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‘It is the living we should fear’

DISCLAIMER: Ten years ago, I reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel, Chinaman, for this newspaper. It was brilliant, I said, and everyone should buy it. I noted, though, for form’s sake, that I’d done some light proofreading of the manuscript, and hoped that this would not be taken either as cause or symptom of inoperable bias.

Well, a decade on, that situation’s only got worse. Karunatilaka and I are now related. Wife’s cousin’s cousins… we are fairly confident.

Betweentimes, Chinaman has gone from strength to strength. It won a raft of prizes (Gratiaen, Commonwealth, DSC South Asia), has been or is being translated into several languages (including Sinhala), and last year a Wisden panel voted it – a quite absurd achievement, this – the greatest novel and second-greatest cricket book of any kind of all time. The umpteenth printing is now out, via Penguin India, in a new ’10th Anniversary’ special edition: hardly standard practice for even the most successful novels.

Nor has Karunatilaka been resting on his laurels. All jokes aside about the difficult second album/novel (he’d be quite happy with either, I suspect), he has already published one children’s book (Please Don’t Put That in Your Mouth) and written the follow-up; there is open talk of a short-story collection; and there is the somewhat unexpected matter of a forthcoming cookery book – a co-project with his wife.

Chats with the Dead is the story of Maali Almeida, a 34-year-old photographer who ‘s good at ‘winning at blackjack, seducing young peasants, and photographing scary places.’ Or rather was – because he’s dead now.

It’s Sri Lanka, 1989, and Maali had been in bed, photographically-speaking, with a lot of the conflicting parties, not to mention their agendas. The JVP, the government, the BBC, a Tamil-rights group; he has been to the frontlines for all of them. To say he was ‘promiscuous’ would strike, well… exactly the right tone. And in a box he keeps of his disturbing/unpublishable outtakes, he even has a photo of his killer – ‘the chances of liberating [which] are as likely as Lanka winning a World Cup.’ He just can’t remember who it was yet: whereby, our detective story. ‘It is funny and unfunny what your brain chooses to retain.’

He had also been in bed, non-photographically-speaking, with, among others, his girlfriend Jaki and his boyfriend DD – a love triangle whose sides don’t meet (based loosely on the life of Richard de Zoysa). These two are also cousins, because, y’know, Colombo.

He now finds himself in some aspect of the afterlife – though quite which he is yet to fathom. It is a busy place (as Nietzsche once put it, the living are only a very small subset of the dead), and by and by he crosses paths with a dead lawyer, a dead bodyguard, two dead lovers… some helpful, others vengeful, a few competing for his soul, and most of them frustratedly trying to chat back with the living. So now he has to learn ‘the rules’, as well as solve the mystery of his murder.

It is the Mahavamsa meets The Matrix… in a Sri Lankan government department.

‘When you fantasized about heaven you thought you’d be greeted by Elvis or Oscar Wilde. Not by a dead doctor. Or a deceased Marxist.’ But by page 16 he’s met both, and is now watching his own corpse being incompetently disposed of by paramilitary goons, at Beira Lake. And while he talks thus, retrospectively, to himself (the whole thing’s in the second person), there swirls around him an all-comers spirit realm of fanged ghouls, minor deities, baby-stealers, charms, seances, sorcery, urban legends, prayers, dreams and talking animals, an inventive theological mix of everything from Kuveni’s curse to the Kotahena Crow Man in his urban underpass.

There exists already a Karunatilaka style, and it is here in spades: dive bars, Colombo culture, books, art and (particularly) music, the things that are – and are not – talked about. His taunting games with names and places. A cheeky drop-in from the boys in Chinaman. A page-long parody of Anil’s Ghost? And then the storyteller’s signs deployed by every shifty author from Herodotus to Ondaatje – ‘All stories are recycled, and all stories are unfair’ – the whole lot strung together with the now-familiar mischievous logic, verbal levity and seamy humour that mark him out as the Sri Lankan counterpart to Marlon James.

As with James, this doesn’t always make for pleasant reading (consider Maali’s job); but then his thoughts on all those easier alternatives might well be coded in the line, ‘Monsoons and full moons make all creatures stupid.’

Chats with the Dead is considerably more direct in its satire than was its predecessor. Besides, the stakes are higher. The abject slavery of many lives; the rank iniquities of much religion; the dreadful suicide rate. And as he picks at these scabs of SL’s less-than-savoury history, Maali’s most unflattering (and generally unchallenged) remarks are reserved for the nature of the post-Independence nation: as a corrupted paradise, on its political class, and on its tendencies to violence. ‘Yakas are made, not born,’ someone admonishes. It’s not conciliatory, nor is it all that optimistic. Karunatilaka – I mean, Maali… – has a savagely critical reading of the self-conscious national lust for a rapacious origin.

Reflecting on the spurious léonine self-image of his countrymen, Maali reflects that ‘If we must have a national creature, if it must be on our flags, in our myths, and painted on our sports teams, why must it be the clichéd lion? If we must have an animal as a national symbol, let it be something original that we can own.’

‘Like many Sri Lankans,’ he goes on, ‘pangolins…’ – but I shan’t spoil it for you. Needless to say, the month or so since Chats‘s launch has seen you-couldn’t-make-it-up links form between the pangolin, Sri Lanka, and the realms of death and afterlife.

Chats is an entirely successful and perfectly mature novel, as good as – albeit much darker and less full of, well… life than – Chinaman. But it’s not perfect. Too many variants of ‘Maali’, ‘malli’, ‘Maal’, ‘Malin’, and so on for the untrained eye/ear; some minor characters who might be given clearer edges (or got rid of/merged); some textual messiness; an anachronism or two; a couple of vague inconsistencies, and one hell of what seemed like a twist (read literally) just pages from the end, but which turned out to be two sentences in need of much more careful separation. A lot, frankly, that ought to have been dealt with by professional wordsmiths at a world-bestriding publishing colossus.

But the bigger problem, I fear, will be one of international ‘accessibility’. In my review of Chinaman I noted that I thought the quite heavy preponderance of little-known Sri Lankan terms and Singlish might have the effect of denting saleability. The international success of that book would suggest that I was wrong – or that assiduous changes were made during the foreign publication process.

The same applies here. Minor matters of vocab or narrowly-regional reference (there is a sharp remark about the vulnerability of shop signs ‘that end in consonants’, e.g.) can of course be edited; but in the case of Chats, the hardwired very-Lankan-ness – the ’80s politics, the social concepts and the mytho-religious lexicon: the meat and bone of the matter (if one can use that term for ghosts) – is perhaps much more pervasive than the first-round local reader might imagine. Sri Lankans may enjoy the novel (doubtless the wrong word) for a certain grim nostalgia quotient; but all but very-interested foreign readers may find that there is rather a lot ‘going on’.

So much for second novels, difficult or otherwise. In literature, as in all else, people are ingrates – so it’s quite likely this will not be greeted with the fanfare that met Chinaman. For better or worse, Chats with the Dead is a novel by a multi-award-winning author, which will be judged on more than its own merits, and/or held to a higher standard.

More locally, the book may yet prove to have landed in a timely fashion. In these increasingly apocalyptic times, let us hope Maali Almeida is wrong when he warns: ‘Do not be afraid of ghosts, it is the living we should fear.’

For the Sri Lankan Sunday Times

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