The Empire Strikes Back


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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.