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Sunday, 11 January 2009

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Contemporary Sinhala novel and its future

“New generation of novelists should expand the vistas of expressive idiom in Sinhala” Prof. K. N. O. DharmadasA:

In an interview with Sunday Observer, Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa expresses his candid views on the state of contemporary Sinhala novel and the important role of novelist as creator of expressive idiom in language.

Q: In the context of globalisation, the Sinhala novel is at cross-roads. Contemporary writers are increasingly looking for structures and are greatly influenced by post modern writers. How do you perceive the contemporary Sinhala novel?

A: We have to place the Sinhala novel in a historical context. Sinhala novel was born hundred years ago. Starting from the early novels by Albert de Silva and Piyadasa Sirisena, the Sinhala novel has been for quite sometime, in the shadow of our (Sinhalese) ancient classical literature.

Early Sinhalese novelists such as Albert de Silva and Piyadasa Sirisena derived inspiration from classical writing. Their purpose was to advise society and to give a religious message with didactic content through a prose narration. Very often they depict even the contemporary events in such a way that in the end goodwill triumphs over the evil.

In a way these authors had the notion that literature has to be socially relevant in a correct way. Why I am highlighting this point is that today, social relevance does not mean what earlier novelists meant by it.

I think that the early novelist thought that they had a duty by the society, by highlighting the triumph of good over evil. They thought that was the social responsibility of a good novelist, purpose of the novel and that a good writer has the welfare of society in mind.

He has to portray society in such a way that the morals, what you call ‘Saradharma’ (ideals) and norms of society are upheld and they are not violated. Today the writers do not take that point of view into consideration.

Their attitude is: ‘we are also depicting society but we depict good as well as evil’ and very often it is the evil that is highlighted.

For example, see what is depicted in television. We have twelve odd television channels and every hour teledramas being telecast. Most of the teledramas depict unsavoury aspects of life and I feel some of them are unrealistic; families are broken, husbands have love affairs with women other than their wives and wives have affairs with men other than their husbands.

All kinds of evil aspects are highlighted. The prime time television very often has this nature of message which I think, is not good for the society.

Although they may reflect some kind of reality, it is not the reality as it is apparent to us. This is why we admire writers like Albert Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena, W. A. Silva and even Martin Wickramasinghe. Although Martin Wickramasinghe wrote realistic novels, he did not depict these kinds of affairs. There was a kind of restrain.

A writer operates in society. He or she has a power. How does a writer use that power? Is he or she using that power for the good of the society or for the disruption of society? We did not think in these lines in our youth but now in maturity, I believe that the art produced in a society has to be for the well-being of the society while maintaining the balance and not be disruptive. Even in other aspects such as economic, social balance has to be sustained and promoted.

That is a kind of task expected from a person who wields power, especially of a writer who wields real power. Artists, theatre personalities, filmmakers have to think of their impact of the work on society. We were nurtured by a tradition. The writers Albert Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena and Martin Wickramasinghe were rather conservative and wanted to maintain the social balance.

During the middle of the last century, a revolutionary movement was born which looked at the society from a different perspective. I refer to early novels by Gunadasa Amerasekara. In the novels Yali Upannemi and Depa Noladdo, Gunadasa Amerasekara deals with sex in a revolutionary way which never before found expression in the Sinhala novel. Yali Upannemi was an extremely revolutionary novel. In our young days we admired the writer for bringing this subject to discussion and it was a controversial novel.

Looking back even the writer Gunadasa Amerasekara was critical of the novel, saying that he was not reflecting social reality and he got material from English novelists like D. H. Lawrence and French writers for his work.

These western writers tried to depict society in Europe and not in Sri Lanka. For example, the plot of Yali Upannemi depicts a sex life of a young man. Some of these situations he tries to recreate are not real and they are not really found in Sri Lankan society. Gunadsa Amerasekara was critical of these novels and he did not agree with the sentiments expressed in them.

Q: What is the pivotal role that the Peradeniya School played in the formation of the Sinhala novel?

A: So there was a revolution which Gunadasa Amerasekara attributed to the Peradeniya School of Literature. Gunadasa Amerasekara, Siri Gunasinghe and Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra spearheaded the movement. In none of his works, Prof. Sarachchandra did openly discuss sex. But, sometimes, he gave subtle suggestions. I wonder whether one can put the blame on Prof. Sarachchandra when it was stated that the Peradeniya School brought out these novels. In his criticism of the novel “Modern Sinhalese Fiction “(1943) and in the ‘Sinhala Navakatawa’ (The Sinhalese Novel) (1950), he criticised Piyadasa Sirisena for being didactic writer, moralist, rejecting modernity and being conservative. That criticism may be appropriate at that time.

Because we were trying to look forward and forge ahead and develop our new literary genre. In that context, Prof. Sarachchandra was correct. I wonder whether he encouraged kind of situations that were written about in Yali Upannemi and Depa Noladdo. I recollect that he wrote a review on Yali Upannemi and praised it as a good piece of literature. Apart from that I do not think he went on nurturing this type of writing. If he did so, he himself could have written this type of novels. I think he adhered to a very traditional way of looking at life. He was very careful not to cross certain lines which he drew himself.

Simon Navagattegama who came after the Peradeniya School was a unique figure. He had his own perspective of looking at society. From Sansara Arana, Dadayakkaraya to Sapekshani, the way he deals with sex, I feel, is artificial. He depicts sexual aspect of life as mystique and overdoing it. Sex is a part of life and people have other concerns.

Q: Over the years, Sinhalese novel evolved a form which is unique to it. How do you define this coming of age of the Sinhalese novel?

A: For instance, Gunadasa Amerasekara, in his latest book ‘Nosevuna Kadapatha’, deals with not only a novel but also with the literary landscape. What he is trying to say is that there are certain realities of the society which the novelist should reflect. Why aren’t we looking for that mirror which reflects social realities beyond appearances. After Martin Wickramasinghe’s Gamperaliya and Viragaya, a new generation of novelists emerged like K. Jayatilake. As far as the realistic movement is concerned, K. Jayatilake is very important. He was depicting the social transformation in the village in the 20th century in Sri Lanka. K. Jayatilake and A. V. Suraweera wanted to look beyond the social facade and look at social forces at work. For instance, how the older village hierarchy, the people of high caste and people of high standards are loosing their grip and the middle class comes up; the newly emerged business class, schoolteachers and Government servants who were asserting their power and the old system was breaking down. Though Martin Wickramasinghe did the same, these new writers did it more intimately.

In K. Jayatilaka’s Charita Thunak (Three Characters), he depicts three characters; Elder brother and two younger brothers. One of them becomes a schoolteacher and asserts his identity and economic power in a very strong way because he is educated. He also tries to amass wealth and tries to become a powerful figure in society. Third brother who is a school dropout wasted his life drinking and loitering. The eldest brother, who is the narrator, looks at this transformation from a detached point of view. Social transformation is looked from the eyes of one person. In a way depicting this transformation, Jayatilake is superior to Wickramasinghe.

Wickramasinghe’s depicting of transformation is too detached to be felt in the heart. This is where Gunadasa Amerasekara is stronger than even Jayatilake. The way he deals with social transformation is very intimate. He uses very, evocative, poetic language and emotion-laden language and the novel use of folk idiom. In the use of spoken idiom to depict social situations, characters and their emotions, Gunadasa Amerasekara stands as one of the greatest literary figures, Sri Lanka had produced in the 20th century.

I find when I read new novelists’ work, they are more concerned about structures and how they are trying to relate to Western novel and post-modernistic structures rather than intimate depiction of their subject.

If they spend half of the time on Sinhala language and its expressiveness and how one can use it to depict what they want to depict. That is where they failed. No Sinhala reader would feel these novels are about them and depiction of society they live in. They do not see expressiveness which is deeply embedded in our idiom. The older generation of novelists advise new writers to read all the classics starting from Amawatura and study the folk idiom around. A novelist is not only a* *man who derives from idiom but also a creator of idiom. For instance, Gunadasa Amerasekara is a creator of idiom and in his works like Jeevana Suwanda, he has extended the frontiers of language. Three novels selected for Swarna Pustaka Award were serious novels. As a person who enjoyed good literature and who wish our literature to flourish and language to be more powerful, I would invite new writers to extend the vistas of our expressive idiom of Sinhala and to make it more subtle to depict emotions and situations in a novel manner. Novelist is a thinker with a penetrative vision who tries to see social forces at work, psychological forces at work and realities brought about by globalisation and youth issues. The new generation should go beyond expressive idiom used by Martin Wickramasinghe or Gunadasa Amerasekara and it is where the future of the Sinhalese novel should lie.

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