A novel that critiques our times
Ranga Chandrarathne's English translation of Agni Chakra by popular
Sinhala novelist Kathleen Jayawardena, Circles of Fire can be applauded
for many reasons. The novel itself as a work which carries many themes
bound with the present socio-cultural milieu can be viewed for the
notable critiques it makes of the times we live in, and as an English
translation it serves the larger scheme of projecting the image of
contemporary Sri Lankan literature in the world sphere. As translations,
works of fiction transpire as texts that have a bi-faceted nature when
encountered by a reader of a culture not of the context of the work. The
language in which it speaks to the reader would be a first or a
secondary language in which the reader may be proficient in, yet the
socio-cultural context may be a world that is distant to the one known
and experienced by the reader.
Publisher: Samaranayake Publishers
This is in one way the beauty of national literatures as it blends
into the larger firmament of world literature, bridging the experiences
of people across oceans and national borders through the medium of
literature. Although many Sinhalese monolingual Sri Lankans would be
familiar with the writings of Alexander Pushkin and Maxim Gorky through
Sinhalese translations, how many in Russian today would be familiar with
the works of Sri Lanka writers? The same question could be asked if
looked at how many would have read Flaubert and Maupassant as Sinhalese
translations, and in turn how many in France would know of our local
writers? There is a need for more and more translations of Sri Lankan
works to reach overseas readerships through the world's leading
international languages. In this sense Kathleen's novel has been brought
to the doors that can open the pathway for it to find new readers,
appreciations and criticisms from outside our own socio-cultural
setting. Thus, a translation that keeps a healthy proximity of
faithfulness to the original text provides much cultural insight about
the milieu in which it is placed, to the reader beyond our shores.
Projects to translate works of Sri Lankan writers into English thereby
render a service in the furtherance of our local literature's identity
The central role of the novel
The protagonist of the novel Prof. Saddhamangala Sirinivasa is a
tragic figure who presents the mould of an anti-hero. Of course this is
telling of a very significant facet of realism, that there are no
labeled heroes and villains in the world we inhabit and marked lines of
black and white, but that much in reality is grey. The fact that the
protagonist who is the narrator of the novel comes from disadvantaged
layers in society and rises to positions of eminence in the public eye
can be admired if one were to disregard the means as not counting when
it is the end(s) that solely matter. The character of Sirinivasa is
riddled with complexities that embattle persons whose rise up the social
ladder is marked with crises relating to social stigmas and
The aspects of class and caste are prominent problem areas in
contemporary postcolonial society of Sri Lanka and perhaps to certain
extents in other South Asian countries as well.
These are two themes that come out through the course of the
narrative when the anxieties of Sirinivasa unfold to the reader. Despite
the heights of eminence he achieves in the folds of academia this
'baggage' persists as a weighty backlash within him and works
injuriously in shaping his outlooks. Perhaps through this facet of the
novel the protagonist's voice is to present justifications to his ways
to climb higher, which can be reproached at times for a lack of
In such arguments one may find the conscience of the individual being
internally pitted against the norms of society and its gamut of values.
From the very opening of the novel, which presents his perspective on
marriage, Sirinivasa's conceptions have a very impersonal attitude
towards the sentimental. By calling marriage as being to him simply "a
contract in life" Sirinivasa's outlooks on persons, society and life
seem to take shape as being bound to what matters in light of the
Adulterous relationships between university lecturers and students
are not something that is unheard of today. The protagonist finds
himself becoming attracted to one of his female students named Amritha
and evokes the wrath of her boyfriend Kanchana. And ironically as almost
like a boomerang effect an illicit affair develops between Kanchana and
Sirinivasa's wife Shantha. These developments in the storyline may come
out as a theme related to Buddhist teachings and be expositional of
karmic factors that affect all doings of humans.
The infidelity, and the gradual obsession with Amritha which makes
Sirinivasa immerse deeper into lies and deceptions finally results in
sealing his demise. Is there a message in the moral perspective which
rings out strongly in this storyline? Perhaps the protagonist himself in
the many internal battles he faces is trying to figure that out himself.
But quite apart from the moral dimension involved in understanding
the story of Sirinivasa, there is also the intensely psychological
layering involved in the sexual desires of the protagonist.
The unfulfilled desires in his conjugal life and the questionability
of the foundation of his marriage may be areas by which the reader may
access the mindset of the protagonist when he seeks justifications for
his indiscretions and becomes enamoured with his student Amritha.
Between bookishness and wisdom
Does Sirivivasa's lines of thinking in respect of viewing and
deciphering the world through the words of learned men present the
typical academic entrenched in theories that at times scarce represent
the prevailing realities of a person's world? Throughout the narrative
one encounters a multitude of theoretical vistas being discussed and
being made the tools to approach a particular problem.
From the words of French philosopher Jacques Lacan to the
philosophically embedded literary writings of D. H. Lawrence the
protagonist deals with numerous theoretical bases of intellectuals, and
presents a mindset that either finds some momentary escape or hopes to
find the answers to his questions by dwelling into the thoughts of great
How practical are these ways of hoping to find answers and solutions
to mundane issues in writings of great theoreticians? Certainly this is
a contentious argument with merits and demerits that can be weighed out
in different ways, yet what seems noteworthy in understanding the story
of Sirinivasa is how he comes out as a very bookish character that may
not necessarily be wise.
What 'wisdom' does the protagonist display when confronted with the
numerous problems that develop along his path to become exalted as an
academic, may be a matter that cannot be effectively dealt with merely
by the 'book learning' he possesses. Perhaps the authoress intended to
offer some food for thought along this strain in Sirinivasa's character;
a critique of 'intellectuality'? What should book learning serve in
And further could the authoress through the character of Sirinivasa
be raising another pressing question -what practical purposes should
academia serve in the larger picture of society? Through the character
of Sirinivasa I feel Circles of Fire brings out a contentious debate
between intellectuality and wisdom.
Craving for upward mobility
International capitalism has taken speedier means of spreading its
reaches throughout the world with the advent of the digital age.
Postcolonial societies in transitions from traditionalism to westernized
ways of living encounter many dilemmas. The identity of the individual
as well as the community faces many crises.
The character of Sirinivasa portrays a key aspect that creates much
turbulence within the individual in contemporary society that has been
affected by capitalism and western modernity which is upward mobility in
society. With pride of place being given to material wealth and position
traditional schemes of morals and values face a problem of what validity
it has in the face of overwhelming changes in attitudes of people. For
persons who are of disadvantaged backgrounds modernism has presented a
There is opportunity for upward mobility that traditional society did
not allow, yet the climb may be one that brings many challenges that
require certain adaptations, and one such would be the outward, exterior
identity of the individual. Sirinivasa is a person who subscribes to
hypocrisies of concealment of his personal past to present a more
'acceptable' façade. These adaptations one may assume are done on the
one hand to avoid derision by the upper layers of society. Yet what
costs must one incur in the course of such upward mobility? The dilemmas
of Sirinivasa are largely due to his unwillingness to accept himself for
who he is in terms of his roots. This core issue is explored for its
psychological impacts in the novel, thus rendering it as a psychological
investigation of the individual within the scenario of upward mobility
and the craving for upward mobility at practically any cost, even losing
sense of one's beginnings.
A critique of the contemporary individual and society
What merits Circles of Fire as a contemporary critique of our times
is that to begin with it is a realist novel which directly confronts
issues of ethicality as viewed by society and individual morality in the
context of present trends in society driven by materialist consumerism
and craving for eminence. Within the prime framework being the first
person narrative mode, the reader is brought to encounter the
justifications the mind of Sirinivasa would devise for a sense of
vindication from what is conventionally seen as violating accepted codes
Here lies the battleground between the collective views of society
and the beliefs of the individual -his conscience. The rise of
individualism through capitalistically developing society and the growth
of 'wants' beyond the needs come out very strongly in this work of
fiction which may present startling revelations of present society. Thus
through the innerness of an individual Circles of Fire in a way mirrors
the ways I which we have developed as a society.
Brilliantly sophisticated piece of writing
'Hola El Che' is a Short Story by Dilshan Boange. It is set in Sri
Lanka and begins with a group of teenagers in an ordinary setting who
have a puzzling encounter with a foreign journalist. The young people
are intrigued by the stranger, since he is of 'non-white', European
They later understand that both he (Aureliano Segundo) and Remedios
the Beauty have stepped straight out of the pages of 'One Hundred of
Hola El Che!
Publisher : Samaranayake Publishers
'Hola El Che' is a brilliantly sophisticated piece of writing since
it uses intertextuality and magical realism to add to and advance the
story. Intertextuality refers to the way in which texts gain meaning
through their referencing or evocation of other texts.
The technique is often described as the process of 'telling a story
within a story'. It is effectively the shaping of texts' meanings by
other texts. It can include an author's borrowing and transformation of
a prior text or to a reader's referencing of one text in reading
another. The author not only references ''One Hundred Years of
Solitude'' but weaves the characters into his own story.
The term "intertextuality" has, itself, been borrowed and transformed
many times since it was coined by poststructuralist Julia Kristeva in
1966. As critic William Irwin says, the term "has come to have almost as
many meanings as users, from those faithful to Kristeva's original
vision to those who simply use it as a stylish way of talking about
allusion and influence"
One of the best examples I can think of to describe this phenomena is
in Manual Puig's 'The Kiss of the Spiderwoman', which is an excellent
example of a post-structuralist novel. Puig uses intertextuality to
introduce the political theme of authority and power which is intrinsic
to the novel. Molina's way of telling film narratives are authoritarian
and repressive as they force their own point of view upon the reader.
The conversations that the characters engage in, when not focused on
the moment at hand are focused on films that Molina has seen, which act
as a form of escape from their environment. There is therefore a main
plot with five subplots. These subplots are films presented as mini
stories (in the form of films) which comprise much of the novel.
Another example of inter-textuality in Latin American literature is
Isabel Allende's 'The House of the Spirtis', in which uses
inter-textuality in quite a different way. Her story essentially follows
the same lines as Garcia Marquez's ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'',
since it chronicles the life of several generations of the same family.
In both novels, Latin American history is explored through the medium
of a lengthy family saga and many parallels can be drawn between
characters in both novels. What is different is that 'The House of the
Spirits' refers unequivocally to a specific reality whereas ''One
Hundred Years of Solitude'' offers allegorical glimpses of reality from
the refuge of patent unreality.
Dilshan Boange uses a rather more similar technique to Manual Puig's
'The Kiss of the Spider Woman'. In 'Hola El Che' the Latin American
characters belong to Macondo, the city which features in ''One Hundred
Years of Solitude''. Remedios the Beauty is an excellent example of a
character that has been transported from ''One Hundred Years of
Solitude'' to ''Hola El Che''. She was the daughter of Santa Sofía de la
Piedad and Arcadio, and becomes the most beautiful woman in the world,
and desire for her drives men to their deaths. Remedios is childlike
until one day, when she floats to heaven, leaving both Macondo and the
novel.However, although still rather ethereal, she seems to have evolved
in this new novel. Here is a quote about her from ''One Hundred Years of
"Actually, Remedios the Beauty was not a creature of this world.
Until she was well along in puberty Santa Sofia de la Piedad had to
bathe and dress her, and even when she could take care of herself it was
necessary to keep an eye on her so that she would not paint little
animals on the walls with a stick daubed in her own excrement. She
reached twenty without knowing how to read or write, unable to use the
silver at the table, wandering naked through the house because her
nature rejected all manner of convention.
One day, as she began to bathe herself, a stranger lifted a tile from
the roof and was breathless at the tremendous spectacle of her nudity.
She saw his desolate eyes through the broken tiles and had no reaction
of shame but rather one of alarm"
Thankfully in 'Hola El Che', Remedios does not wander naked anywhere
around Sri Lanka! Neither does she appear to have any of the same needs
for high maintenance care as in the original. The characters from
Macondo seem to have evolved from being rather one or two dimensional
stereotypes, to multidimensional people in this novel.
Aureliano Segundo who also appears in 'Hola El Che' was the son of
Arcadio and Santa Sofía de la Piedad. He was immense, boisterous,
impulsive, and hedonistic.
Although he loves the concubine Petra Cotes, he is married to the
cold beauty Fernanda del Carpio. In Dilshan's novel, it is Aureliano
Segundo who tells the fascinated teenagers all about Macondo.
The Founding patriarch of the City of Macondo, José Arcadio Buendía
believes that this city, surrounded by water exists and so whilst on a
journey with his wife to find a better life, he invents Mocondo
according to his perceptions.
Ideological transfiguration ensured that Macondo and the Buendías
were always alienated and estranged from their own history, not only
victims of the harsh reality of dependence and underdevelopment but also
of the ideological illusions that haunt and reinforce such social
The clear inference is that much of modern Latin American society is
alienated from its cultural and ethnic roots. The fate of Macondo is
also both doomed and predetermined by its very existence.
Fatalism is a metaphor for the particular part that ideology has
played in maintaining historical dependence. It locks the interpretation
of Latin American history into certain patterns that deny alternative
possibilities.The narrative seems to confirm fatalism in order to
illustrate the feeling of entrapment that ideology can create.
I wonder if by using this type of inter-texuality the author of 'Hola
El Che' is suggesting that the history and culture of Sri Lanka has
elements in common with Latin America. It is after all, a post-Colonial
society. Having said that, the majority of Sri Lankans do not seem to be
alienated from their cultural and ethnic roots.
Neither does it seems that Sri Lanka is dogged by the same sense of
remaining dependent. These elements appears to be key differences
between the two societies, yet not one that I can speak of with any
authority. I would like to hear a debate on the subject between Sri
Lankan critics. The other interesting technique which Dishan uses in
'Hola El Che' is Magical Realism. This is a literary genre in which
magical features and storylines appear and are accepted as everyday
reality. Magical realist stories often have a dream-like landscape and
call on folk-lore and myth to question the true nature of reality. Time
may be manipulated to appear cyclically or in reverse, rather than in
the more usual linear way. It is often unclear whether the reader is
intended to view the magical or everyday elements as the more 'real'.
Magical realism was coined by Franz Roh in his article Magischer
Realismus ("Magic Realism"), describing the works shown at the event.
The term is now more often applied to a literary genre which appeared
much later. This "magical realism" came to prominence in the 1960s in
Latin America and ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' is often described
as the seminal magical realist story. In the original Spanish the term
was "Lo real maravilloso", which translates as "the marvelous real",
gives a good impression of the nature of the style.
Magical realism in literature also has links to Science Fiction and
Fantasy and the works of the English romantic poets.
Magical realist writers write the ordinary as miraculous and the
miraculous as ordinary.
The ice that gypsies bring to the tropical village of Macondo in 'One
Hundred Years of Solitude' is described with awe. How can such a
substance exist? It is so awesomely beautiful that characters find it
difficult to account for or describe. But it's not just novelties such
as a first encounter with ice that merit such description. The natural
world comes in for similar attention.
The miraculous, on the other hand, is described with a precision that
fits it into the ordinariness of daily life. For example one of the
characters in 'Hola El Che' has an enormous stomach which miraculously
disappears in full view of the young Sri Lankans. However the event is
presented almost as though it should not be a surprise. The very
presence of Remedios and Aureliano Segundo from the fictitious Macondo
in modern Sri Lanka is also miraculous and should be impossible. Yet
this miraculous event is presented as mundane.
I would suggest that the use of Magical Realism is often used in
literature as a back-lash against Colonialism. Latin America and Sri
Lanka both had European laws, rules, logic and discourses imposed upon
them. When this happens, writers often begin subverting "scientific" and
"logical" literature by letting minor voices compete with the major
ones. These voices can be folklore, myths or urban legends.
In the case of Latin America, these societies have always been
fractured by wars, conflicts, changing frontiers, political
uncertainities and by a multitude of religious and spiritual beliefs.
This is also true of Sri Lanka, yet only to a certain extent and not
quite in the same way as Latin America.
There Magical Realism has always been a way to grasp more adequately
the complexity of South American oppositions, while using local
discourses. 'Hola El Che' uses the Latin American references within a
local Sri Lankan context. Perhaps the text is pointing towards Latin
American history as an example of a society which has moved on very
successfully from its colonial roots and established an identity for
However, putting all that aside, 'Hola El Che' makes for an enjoyable
and entertaining read. It is particularly intriguing for those readers
who are familiar with Garcia-Marquez's ''One Hundred Years of
The writer has a Master's Degree in Hispanic and European Studies
from Aberdeen University, Scotland. She also writes for The Guardian
For literary month Kumara Siriwardhana has translated eight books for
the literary month. Kanthapura, and Nadi Sutra are published by Kinkini
Creations. Imamge Diyaniya and Vishnuge Maranaya are published by Fast
Publishers. Sinha Minisa is a Dayawansa Jayakody publication. Udavuvata
William, Iti Kumaraya saha William and William Saha Gini Keli are Mal
Sanskruthi, a publication by Sanskruthi Prakashakayo has articles on
the late Martin Wickremasinghe and Munidasa Cumaratunga, a poem on
upcountry dance, Lionel Wendt's tradition of literature and arts, a
stage drama, urban agriculture as well as an article on the P.
Weerasinghe Research Library.
The articles on Wickremasinghe and Cumaratunga have been written by
Sunil Wijesiriwardena while the stage drama Mage Kalaye Weerayek was
contributed by Sudath Abeysiriwardena. The article on the introduction
to urban agriculture has been written by Tilak T. Ranasinghe.
The poem on upcountry dance is written by Rabindranath Tagore.
Ariyawansa Ranaweera gives an overview of the dance as appreciated by
Jinadasa Danansuriya's article on the Lionel Wendt tradition of
literature and arts discusses the cultural life of Lionel Wendt in
The article on the P. Weerasinghe Research Library written by Sriyani