who might be guilty. All that Vasantha knows for sure is that appearances can be deceptive.
In the story, and indeed throughout Noontide Toll, your protagonist Vasantha is disturbed and fascinated by hands – especially shaking them, as a greeting, when they might be dirty. He says that his father was fond of the aphorism ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, but in the context of the story, it reminded me of the phrase ‘washing one’s hands of something’, and about sanitization as a form of propaganda. Is Vasantha’s fascination with ‘hygiene’ just a sensible cautiousness in the face of infectious disease, or is it a metaphor for a deeper concern?
Vasantha is a driver. He spends all day with his hands on the wheel in front of him. It sort of gets to him, I guess. The hand on the wheel, the gun, the pen . . . there is a lot going for it. Hands are important because he is in the business of meeting new people all the time and conscious of the old sayings to do with washing one’s hands of bad deeds, of putting one’s hand in the till and so on. There are also the literary links, from Lady Macbeth to the macabre story of the Anguli-maala (the grotesque task of threading a necklace of a thousand fingers of dead men where every time one approaches the final number a rotten finger drops off and has to be replaced by another mutilation), which is retold in my novel Reef.
In your forthcoming collection, the Sri Lankans whom Vasantha encounters on his various journeys across the island are usually very reluctant to talk about the war. Is Noontide Toll a recollection and reflection on Sri Lanka’s past, written against this determination to forget, or do you think of the collection as an ultimately forward-facing piece of work?
Vasantha finds himself in a world where people are fundamentally talkative but sometimes too frightened to speak, or prone to forgetfulness. A famous Sri Lankan journalist in the 1950s, long before the recent war began but at a time when trouble was brewing, called Ceylon (as it was then) ‘the land of amnesia’. But I reckon this tendency towards amnesia is everywhere from Indonesia to America. Especially when it comes to war and bloodshed. Luckily we have books, and now films, video and the Internet to help us remember. The past has never been as present as it is now in the world. But at the same time, all over the world, the determination to manipulate what we know has also never been stronger. It is very much Orwell’s world where those who control the present want to control the past because those who control the past can control the future.
Vasantha’s story in is both an attempt not to forget as well as a desire to embrace the future. It carries on from the dilemma of whether to forget and let things heal, or remember and learn from the past, which was central concern of my earlier book, Heaven’s Edge. I see that as the natural human predicament given that we exist as a combination of memory and imagination.
As a driver, Vasantha wants to move forward; he is a man who is always looking ahead, but he also has one eye on the rear-view mirror, as he should.
You’ve said of Sri Lanka that ‘[it] is an island that everyone loves at some level inside themselves. A very special island that travellers, from Sinbad to Marco Polo, dreamed. A place where the land itself forms a kind of sinewy poetry’. How does that ‘sinewy poetry’ make itself felt through your writing, and do you ever find it difficult to write about the island in the face of the contrasting and conflicting versions that people have?
Not everyone agrees that Sri Lanka has that pull. For some people it has also been a very traumatic place; one that they would rather forget. It is very difficult to reconcile the very different feelings people have towards a place. Real people and fictional characters; real places and imagined places. But that is part of what fiction has to do.
I do see poetry in landscape. It is to do with the shape of things: mountains, rivers, coastlines, hands, faces, stories. I want writing to engage with all of it.
Is there such a thing as ‘island writing’?
All novels are islands. As Prospero might say, all art relies on the idea of an island. Although one pushes the form and tries to break barriers a story is something contained in a world that is a kind of island. It may well be that ‘no man is an island’ and that we are all connected, but it is also true that each person, mind, city, room, planet and book is an island. Perhaps stories that locate themselves more obviously on smaller islands magnify that element. The island, or the book, becomes the crucible where you can see things happen.
Beyond that categories of this kind are mostly useful for sorting your bookshelves, and even that only up to a point. Soon the edges begin to blur between small islands, big islands and bigger islands. They can become vast like continents, and then nothing holds.
What are you reading at the moment?
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment fell into my hands the other day, which has a kind of resonance given where this conversation began.