A fascinating novel influenced by the great Thomas Bernhard
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 8, 2021
A fascinating novel, heavily influenced by Thomas Bernhard and, the author's favourite novel, A Book of Memories by Péter Nádas, simultaneously political and philsophical.
On a Booker longlist that seemed to prize readability and accessibility, it was great to see the author here resisting the standard traits of novel writing, as indeed the judges recognised in their citation (A Passage North is quiet by serendipity, possessing its power not on its face, but in hidden, subterranean places. It has a simple conceit which revolves around the philosophy of the present as a disease of the past. It is in subverting our sense of time and even of how a story should be told that this novel achieves its strongest effect and strikes an indelible mark on the reader's soul.)
From an interview in the Paris Review:
What are some aspects of novel writing that you don’t pay as much attention to?
Story. Creating a well-rounded character. Setting. Dialogue. Historical context. I try to pay attention to these things—I do try—but they’re always afterthoughts.
I have in my mind that the reader expects the character to be believable or the story to be interesting. I have this little voice in my head that says I need to try—but those elements of novel writing are not what I am interested in."
A Passage North opens as it goes on with an extensive philosophical musing on the nature of the present.
"THE PRESENT, WE assume, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted. It overwhelms us in the painful first moments of entry into the world, when it is still too new to be managed or negotiated, remains by our side during childhood and adolescence, in those years before the weight of memory and expectation, and so it is sad and a little unsettling to see that we become, as we grow older, much less capable of touching, grazing, or even glimpsing it, that the closest we seem to get to the present are those brief moments we stop to consider the spaces our bodies are occupying, the intimate warmth of the sheets in which we wake, the scratched surface of the window on a train taking us somewhere else, as if the only way we can hold time still is by trying physically to prevent the objects around us from moving. The present, we realize, eludes us more and more as the years go by, showing itself for fleeting moments before losing us in the world’s incessant movement, fleeing the second we look away and leaving scarcely a trace of its passing, or this at least is how it usually seems in retrospect, when in the next brief moment of consciousness, the next occasion we are able to hold things still, we realize how much time has passed since we were last aware of ourselves, when we realize how many days, weeks, and months have slipped by without our consent.
Events take place, moods ebb and flow, people and situations come and go, but looking back during these rare junctures in which we are, for whatever reason, lifted up from the circular daydream of everyday life, we are slightly surprised to find ourselves in the places we are, as though we were absent while everything was happening, as though we were somewhere else during the time that is usually referred to as our life. Waking up each morning we follow by circuitous routes the thread of habit, out of our homes, into the world, and back to our beds at night, move unseeingly through familiar paths, one day giving way to another and one week to the next, so that when in the midst of this daydream something happens and the thread is finally cut, when, in a moment of strong desire or unexpected loss, the rhythms of life are interrupted, we look around and are quietly surprised to see that the world is vaster than we thought, as if we’d been tricked or cheated out of all that time, time that in retrospect appears to have contained nothing of substance, no change and no duration, time that has come and gone but left us somehow untouched."
The novel is set in Sri Lanka around 5-6 years after the 2009 defeat of the Tamil Tigers by Government forces.
Our first-person narrator is Khrishan, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, who had been studying in Dehli at the time of the Tigers defeat. The break-up with his girlfriend Anjum, who prioritised her social activism over their relationship, and then seeing the post-war suffering of the Tamil people led him back to Sri Lanka. He first gets involved in reconstruction work in the north-east of the country, but soon realises that the mental trauma of the conflict will persist much longer than the physical, and that the reconstruction is a form of erasure, and returns to his family home in Colombo, which he shares with his mother and his elderly paternal grandmother (his father having been killed by a bomb in the civil war).
"The purpose of all the government’s demolition and renovation in the northeast had, of course, been to erase any memory that might spur the Tamil population back toward militarism, and in this it had been more or less successful, for one hardly heard ordinary people talking about the Tigers in the northeast now, one hardly heard anyone giving them more than a passing thought. It was strange to consider, since for decades the Tigers had been the central fact of life in the northeast, but it also made sense to a degree, for memory requires cues from the environment to operate, can function only by means of associations between things in the present and things in the past, which meant that remembering became far harder when all the cues that an environment contained were systematically removed. Without the physical objects that allowed it to operate organically, memory had to be cultivated consciously and deliberately, and how could the average person in the northeast afford to actively cultivate their memory of a world now gone when there were so many more urgent concerns, how to make ends meet, how to rebuild their homes, how to educate their children, concerns that filled up all their mental space? The truth was that eventually most people would have ceased remembering the past anyway, even if all remaining traces of the Tigers had been left untouched, for the truth was that all monuments lose their meaning and significance with the passing of time, disappearing, like the statues and memorials in Colombo dedicated to the so-called independence struggle against the British, into the vast unseen and unconsidered background of everyday life.
Deliberately or not the past was always being forgotten, in all places and among all peoples, a phenomenon that had less to do with the forces that seek to erase or rewrite history than simply the nature of time, with the precedence the present always seems to have over what has come before, the precedence not of the present moment, which we never seem to have access to, but of the present situation, which is always demanding our attention, always so forceful and vivid and overwhelming that as soon as one of its elements disappears we forget it ever existed."
As the novel begins he has just returned from the office (he now works in an administration role at an NGO on more administrative matters) to contemplate an email he had received from Anjum, the first since their break up almost 4 years earlier. But as he is about to re-read the email he receives a phone call informing him that Rana, his grandmother's carer until recently, had died. Khrishan had first come across Rana, a Tamil, when visiting a hospital, where she was undergoing electroshock therapy for the mental trauma caused by losing both of her sons during the civil war, and had invited her to live with the family as a way to both solve their care issues and to help with Rana's mental healing.
Arudpragasam originally aimed to write a novel in the style of Bernhard's stunning Extinction, attempting to replicate the "the sustained engagement with a single consciousness in a constrained space" (from the Literary Friction podcast) in Bernhard's novel, although he found it difficult to achieve that in his own writing in a "bearable" way, eventually expanding the locations and characters (the novel was originally going to be the main character and his grandmother).
"The outside world in Extinction is like scenery, it’s like a backdrop in the theater, where it’s so obvious that you’re not supposed to pay attention to it—it’s really just there so that what is happening in the foreground can happen. I wanted to write a book like that, one that involved sustained engagement with a single consciousness at a kind of intense level. I tried very hard, and I couldn’t do it in a way that anybody who wanted to read my writing or any friends of mine were willing to tolerate. In fact, I couldn’t do it in a way that I could tolerate. I had difficulty following this ideal, and slowly, over the course of years, the world began to seep more into the novel."
That said, the novel's action is still relatively limited, taking place over a few days, with Khrisnan going for a walk, and then taking a train to Kilinochchi (which was the de facto capital of the Tamil Tigers territory) where he attends Rana's funeral, all the while pondering deeply on thoughts provoked by the email and phone call that open the novel as well as on the effects of the civil war (here, the narration can seem rather one-sided, but then this is a first-person narrative).
Although the setting of the novel is wider in practice, as his thoughts extend the narrative scope via some flashbacks to his time with Anjum, and indeed the thoughts he had then. This from a train journey he and Anjum took after they had been separated for some weeks, as they prepare for bed in a sleeper carriage:
"He would think, listening to the Sivapurānam, of the sea in Sri Lanka as it was during the calmer months, specifically of the sea in Trincomalee as he’d seen it once on a warm, late June evening, the water a calm, waveless sheet of glimmering, glistening blue that stretched out silently toward the sky. He would think of how the water unfurled itself so softly across the gentle slope of the beach, how it swept over the smooth, polished sand with such tenderness and how reaching its full extension, just as it was losing all its momentum, it would pause as if taking a breath in a last brief embrace of the earth, clasping the land for as long as it could before being drawn back with a sigh into the sea. He would think of the sea, rolling and unrolling itself softly and placidly across the edges of the earth in this way, coming into contact with the shore so lovingly and gratefully and then, when it was time, withdrawing so gracefully, and he would wonder whether it was possible for him too to be in Anjum’s presence and then return to himself with such grace and equanimity, to attach himself to the thing he loved and then detach himself without each time ripping apart his soul, though the truth, he knew, was that such a stance was only possible at certain moments, at least for him, moments in which he was, for whatever reason, briefly in possession of himself, for it was difficult to be philosophical in the midst of desire, it was difficult to be as removed from the world as religious devotees claimed to be when you were caught up in the bliss of union or in the desperation of being parted."
There is a certain irony here in that Khrisnan is very much being philosophical in the midst of desire - he is hoping to have sex with Anjum in their compartment. And that speaks to one potential issue with the novel - at times the philosophising is somewhat artificial, but then Arudpragasam isn't aiming for realism.
Bernhard's influence is also clear in the long sentences and paragraphs, and the recollected reported speech (there is no dialogue in the novel).
Another differentiating element is how Arudpragasam incorporates various literary works in translation including the Tamil Periya Purānam, the Sanskrit The Cloud Messenger, a Sansrkit version of the Life of the Buddha and some Pali Buddhist women’s poetry.
Overall - a worthwhile inclusion on the Booker longlist and a potential shortlist contender. Recommended
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