A dominant figure in the country’s literary scene | Sunday Observer
44th death anniversary of Martin Wickramasinghe

A dominant figure in the country’s literary scene

The 44th death anniversary of author and novelist Martin Wickramasinghe was on July 23, 2020. Martin Wickramasinghe was born on May 9, 1890, in the southern coastal village of Koggala. He first learnt Sinhala letters from an ola leaf alphabet tracing them on a sand board. After studying for two years under the traditional village Guru he attended Buona Vista School in Galle. Due to a change in his family matters he had to leave school at the age of ten. However Martin Wickramasinghe continued to acquire his educational and cultural background by intense personal inquiry and reading. He began to write when he was 13 years. Martin’s involvement with the rural folk earned him the fluency in the use of language. Later on their idioms enriched his sophisticated prose giving it a liveliness and verve.

Knowledge

His writings include fiction, literary criticism, scientific and philosophical work and socio political studies. No other author of modern time had such a vast comprehension of knowledge. He had a broad spectrum of independent thought not affected by any social or political prejudice. He had an inquiring mind and pondered on orthodox thinking and social customs however hallowed or vital they may be.

With a rationalistic mind he dissected and analysed social issues. For over 60 years until his demise on July 23, 1976 as one of the erudite intellectuals Martin Wickramasinghe was a dominant and a dynamic figure in the country’s literary scene. During the tenure of 62 years spanning from 1914 to 1976 Martin Wickramasinghe produced nearly 2,000 pieces of writing both in Sinhala and English, which included nearly 90 books.

His writing could be classified as creative, academic and journalistic. His preference was subjects such as language, literature, both oriental and occidental religion, Philosophy, culture and social anthropology. Martin’s demanding literary career began in 1914, the year Leela his first novel subtitled as Rasawath Kathantharayak was published. His first book written at the age of 20 was a polemic influenced by English rationalism and 19th century cultural Anthropology. In 1934 Martin wrote and published his Satva Santatiya a comprehensive book on the theory of evolution. In 1946 he published Development of Sinhalese Literature a critical study which revolutionised past theories and methods of study of language and literature. Among his famous and nationally renowned novels are the trilogy, The Uprooted (Gamperaliya), The Age of Destruction (Kaliyugaya) and The Final Age (Yuganthaya). Gamperaliya is the landmark in the development of a modern realistic novel in Sri Lanka.

As a youth of 18, Martin became familiar with the Darwinian theory of evolution through a paperback edition published by the Rationalist press association of England.

Martin’s work has been translated into English, Russian and Rumanian languages. He has also written several travelogues describing his experiences abroad. His contribution to the intellectual discourse in Sinhala was unparalleled at that time. Martin Wickramasinghe has not left untried any literary genre. He was prominently bilingual. His translation of Theri Gi (The psalms of the sisters) is the only work that could be considered a book of poetry. His world outlook was more nurtured by Buddhist Philosophy and local culture.

Similar to great writers such as Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Martin started his writing career as a journalist. Journalism developed his observation and interest in detail which were present in him from his young days. Being a trendsetter Wickramasinghe’s contribution to vernacular fiction in both short story and novel has been assessed and a host of critical studies mainly in vernacular Sinhala has appeared during the last three decades. Martin was a pioneer journalist who ushered knowledge on subjects such as Biology, Archaeology, Social Anthropology and theory of evolution to the Sinhala reading public at a time when such subjects were alien to the country.

Inspiration

The journalist in Martin Wickramasinghe was a learnerd personality well known to a variety of subjects, ranging from Sinhala culture to Indian Vedanta Philosophy and Western rationalism. Sri Lankan short story too owes much to Martin Wickramasinghe for he successfully fashioned it into a delicate mode of fiction, having derived inspiration from the Checkhovian tradition of the Russian short story. In his journalistic career Martin used a few pseudonyms during the early period as Hetuvadi, Vijitha Manuwarna and also as Mayurapada. The Peradeniya University conferred an honorary PhD on Martin Wickramasinghe and the Vidyodaya, Vidyalankara and Colombo Universities conferred upon him Honorary D Litt degrees.

Today those of us in the older generation will re enact their original experience of Martin Wickramasinghe who charmed their youth. The new generation who discovered him will absorb the wonder and the mystique of a bygone era. He stands tall as a colossus among the finest exponents of modern Sri Lankan literature. Martin remains an idol to be followed and revered and emulated by young authors. His unparalleled humanism, eye for detail, openness in investigation, bold and daring expression, independence of thought remain to be emulated by young writers, making Martin Wickramasinghe a model to be followed.

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