tiistai 14. kesäkuuta 2016

Romesh Gunesekara: Noontide Toll

They say this island of ours is the crossroads of the world. A lot of blah-blah about trade routes, sea lanes, strategic points, et cetera. But the more I see of it in this business, and the more people I meet, the more I understand the real truth of the matter. We live at one of those crazy junctions where everyone gets stranded not knowing which way to look, never mind go. All nodding like sleepyheads unable to ever completely wake up.

Romesh Gunesekara's Noontide Toll was one of the Sri Lanka -related books that I read before and during a trip to the island. This novel was certainly a more bleak, sad and serious portrayal of the land than some of the others.

Noontide Toll is a collection of short stories narrated by Vasantha, a van driver hired to drive aid workers, returning exiles, renovation constructors, tourists and others around Sri Lanka. Traces of the fairly recent civil war and the devastating tsunami are still present everywhere, and Vasantha's view of the world and its people is not only perceptive and critical, but also somewhat cynical and pessimistic.

Vasantha has retired from his desk job at the age of 55, and a year after that he starts his minibus business, because, as he explains, it makes me feel young. His passengers include elderly, rich American and European tourists who are travelling around Asia on a tight budget. Vasantha sums up his opinion of this by stating that sometimes I think the way the world is organised is a joke.

All of the people that Vasatha drives around are influenced and motivated by the past, by memories, in one way or another. People who have fled the war or gone to seek a better life in Europe or America return to look for their roots and their history. Vasantha himself does not have a sentimental view of the past: A driver's job is to stay in control behind the wheel and that is all. The past is what you leave as you go. There is nothing more to it. He feels that people who come searching for their roots are like adults looking for their childhood: it is a useless quest, because childhood is long gone and irretrievable.

Vasantha is not alone in his desire to forget the past and focus on the future. Many locals featured in the novel do not wish to remember the war. They become used to seeing its consequences around them and mostly ignore them: people with missing limbs, destroyed houses and towns, forgotten fields...

The first time you see a toppled water tower or a building with its sides ripped off, it is undeniably a shock. This was the war, you think. But then soon after that a pile of debris, a flattened home or a broken man just becomes the surroundings. It is simply what is there. What happens. Like a soldier whacking a shuttlecock or a padre sucking a mango. You don't look twice.

Sri Lanka, March 2016
This living in denial is both an essential survival mechanism as well as a form of national amnesia. Gunesekara writes beautifully about the difference between not remembering something and forgetting it intentionally:

There are things we don't speak of, things we not only don't remember but carefully forget, places we do not stray into, memories we bury or reshape. That is the way we all live nowadays: driving along a road between hallucination and amnesia.

A sombre, meditative collection of stories about the tensions between the past and the future in post-war Sri Lanka.

Romesh Gunesekara: Noontide Toll. Granta. 2014. 237 pages.

The Guardian: "Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekara review - poetic and full of wit"
Wikipedia: Romesh Gunesekara

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