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Book review

Sri Lankan literature in English

Entire gamut in one volume

Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003

Author D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke
Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2005,
Paperback Rs. 599.00, hard cover Rs. 750.00,
Pages 318.

Reviewed by Prof. Walter Marasinghe

This is a collection of essays on Sri Lankan English Literature, written by Prof. D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke, the most distinguished Sri Lankan critic in English to date, which have been originally published in various international journals and anthologies, between 1986 and 2003. In the present volume they have been revised, updated and edited to present a coherent and complete picture.

Sri Lankan English Literature comprehends literature written in English by Sri Lankans, some of them belonging to the Sri Lankan diaspora, and forms part of Commonwealth Literature in English, with its own Sri Lankan identity.

Prof. Goonetilleke however is wary in applying the term Commonwealth Literature to this wider body of literature because of the changing status of certain countries like Pakistan and Nigeria and South Africa's earlier exclusion from the British Commonwealth.

Despite the common language used, the different literatures falling under Commonwealth literature differ much from the standard English Literature, with regard to subject matter, the cultural background depicted and the nuances of the language used. It, therefore, behoves to be treated as a separate mass of literature, and Prof. Goonetilleke has done just that.

The integration of the several essays (eleven of them) included in this volume has been done so well, that the reader will not feel they are detached essays but the chapters of a complete book written according to a pre-conceived plan.

The most salutary feature of this book is its treatment of the subject of Sri Lankan literature in English, placing it in its proper perspectives of political, social and cultural background that prevailed in the country at the time when the literature took shape. It is not merely an evaluation or critique of Sri Lankan poetry, drama and fiction in English written strictly from a literary point of view. Herein the author has displayed his maturity and deep knowledge of and concern for major issues of social and political interest of the country.

In these essays the author surveys Sri Lankan literature in English from 1917 to 2003, but in effect the post-independence literature, in the context of the history of the Sri Lankan people. The author believes that literature cannot be examined in isolation, separated from the social, economic and political context, which has given rise to it. Prof. Goonetilleke has done an admirable job in evaluating Sri Lankan literature from this approach.

Chapter One, Sri Lankan English Literature in Perspective, makes a general survey of important works from Lucian de Zilva's The Dice of the Gods (1917), the first English novel written in Sri Lanka, to Regeneration (2003) by Eileen Siriwardhane.

In Chapter Two titled The Interface of Language, Literature and Politics in Sri Lanka: A Paradigm for Ex-colonies of Britain, the author deals with the factors that have contributed to the emergence of the Sri Lankan English literature. He shows that the British, in launching English education in Ceylon had no intention to make it widespread. They only needed to create a class of 'interpreters' to go between the British rulers and the uneducated natives. His remark that English literature in Sri Lanka, emerged from the growth of nationalist currents is full of significance.

To me the most interesting Chapter is the third, titled, The 1971 Insurrection: the Perils of Idealism. According to the author, among the Sri Lankan writers in English, the poets have fared better than the novelists.

At the same time he does not fail to remark that no poet has done justice to the Insurrection of 1971, 'a revolt that is, todate, still unique in the Third World'. A few novelists, on the other hand, have looked at this unique event from different angles.

The most important among them are James Goonewardene, Punyakante Wijenaika, E. R. Sarachchandra and Raja Proctor. The author has critically examined their strong points and weaknesses and done an in-depth study of the Insurrection and causes behind it.

For instance, Wijenaike The Rebel lays more emphasis on the depiction of human emotions, whereas Sarachchandra in Curfew and the Full Moon delves deep into the causes that led to the breakout of the insurrection. But the latter's treatment, according to the author, is parochial, being centred round the happenings connected with a University don and his students who have joined the movement.

The fourth chapter, Sri Lanka's "Ethnic" conflict: Fact and Fiction, surveys the literature on Sri Lanka's most pressing problem at the moment. The author appears not to believe "that the sharp division that exists in Sri Lanka at present can be attributed to the racial and linguistic differences between the two communities, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and he adduces very convincing arguments in support of his view. It may be noted that when he refers to the "ethnic conflict" he always writes the word "ethnic" within inverted commas.

According to the latest national census, the percentage of the Sri Lankan Tamils is 12.6 as against the 73.98 percent of the Sinhalese. Of this 12.6, nearly 70% live with the Sinhalese in the South. Thus the entire Tamil population living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces is less than 4% of the whole population of Sri Lanka. Prof. Goonetilleke is, therefore, quite right in asserting that the claim made by the LTTE who have proclaimed themselves the sole representative of the Tamils, to 1/3 of the country and 2/3 of the sea-coast is invalid.

It is a demand to which no sensible government can concede. The author rightly says of the problem: "It is not ethnic as such; ethnicity provides only symbols for conflict."

Of the poetry on the ethnic problem the author says that it is prompted to move our feelings. He further remarks that the ethnic conflict has been dealt with mainly, in more or less short poems. Most of these poems are expressions of sympathy for the community to which the poet himself belongs or the outpourings of the poet's own expressions. The author laments the failure on the part of the poets to offer any solution to the problem.

We are never permitted by the writers in English, says the author, to see a presentation of the actual conflict in all its complexity, with its tangled webs of wrongs perpetrated not by one side or the other, but both.

A few novels have been written on themes associated with the ethic conflict, which attempt to delve into deeper aspects of the problem.

The author examines in detail some of the more important among them, Punyakante Wijenaike's An Enemy Within, Elmo Jayawardena's Sam's Story and Suvimalee Karunaratne's The Vine, to name a few.

The ethnic conflict has also inspired dramatists of no mean importance like Ernest MacIntyre. His play, Rasanayagam's Last Riot, is written in the realistic mode instead of his usual absurd style, but it fails to impress, being too academic, superficial and slanted.

The author considers Suvimalee Karunaratne's The Vine superior to MacIntyre's plays. It is a balanced treatment of the subject.

Chapter five titled The Changing Phases/Faces of Nationalism deals with the emergence of Nationalism in Sri Lanka, which resulted in two rebellions under colonial rule, in 1817-1818 and 1848 respectively. The next phase began with the landslide victory of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956.

Here, the author makes a critical evaluation of the poetry that emerged, which has two faces, one that arose as a reaction to the expressed opposition to English by the nationalists, and the other that took the form of self-criticism by the poets who lost their cultural roots.

The next chapter presents a survey of Sri Lankan drama in English. Contemporary English theatre in Sri Lanka, says the author, is very much alive.

This is partly due to the untiring efforts of members of the older generation such as H. C. N. de Lanerolle, E. M. W. Joseph, Ernest MacIntyre, Regi Siriwardene, and partly due to the efforts of the younger generation, Nedra Vittachi, Indu Dharmasena and Ruwanthie de Chickera.

The remaining chapters are devoted to poetry, the novel and short fiction. These receive the same fullness of treatment.

Prof. D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke should be congratulated on his remarkable feat of surveying the entire gamut of Sri Lankan literature in English in one volume and doing so admirably. It is very revealing, enlightening, and very interesting reading.

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