ANDREA PLATE WRITES — Robert McDonald, US Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President Obama, struck deep into the hearts of mental healthcare workers at the West Los Angeles Department of Veterans Affairs, albeit unintentionally, when he told them this: The effects of any war can be felt forty years after its conclusion.
In his recently published novel A Passage North (Hogarth/Random House), about the decades-long civil war in his native Sri Lanka (1983-2009), author Anuk Arudpragasam ventures further: On the battlefield of the human psyche and heart, he says, wars never end.
This is the central tenet of A Passage North, a beautifully written, profoundly deep and at times mournful meditation on the twenty-six-year civil war that ravaged Sri Lanka. While the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)- a militant separatist organization known, popularly, as the “Tamil Tigers”-fought to achieve an independent state for the Tamil minority situated in Northeastern Sri Lanka, the majority Sinhalese-dominated government continued its long, brutal campaign of violence and persecution, ultimately winning the war.
Some 100,000 civilians and 50,000 soldiers died along the way, but it is the living who populate this novel. While Arupragdasam’s debut work, 2016’s The Story of a Brief Marriage, revolves around the final years of that war, A Passage North picks up in its aftermath. Four characters tell this chillingly simple tale about the legacy of war: narrator Krishan, a young man of Sri-Lankan Tamil descent who has returned to his native country after years of education, including the pursuit of a PhD, in Delhi, now back “home” working for a Sri Lankan NGO while suffering guilt for not having joined his brethren in arms; ex-girlfriend Anjum, a radical political activist; grandmother Appamma, whose son (Krishan’s father) died in a bank bombing; and her sweet, sad caretaker Rani, who lost two sons in that same war and who, despite a tidal wave of electroshock treatments and medications, continues to drown in sorrowful memories. In precisely descriptive prose, Arudpragasam writes of: “People like Rani who, in the most basic sense, simply couldn’t accept a world without what they’d lost, people who’d lost their ability to participate in the present and were thus compelled to live out the rest of their lives in their memories and imaginations, to build in the minds…[what] they could not build in the world outside.”
Rani, rurally born and raised, lacks the financial, social, emotional and healthcare resources to procure a diagnosis and sophisticated treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yet she suffers as much, if not more, than the men and women who wielded weapons of war.
Stylistically, A Passage North is more prose poem than novel. It is short on plot (boy gets word of elderly caretaker’s death; boy journeys to funeral; boy attends funeral and meditates on the meaning of life and death=end of story). What’s more, this is a novel with no dialogue; written in long, run-on sentences extending, sometimes, to a full page; and with densely packed, profound meditations on some of life’s biggest existential questions about memory, suffering and, of course, war.
One would expect no less of author Arudpragasam. Himself a Tamil with a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, he now divides his time between India and Sri Lanka. Similarly his Krishan, he writes, comes “to long for the kind of life he might lead if he left the inert spaces of academia he’d become sequestered in and went to live and work in a place that actually meant something to him.” And so, sweeping, meditative passages flood this searingly realistic novel: “Forgetting was, of course, something we ourselves chose to do on purpose sometimes, as when after the end of a painful relationship we delete all traces of it that existed in our phones, attempting to excise it from our lives, and in this sense forgetting was not so different from remembering, an important and necessary part of life, just as central as remembering when it came to establishing an identity and orienting ourselves toward the future.”
While Krishan journeys to Rani’s funeral northeast, Arudpragasam paints masterful portraits of the good, the bad and the ugly of Sri Lanka: the lush countryside seen through a train window, revealing “unending landscapes of brush and palmyra, landscapes so flat and dry and unforgivable that it seemed sometimes almost miraculous that so many generations had worked life and sustenance out of the earth;” the Tamil Tigers’ shockingly artful use of cyanide as a means of suicide: “you had to bite into the vial with your teeth so the cracked glass would cut into your tongue, causing the cyanide to enter your bloodstream and kill you immediately;” and the painstaking process of cremation, as the funeral director took “a large, curved, sickle-like knife.. severed the thread tying Rani’s big toes together, separated her feet from each other, then unfolded her hands and separated those too, this too presumably to aid the burning.”
The Story of a Brief Marriage launched Arudpragasam’s career. It has been translated into seven languages, won a South Asian Literature prize and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Now, early reviews suggest that A Passage North propels him into the great global pantheon of literary stars-including some of his home countrymen, like the renowned poet, novelist, essayist and filmmaker Michael Ondaatje.
One need not know the history of Sri Lanka, or its politics, to be deeply moved by A Passage North. It is at once a heartfelt treatise on the wounds of war, a moving rumination on the human condition and a picturesque literary travelogue. Anyone who has loved, lost or grieved will relate to Arudpragasam’s four fictional survivors of war. And all will recognize that universal, timeworn, tragic truth: Wars don’t end when troops leave. Body counts are just a fraction of the sum total costs of war.
Andrea Plate, Asia Media International’s senior editor for writing and editing, holds degrees in English Literature (UC Berkeley), Communications-Journalism (USC) and Social Welfare/Public Policy (UCLA). Her college teaching experience includes Fordham University and Loyola Marymount University. Her recent book, MADNESS: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, about her years as a staff social worker at the U.S. Veterans Administration, was published in Asia and North America by Marshall Cavendish Asia International.