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The Empire Strikes Back

Reef

by Romesh Gunesekera
New Press, 190 pp., $20.00

The Tempest has become a model for postcolonial fiction. Who, after all, can resist a tale of spirits and savages being tamed and taught by a fugitive European aristocrat (later joined by a mixed-up band of drifters and dreamers and drunkards)? And who could fail to see in it a metaphor for the way in which Western powers have long tried to bring their native ways and speech to untutored paradise islands? Shakespeare’s experiment in magic realism offers an ideal prototype for the encounter between the civilized and the wild—or, as it would more often be called today, between two different kinds of civilizations, one drawn from Nature and one from books. It not only acknowledges both the angelic and the bestial sides of the subconscious world but also allows a visiting scholar to perform a kind of mission civilisatrice before returning home.

Whether or not the inspiration for the play came from the islands that have given us Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul, it is easy to see why many excolonials have seized upon its images of Ariel crying out for freedom; why the West Indian George Lamming, in his Pleasures of Exile, dwelt on the mysteries of Sycorax; or why Walcott, in his poetry, not only gives us Othello from the Moor’s point of view but also describes how “Calibans howled down the barred streets of an empire that began with Caedmon’s raceless dew, and is ending in the alleys of Brixton, burning like Turner’s ships.”

When Romesh Gunesekera begins his first novel, Reef, with an epigraph from The Tempest, we know that we are likely being ushered into a new version of the age-old colonial story. And, moreover, that it will probably be an example of “The Empire Strikes Back,” the current shorthand for that increasingly visible phenomenon whereby much of the strongest writing in English—and especially in England—is coming from writers from the former colonies who are using the words they’ve learned at their masters’ feet to turn their masters’ literature on its head. Among the names to be found on the short list for England’s Booker Prize for Fiction—the clearest register of British literary fashion—are Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ben Okri, and Timothy Mo, and it is more and more common to hear that, just as Spanish literature has been all but taken over by writers from Spain’s former possessions (Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Isabel Allende, and Carlos Fuentes, say), so Toronto and Sydney and Bombay have become new centers of English literature.

Gunesekera, a connoisseur of displacement, fits the description well, having been brought up on three separate islands—Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and England. And when you read his unusual prose-poem, you see exactly how the young “foreign” writers are flooding the English main-stream with their alien spices and colors and sounds. In this novel, Colombo comes to seem as close to us as Connecticut or Colchester.

On its surface—and it is an exquisitely sensuous surface—Reef simply tells the tale of Triton, a wide-eyed, earnest village boy, trained only in a “mud-walled school,” who comes to Colombo to work in the junk-filled mansion of Mister Salgado, a quiet, rather dreamy amateur marine biologist. To Triton, Mister Salgado seems the last word in worldliness, though to us, as he sits on the veranda sighing over The Mikado and staring wordlessly at his mistress Nili, Salgado seems dangerously unworldly. These representatives of science and superstition combine to make their home a model of the island around them; and in every one of his exact details, Gunesekera acknowledges the mixed influences of an island in transition. Outside the house’s entrance is a garden of “scarlet rathmal and white jasmine”; inside is a mix of “cane blinds, Formica surfaces and nylon mats.” The master consumes soft-boiled eggs and plantain for breakfast, coconut cake and cucumber sandwiches for tea. And in perhaps the most revealing anomaly of all, the eleven-year-old boy confesses that such English as he knows he learned from a “poor, tormented schoolmaster, still under the spell of a junglified Victoria.”

From the beginning, then, Reef presents us with an archetype of a master and his “boy,” in a kind of tropical Remains of the Day; and, as in the Ishiguro novel, the story that unfolds is largely about the flatteries and follies of imitation (both parrots and parrot fish flit through the novel). For while Triton registers some of the ironies of the mongrel culture of his home (it is only foreigners who are vegetarians here, and it is only Sri Lankans who speak of “Ivy League men” and Las Vegas), he is so unquestioningly devoted to his master that he will not even eat until Mister Salgado has done so. Like Ishiguro’s butler, he knows so little of the world outside that he believes his master to be omnipotent; and like Ishiguro’s butler, he is not displeased when he is himself mistaken for a rich man on one of his rare forays outside his master’s company. “I watched him, I watched him unendingly, all the time, and learned to become what I am,” the boy says, in the voice of Ariel, with something of the straightforwardness of Caliban.

The book’s own spell arises from that very voice, one that we have seldom heard before—open, unlettered, eager to please—and from a perspective unclouded by ambiguity or distance. For even on the outskirts of the Sri Lankan capital, the young boy is living in a world of spirits. He sleeps at night under a small round window, and conjures demons out of the darkness. He rubs his “elephanthair bracelet” for good luck, and makes spells to hex his enemies. The whole island is alive for him—this junglified Pip—with “mischievous little godlings” and malevolent sorcerers like the elder servant Joseph (whose head is “shaped like a devil-mask”). This is very much Prospero’s isle—“a jungle of demons,” as Triton calls it—as seen by a local sprite.

And because most of the book concerns Triton’s life as chef to the languorous Salgado, it allows him to immerse the reader in the bewitching smells and flowers and fragrances of his spice-filled, wind-softened home. The book is lush with references to the smells of rosewater, almond essence, and cardamom, to white flame trees and temple trees and lily pads, to “the perfume of cinnamon in pearly rice, or the hum of a hummingbird sucking nectar from a pink shoe-flower.” And because the world of the artless boy extends no further than the house, the reader’s view, too, is circumscribed, and he mainly sees a Sri Lanka not of ethnic strife or social turmoil, but, rather, an enchanted garden of “red-beaked parrots and yellow-eared salaleenas,” where a boy freshens cupboards with drops of Moorish rosewater, and scrubs his hands with coconut hair and pink whalebone. Everything here is seen in local images, the sea “like a Madras pancake. Thosai flat,” and a woman’s ears “curled in like the edges of a puppadum when it hits hot oil.” The novel takes place in the 1960s and the political tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils on an island that became independent in 1948 are present mostly as storm clouds on the horizon.

The strength of Reef, in fact, lies in its unforced and convincing depiction of a self-contained universe (“I didn’t know what happened much beyond our lane,” the boy admits) in which the beauties of an Elysian home can be taken for granted. Triton’s work in the kitchen allows him to surround us with exotic flavors and seasonings, with seeni-sambol and pol-sambol and pol-kiri-badun curry; with cadjan fronds and del trees and nelum flowers. The first thing that strikes one about Reef, especially when compared with Gunesekera’s earlier collection of short stories, Monkfish Moon, is that the pages here are lit up with italics, and every one of them seems to convey wild and unknown booty into out mother tongue. But Gunesekera deliberately chooses not to explain most of his Sinhalese terms, in much the same way that Vikram Seth, in A Suitable Boy, filled his pages with Indianisms, and yet declined to include a glossary. Puppadum and sari and nirvana are English terms now, these writers are saying; or, as Rushdie puts it in his more polemical way, “To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.”

The remarkable thing about this novel, indeed, is that it achieves nearly all of its effects silently, as it were, through almost imperceptible shadings of language and texture. The story it tells, of an island’s fall from paradise, coinciding with a boy’s fall into self-consciousness, is conventional enough; but the way it tells it, by showing how language itself gradually falls prey to more and more of the outside world, is original and heart-rending. Thus the early pages of Reef are luminous with local terms, like the central reef of the omnipresent “pearly sea” aglow with phosphorescent fish; and reading Triton’s account of the omnipresence of the “pounding sea” one feels, in his inspired image, as if one is living “inside a conch.” When people speak, it is in the particular, pungent cadences one would hear in a Sri Lanka village (“Big commotion was going on there with that Pando-nona“). But as the book goes on (and the boy grows up), more and more foreign influences start entering the sequestered house. The first comes with Mr. Dias, a friend of Mister Salgado, who speaks in the Wodehousian manner of the intellectual Anglo-Asian: “The rifle, you see…was resting like a fancy brolly on the tip of his shoe. In all the excitement, what with the din and all, the fellow pulled the trigger. Blew his own bloody big toe off!”

In the central scene of the book—again a little like the dinner party that is the centerpiece of The Remains of the Day—Triton faces his biggest culinary challenge as he cooks his first Christmas turkey (to be eaten near a plastic Christmas tree). It is a traditional bird for Salgado’s foreign guests, but it is stuffed not only with raisins and liver but also with “Taufik’s ganja and our own jamanaran mandarins” (much like the book itself). And though there is no apple in the turkey, it marks the end of Eden. This is the first time foreigners have been invited to Salgado’s table and they bring to it their alien perspectives (“This extraordinary, I reckon, deeply erotic country…. So uninhibited. Really wild”). And, even sadder, the first foreign attitudes enter the language of the Sri Lankans, as they start to see themselves through foreign eyes. (Mister Salgado tells Triton that the dinner is to begin “at nine o’clock. Punctually. None of this lotus-eating business.”) Before we know it, Mister Salgado and his friends are using secondhand terms and Western platitudes, chattering about “haves and have nots,” “conspicuous consumption,” and the “Fifth Column.” The reader hears the gates of Eden closing as Mister Salgado discusses “the thermodynamics of the ocean in the Age of Aquarius.”

From then on, the trajectory of Reef is, inevitably, an elegiac one, and the book, like Sri Lanka itself, fills up with engineers “trained in London and New England,” “nouveau chefs,” and references to Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and “free love” in California. The government starts to plan inland seas and the diversion of enormous rivers; the eponymous reef—the one delicate system keeping the ocean and the forces of chaos at bay—is seen as a marketable resource. Marxists start burning buildings to purge the island, while pleasure-mongers open “batik boutiques” and roar around on “fluorescent motorbikes.” But the singular courage of Reef is to suggest that the corruption lies deeper than any ism or fashion, and that it is not death squads, or nationalists, or Marxists, or greedy developers, that are the downfall of Sri Lanka: all are symptoms of a deeper malaise, the result of a too quick widening of horizons and too many foreign ideas. The flight from paradise begins when people start talking, too easily, of “the classic flight of capital.”

Reef ends with Triton and his bewildered boss moving to London, and settling in a flat in an old Victorian house near the Gloucester Road. And like Ishiguro’s butler, in a way, Triton comes to see that he has given his faith to a man who is himself ineffectual and naive. But the loss of innocence is again most tellingly conveyed just through language. When Triton visits the British seashore, he finds a gray and cormorant-haunted place with none of the color and music he knows, and his prose hardens into a brittle and crabbed kind of Anglo-Saxon as he describes how

the sea shimmering between the black humps of barnacled rocks, mullioned with gold bladder-wrack like beached whales, thickened into a great beast reaching landward, snuffing and gurgling…. In pock-marked, marooned rock pools speckled hermit-crabs and rubbery, red sea anemones dug in; limpets and periwinkles and bubble weed held fast waiting for the tide.

Reef proceeds so gently and lyrically—whispering around us like a murmurous sea—that it is easy to overlook just how subversive the book is. For it allows, and even forces, us to see Sri Lanka from a local boy’s perspective, as we have never seen it before in English. As long as those of us in the West have been reading about the island, it has mainly been through the eyes of foreigners—and, moreover, foreigners highly aware of its alienness. “All jungles are evil,” wrote Leonard Woolf of the island where he lived as a young civil servant, and Edward Lear complained that “the brown people of this island seem to me odiously inquisitive and bothery-idiotic.” And this was all before the champions of global alienation, Paul Bowles and D.H. Lawrence, hit the place (the latter with his talk of “papaw-stinking buddhists”).

Even the country’s most famous contemporary writer, Michael Ondaatje, is himself a bemused half-outsider, a product of Dutch and English forebears who has lived all his adult life far away, most recently in Canada, and who, in Running in the Family, returns to his birthplace saying, “I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner.” And the ancestors that Ondaatje portrays in his memoirs, playing billiards, going to the races, and dancing “in large living rooms to the music of a Bijou-Moutrie piano” are themselves the kind of deracinated cosmopolitans who seem almost extraterrestrial to the likes of Triton. (His father, Ondaatje mentions in passing, was briefly engaged to a Russian countess in Cambridge.)

Reef, then, like more and more of its contemporaries, is radical precisely in what it can take for granted: its very matter-of-factness about Embilipitiya grass and frangipani is part of its sedition. And at every turn, it performs a kind of counter-Orientalism, giving us the island as it appears from the servants’ quarters, and so replacing Western views of the East with Eastern views of the West. For Triton, after all, it is not mynah birds or wizards that are exotic; it is copies of Life and the Reader’s Digest, rumors of the Profumo affair and the Beatles. It is England that seems the dark and frightening country where one cannot speak the language. And when he describes the world around him, everything becomes transposed: he writes of “silver trays as big as the moon,” and one realizes that one is accustomed to hearing English writers likening the moon to silver trays; elsewhere, reading in Mister Salgado’s study, he describes the “sound of onion-skin rustling from story to story like trees blowing in a summer orchard.” The very terms of familiarity and strangeness are turned around here.

Derek Walcott wrote once of an empire-haunted West Indian artist literally reversing the terms in an old poem, so that it would read, “Holy be/the white head of a Negro,/sacred be/the black flax of a black child.” In this book’s central episode—the dinner party for foreign guests—the Sri Lankans in attendance not only assert that their island was the original Garden of Eden but take the Bible itself and the story of Noah’s ark and turn it into a Sri Lankan folk tale, of a “helluva bad monsoon” and a “baasunnaha—our carpenter with his boat.” By the end of the scene, we are seeing things we thought we knew through the other side of the telescope.

In some ways, magic realism itself is nothing more than the conveying of everyday life to a world so distant that it takes realism for surrealism; as García Márquez discovered, the simple transcription of life in a superstitious and god-filled village will seem as otherworldly to us as our TV images and knickknacks seem to a Colombian villager: that is the quid pro quo of the modern imaginative trade routes. Magic realism is about transubstantiation—the turning of one man’s water into another man’s wine—and it adds to Kipling’s famous line “The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Kathmandu,” the rider that “The wildest facts of Kew are the dreams of Kathmandu.” The lone, rather seedy American in Gunesekera’s novel is described by the boy as a “film-star.”

Though Reef is not strictly an example of magic realism, it is a glittering example of how Caliban is turning his master’s speech upon him. A generation or so ago, V.S. Naipaul mastered the imperial voice and attitudes, and trained them upon the third world he had taken such fastidious pains to flee; born fifteen years later, on the eve of Independence, Salman Rushdie simply celebrated the polyglot mishmash of our mixed-up cultures, in which Bombay is as full of Star Trek fans as London is full of samosas. Now, though, even younger writers like Gunesekera are repatriating the skills and tactics they mastered in England to give new dignity and authority to their homelands. Ben Okri fills English with molue buses and Nigerian herbalists, all described in classic English sentences (“Under our intense gaze, he bit Mum’s shoulder and pulled out a long needle and three cowries from her flesh”). The Caribbean-born Caryl Phillips writes a novel in flawless nineteenth-century prose and calls it Cambridge, to evoke not the bucolic English university town but a hideously mistreated black slave. And, like Rohinton Mistry, an Indian writer long resident in Toronto, Gunesekera looks back on the world he has left, from a Western perch, and in a new kind of English describes “some itty-bitty koreawa road” and characters dancing “the cha-cha-cha or the kukul kakul wiggle.”

The ultimate point of Reef, about how the East was lost, and with it a certain rough magic, is nothing new. But one strength of the book is that it doesn’t belabor that point, that it never lets its story dwindle into a treatise or a polemic. When Mister Salgado is asked, by a foreign journalist, how “the lifestyle in coastal villages is changing as a result of this sea-erosion,” he loses his composure for one of the only times in the book, simply because he loves his island too much to hear it subjected to Op-Ed clichés (even though he resorts to a few of his own). In the same way, Gunesekera refuses tidy explanations or easy rhetoric, and simply shows us the eroding flavors of his sea-washed home. For me, this is the best novel from the subcontinent since Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, and for much the same reason. Calmly, it gives us a new and unexpected world; and gradually it makes it feel like home.

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