Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Another paradise lost

Wrecked paradises and displaced lives have leavened all the four novels of Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera. Starting with his Booker-nominated first novel Reef, Gunesekera regularly mined ore from Sri Lanka’s fractious past with a headlamp focused on individuals forced to relocate. His fifth novel, The Prisoner of Paradise, is quite different from this corpus. Set in Mauritius of 1825, it is a classical love story in which the characters don’t introspect as much as they are prone to in The Match or The Sandglass.
Squint harder, however, and typical Gunesekera’s tropes will emerge: immigrant prejudices, racial tension, familial strife, an ugly inherited past, an impending catastrophe that will alter the lives of everyone involved. Recently orphaned 19-year-old Lucy Gladwell, a Jane Eyre-ish sort of character – strikingly beautiful, smart, empathising and affable – arrives in Mauritius from England to live with the Huytons, her aunt Betty and uncle George. George is a superintendent of the spit of English-ruled coral beauty. The childless couple is more than happy to embrace Lucy and, against her wishes, ask her to boss the native “slaves”. “Instruct,” her aunt had said. “How, in this land where even the flowers run riot?” Lucy muses.

Her tranquility against the serene backdrop of Mauritius is disturbed by Don Lambodar, a suave Ceylonese translator for a French royal in exile. Three-fifths of the novel doesn’t really bring their hearts together and, like in any other novel of this time period, propriety reigns supreme. Nevertheless, their constant ribbing is a source of minor joy for the reader. Even as a romantic relationship is blooming, a revolution is brewing elsewhere in the local sugar factory, where disenchanted local workers are on the brink of saying enough is enough.

Much against his wishes, Don is drawn into the epicentre of these happenings and that becomes a source of discord between him and the Huytons. In no time, the workers are up in arms against the authorities. This leads to a shocking twist in the tale that is sure to send a frisson through any classic novel aficionado.
The Prisoner of Paradise is a good throwback to a period that’s hardly evoked in modern times and a theme that’s resonating currently thanks to the success of the movie The Help. Gunesekera’s languid prose, with just the right kind of rhythm and pull, makes it immensely readable.

The problem is that Gunesekera may have effectively evoked the serenity of Mauritius by giving it Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide treatment, but his material is quite flimsy. For one, the characters are way too predictable: Lucy and Don are the good people and George and his lackeys are the rotten ones. Only Betty rises above these delineated caricatures as a mercurial character whose kindness and meanness come out at the most unexpected of times. “The English language is a very fine thing, and perhaps you will find a wordsmith who will enthrall you, but I hope he will not be a poet of penury, as I understand is so often the case. One needs more for one’s comfort in this world than a rich vocabulary,” says the street-smart martinet to her niece.

Of course, The Prisoner of Paradise can be interpreted as a grass-roots parable for Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. It is not, however, very instructive on the revolution front. A fledgling love story that takes too long to fructify impedes the pace of the novel even more. I’m surprised how many times I scribbled “meh!” and “blah!” in the marginalia. Gunesekera was probably handicapped by the fact that he had to depend on history rather than the personal experiences that suffuse his earlier works.

The idea of The Prisoner of Paradise germinated from the exile in June 1825 of Ehelopola, an ex-prime minister of the Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, to Mauritius by the British. Along with 25 other prisoners from Ceylon he spent the last four years of his life in Mauritius, aka “little bastard rock”, as one of the characters describes it. What might be an interesting historical tidbit falls flat as a novel.

The biggest problem with the novel is that several themes emerge– a faux love triangle, infidelity, a beautiful love story – but none of them sees a logical light at the end of the tunnel. One thing that saves the novel from utter insignificance is Gunesekera’s feel for language and the deftness with which he highlights local dialects and variants of the English language. In a beautiful side story, a British historian specialising in Egyptian antiquities is hosted by the Huytons and over the course of a dinner provides fascinating insights into Greek and Sanskrit. The local patois is captured really well too, including the inflections.

It is too much to expect that these appealing little touches can elevate a desultory novel. Clearly, Gunesekera is better off being a self-absorbed writer than trying to be a poor man’s version of Richard Attenborough meets V S Naipaul meets Amitav Ghosh.

Romesh Gunesekera
389 pages; £11.99


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