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For a genre that is frequently dismissed as dead, travel writing is proving a remarkably stubborn
survivor. If anything, this year’s Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award, won by Horatio Clare with Down to the Sea in Ships, a very British tale of the container-shipping trade, demonstrated how the genre remains in remarkably good health, shrugging off its perennial obituaries with great élan. Bristling with literary talent, the shortlist took in Jens Mühling on Russia, Elizabeth Pisani on
Indonesia, a homage to Paddy Leigh Fermor by Nick Hunt, Helena Attlee on Italy and Philip Marsden on Cornwall.

With John Gimlette, a previous winner of the same award for Wild Coast, a high-spirited exploration of South America, the reader in search of a thoughtful adventure is in good hands. A London-based lawyer when he is not on the road, Gimlette brings a brisk barrister-like inquisition to proceedings, allied with amiable good humour and a searching interest in the history of peoples and places. This bodes well for a small country that is much less well known than its giant neighbour to the northwest.

Beginning his journey a short bus ride from his home in southwest London, Gimlette wryly notes that the 8,000-strong British Tamil community in Tooting, all from the town of Velvettithurai, even has its own ‘internal crime wave’, courtesy of young toughs like ‘the Tamil Posse’ and ‘the Jaffna Boys’. The Tamils can be a disputatious lot and made an unlikely impression in north Norfolk in 2001, running amok with multiple stabbings on Wells beach after a pilgrimage to Walsingham went wrong.

Gimlette has assembled a splendidly eclectic cast of characters to
illuminate this complicated nation, a tapestry of race, religion and caste still bearing the colonial imprint of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. There are whiskery generals,
whisky-soaked politicians, Test cricketers, slum-dwellers, a professor of elephants, a surgeon specialising in landmine injuries, the Vedda forest-dwellers, the last of the British tea-planters, a London-based academic who considers his
countrymen ‘Brown Brits’, a Tamil Tiger and the occasional elephant. Buddhist monks stalk the narrative alongside Tamil Tigers, urban Muslims and one or two tweedy Englishmen, ghosts of the 150-year British rule that ended in 1948.

From time to time there are shades of Norman Lewis. Both writers have a very British delight in the absurd, offset by empathy with the people they are travelling among and writing about. ‘Everyone in Colombo was either in business, in hock, in flagrante or in love,’ Gimlette writes, in an echo of Lewis on wartime Naples or post-war Saigon. ‘What other city spends so much time punishing its lovers, with so little success. There was a hint of anarchy everywhere.’

An emerald paradise on the outside, Sri Lanka has a darker interior with high levels of violence and a prevalence of suicide, frequently an expression of outrage or revenge. Perhaps it was the decision by the magnificently named Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, Ceylon’s fourth prime minister, to make Sinhala the official language in the 1950s, a move that turned the Tamils into virtual foreigners in their own country, that planted the seeds of internecine conflict and what would turn out to be Asia’s longest civil war, from 1983 to 2009. Sri Lanka introduced the world to suicide bombers in the 1990s, long before their deluded Muslim counterparts in the Middle East started blowing themselves up.

Intrepid to the last, Gimlette wanders among mountains and jungles, drawing his journey to a close among the wreckage of the civil war in the north of the country, following the conflict to its final bloody showdown at
Vellamullivaikkal.

Rich in humour, full of insight and humanity, Elephant Complex is a very fine tribute to this enigmatic island nation.

The Spectator

Title: Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka
Author: John Gimlett
Publisher:  Knopf, 2016
Pages: 432