Brief, brutal and exquisite novel set over the course of one day in a man’s life in the refugee camps of northern Sri Lanka
Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, opens by dropping the reader right into the middle of the protagonist’s day. The place is a refugee camp in an unnamed vicinity somewhere deep in the northern region of Sri Lanka. Dinesh, the character through whom this brief, brutal, and exquisite novel is realised, is carrying a six-year-old, who is in the process of losing his right arm, his right leg from the thigh down having been amputated some time before: “Shrapnel had dissolved his hand and forearm into a soft, formless mass, spilling to the ground from some parts, congealing in others, and charred everywhere else.”
We are in the middle of a landscape of wounded, maimed bodies. Dinesh is working – inasmuch as one can have a job in a situation where one’s entire life is on pause, where one knows that one’s life might be over in a second – as a volunteer for the clinic by helping to transport wounded people and corpses. The clinic is run in a kind of assembly-line method, the narrative informs us, and Dinesh sits there and mulls over the mathematics of severed limbs: Whether it was a good thing or bad that [the child] was losing his right arm and not his left, it was hard to tell. Having only a left arm and a left leg would not help the boy’s balance no doubt, but all things considered he might have been worse off with a right arm and a left leg, or a left arm and a right leg, for surely, if you thought about it, those combinations were less evenly weighted.
There is a concern, at the start, that this book might go in the way of much contemporary American fiction by writers nurtured in writing programmes, and delve into irony and whimsy in an attempt to bring ‘humour’ into what is a bleak and desperate situation in order to placate the reader and keep the attention. But it quickly becomes clear as the narrative progresses that this initial rumination on the positives and negatives of how and where limbs are amputated gives insight into Dinesh’s character; someone who says very little but who is always constantly mulling over every single situation that crops up during the course of his day in the camps, before the shelling begins anew at night or in the wee hours of the dawn.
Dinesh is a loner and has no family or friends with him at the camp. Before the day is over, the event that gives the book its title would have taken place, and he would indeed be obliged, for the first time in a very long time, to make space in his life and mind for another person, that of his new wife Ganga. We make some way into the book before it is slowly and carefully revealed to us how he lost his family members, and how he had to navigate the most recent loss of his mother, when the ‘fighting arrived’ in their area.
Arudpragasam is trained in philosophy, and this is evident everywhere in his careful, precise writing. Dinesh ruminates on death with clarity: “He didn’t have conclusive evidence that he would die rather than survive, but perhaps because in such conditions it was easier to believe something than to remain unsure, he felt himself tending towards the former possibility.” What dying entails “depended probably on what living meant, and though he had been alive for some time it was difficult to remember whether it had meant being together with other humans, or being alone with himself above all.”
This continual rift, this fissure between a past life, pre-war, and what is the unknowable present, is continually emphasised by Dinesh often having no recollection of how things were or are meant to be. When he finally eats a proper meal of rice cooked by Ganga, he “began to remember again the rhythm of eating,” having subsisted for so long as he has on handouts from the people at camp, the food consisting of watered down rice, but also because his life now is so far removed from the daily ordinariness of his previous life of daily, regular meals and access to a variety of foods.
It seems wrong, somehow, that some reviewers on Goodreads and elsewhere have pointed out that this novel is too thoughtful and does not teach the readers about the war in Sri Lanka or give detailed descriptions of what one expects to be the correct image of a refugee in a war camp. Writers of fiction are not obliged to teach the reader anything; novels are an act of imagination that ideally should spur the reader to learn more about the social and political contexts in which it’s set on their own. To say that a thoughtful and introspective, reflective tone is an inaccurate description of a person in the midst of war also reveals a limited and perhaps even condescending worldview; one that assumes that people in dire straits somehow continually exist in a state of animal-like barbarity that precludes thinking and feeling in ways that the reader might recognise. There is a need, on the part of the well-adjusted reader reading about the horrors of life from a position of relative comfort, for a certain degree of suffering that they can pass judgment on and deem sufficient; it enables them to give themselves, as readers of harrowing things, a pat on the back.
Arudpragasam has bypassed the usual conventions of writing about war. This book is small in scope, distilled into the course of one day featuring a single and singular point-of-view. This is a novel of integrity, in the sense that Virginia Woolf refers to in A Room of One’s Own: “What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. Yes, one feels, I should never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens.” This book affords its characters, especially the central character through whom we see this slice of war-ravaged world, dignity.
It occurs to me that there is an ethics to this kind of careful, precise writing. Someone who writes like this must value the moral in the process of creation and the responsibility that comes with it. It is not merely to ‘tell a story’. It is to fundamentally disturb the reader. This is the kind of writing that indicates that it has a conscience and an obligation to the character, placing him as it is in a situation that neither the writer nor many of his readers have experienced, but which a vast number of people the world over endure and have endured in varying degrees. Towards the final pages, the writing demonstrates self-awareness that its goal is also futile; that perhaps it has already failed. To me, it is that obligation to the character, the awareness of the limitation of the authorial voice, and the care with which the character’s thoughts are imagined into being and brought to life on the page, that indicates integrity.
There are any number of exquisitely-detailed descriptive passages to focus on, but I don’t want to have to cite them in order to convey this book’s readability. In some cases, there are novels that demand to be read differently, to be read not just in terms of deriving aesthetic or narrative pleasure, but to have one’s consciousness shaken. To quote the words from another similarly powerful novel that is utterly different in tone and content, Martin John by Anakana Schofield, “this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us”.