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Sunday, 25 September 2011





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Government Gazette

A novel that critiques our times

Ranga Chandrarathne's English translation of Agni Chakra by popular Sinhala novelist Kathleen Jayawardena, Circles of Fire can be applauded for many reasons. The novel itself as a work which carries many themes bound with the present socio-cultural milieu can be viewed for the notable critiques it makes of the times we live in, and as an English translation it serves the larger scheme of projecting the image of contemporary Sri Lankan literature in the world sphere. As translations, works of fiction transpire as texts that have a bi-faceted nature when encountered by a reader of a culture not of the context of the work. The language in which it speaks to the reader would be a first or a secondary language in which the reader may be proficient in, yet the socio-cultural context may be a world that is distant to the one known and experienced by the reader.

Translator: Ranga Chandrarathne
Publisher: Samaranayake Publishers

This is in one way the beauty of national literatures as it blends into the larger firmament of world literature, bridging the experiences of people across oceans and national borders through the medium of literature. Although many Sinhalese monolingual Sri Lankans would be familiar with the writings of Alexander Pushkin and Maxim Gorky through Sinhalese translations, how many in Russian today would be familiar with the works of Sri Lanka writers? The same question could be asked if looked at how many would have read Flaubert and Maupassant as Sinhalese translations, and in turn how many in France would know of our local writers? There is a need for more and more translations of Sri Lankan works to reach overseas readerships through the world's leading international languages. In this sense Kathleen's novel has been brought to the doors that can open the pathway for it to find new readers, appreciations and criticisms from outside our own socio-cultural setting. Thus, a translation that keeps a healthy proximity of faithfulness to the original text provides much cultural insight about the milieu in which it is placed, to the reader beyond our shores. Projects to translate works of Sri Lankan writers into English thereby render a service in the furtherance of our local literature's identity internationally.

The central role of the novel

The protagonist of the novel Prof. Saddhamangala Sirinivasa is a tragic figure who presents the mould of an anti-hero. Of course this is telling of a very significant facet of realism, that there are no labeled heroes and villains in the world we inhabit and marked lines of black and white, but that much in reality is grey. The fact that the protagonist who is the narrator of the novel comes from disadvantaged layers in society and rises to positions of eminence in the public eye can be admired if one were to disregard the means as not counting when it is the end(s) that solely matter. The character of Sirinivasa is riddled with complexities that embattle persons whose rise up the social ladder is marked with crises relating to social stigmas and discriminations.

The aspects of class and caste are prominent problem areas in contemporary postcolonial society of Sri Lanka and perhaps to certain extents in other South Asian countries as well.

These are two themes that come out through the course of the narrative when the anxieties of Sirinivasa unfold to the reader. Despite the heights of eminence he achieves in the folds of academia this 'baggage' persists as a weighty backlash within him and works injuriously in shaping his outlooks. Perhaps through this facet of the novel the protagonist's voice is to present justifications to his ways to climb higher, which can be reproached at times for a lack of ethicalness.

In such arguments one may find the conscience of the individual being internally pitted against the norms of society and its gamut of values. From the very opening of the novel, which presents his perspective on marriage, Sirinivasa's conceptions have a very impersonal attitude towards the sentimental. By calling marriage as being to him simply "a contract in life" Sirinivasa's outlooks on persons, society and life seem to take shape as being bound to what matters in light of the public.


Adulterous relationships between university lecturers and students are not something that is unheard of today. The protagonist finds himself becoming attracted to one of his female students named Amritha and evokes the wrath of her boyfriend Kanchana. And ironically as almost like a boomerang effect an illicit affair develops between Kanchana and Sirinivasa's wife Shantha. These developments in the storyline may come out as a theme related to Buddhist teachings and be expositional of karmic factors that affect all doings of humans.

The infidelity, and the gradual obsession with Amritha which makes Sirinivasa immerse deeper into lies and deceptions finally results in sealing his demise. Is there a message in the moral perspective which rings out strongly in this storyline? Perhaps the protagonist himself in the many internal battles he faces is trying to figure that out himself.

But quite apart from the moral dimension involved in understanding the story of Sirinivasa, there is also the intensely psychological layering involved in the sexual desires of the protagonist.

The unfulfilled desires in his conjugal life and the questionability of the foundation of his marriage may be areas by which the reader may access the mindset of the protagonist when he seeks justifications for his indiscretions and becomes enamoured with his student Amritha.

Between bookishness and wisdom

Does Sirivivasa's lines of thinking in respect of viewing and deciphering the world through the words of learned men present the typical academic entrenched in theories that at times scarce represent the prevailing realities of a person's world? Throughout the narrative one encounters a multitude of theoretical vistas being discussed and being made the tools to approach a particular problem.

From the words of French philosopher Jacques Lacan to the philosophically embedded literary writings of D. H. Lawrence the protagonist deals with numerous theoretical bases of intellectuals, and presents a mindset that either finds some momentary escape or hopes to find the answers to his questions by dwelling into the thoughts of great thinkers.

How practical are these ways of hoping to find answers and solutions to mundane issues in writings of great theoreticians? Certainly this is a contentious argument with merits and demerits that can be weighed out in different ways, yet what seems noteworthy in understanding the story of Sirinivasa is how he comes out as a very bookish character that may not necessarily be wise.

What 'wisdom' does the protagonist display when confronted with the numerous problems that develop along his path to become exalted as an academic, may be a matter that cannot be effectively dealt with merely by the 'book learning' he possesses. Perhaps the authoress intended to offer some food for thought along this strain in Sirinivasa's character; a critique of 'intellectuality'? What should book learning serve in contemporary society?

And further could the authoress through the character of Sirinivasa be raising another pressing question -what practical purposes should academia serve in the larger picture of society? Through the character of Sirinivasa I feel Circles of Fire brings out a contentious debate between intellectuality and wisdom.

Craving for upward mobility

International capitalism has taken speedier means of spreading its reaches throughout the world with the advent of the digital age. Postcolonial societies in transitions from traditionalism to westernized ways of living encounter many dilemmas. The identity of the individual as well as the community faces many crises.

The character of Sirinivasa portrays a key aspect that creates much turbulence within the individual in contemporary society that has been affected by capitalism and western modernity which is upward mobility in society. With pride of place being given to material wealth and position traditional schemes of morals and values face a problem of what validity it has in the face of overwhelming changes in attitudes of people. For persons who are of disadvantaged backgrounds modernism has presented a twofold scenario.

There is opportunity for upward mobility that traditional society did not allow, yet the climb may be one that brings many challenges that require certain adaptations, and one such would be the outward, exterior identity of the individual. Sirinivasa is a person who subscribes to hypocrisies of concealment of his personal past to present a more 'acceptable' façade. These adaptations one may assume are done on the one hand to avoid derision by the upper layers of society. Yet what costs must one incur in the course of such upward mobility? The dilemmas of Sirinivasa are largely due to his unwillingness to accept himself for who he is in terms of his roots. This core issue is explored for its psychological impacts in the novel, thus rendering it as a psychological investigation of the individual within the scenario of upward mobility and the craving for upward mobility at practically any cost, even losing sense of one's beginnings.

A critique of the contemporary individual and society

What merits Circles of Fire as a contemporary critique of our times is that to begin with it is a realist novel which directly confronts issues of ethicality as viewed by society and individual morality in the context of present trends in society driven by materialist consumerism and craving for eminence. Within the prime framework being the first person narrative mode, the reader is brought to encounter the justifications the mind of Sirinivasa would devise for a sense of vindication from what is conventionally seen as violating accepted codes of morals.

Here lies the battleground between the collective views of society and the beliefs of the individual -his conscience. The rise of individualism through capitalistically developing society and the growth of 'wants' beyond the needs come out very strongly in this work of fiction which may present startling revelations of present society. Thus through the innerness of an individual Circles of Fire in a way mirrors the ways I which we have developed as a society.

Brilliantly sophisticated piece of writing

'Hola El Che' is a Short Story by Dilshan Boange. It is set in Sri Lanka and begins with a group of teenagers in an ordinary setting who have a puzzling encounter with a foreign journalist. The young people are intrigued by the stranger, since he is of 'non-white', European appearance.

They later understand that both he (Aureliano Segundo) and Remedios the Beauty have stepped straight out of the pages of 'One Hundred of Solitude'.

Hola El Che!
Publisher : Samaranayake Publishers

'Hola El Che' is a brilliantly sophisticated piece of writing since it uses intertextuality and magical realism to add to and advance the story. Intertextuality refers to the way in which texts gain meaning through their referencing or evocation of other texts.

The technique is often described as the process of 'telling a story within a story'. It is effectively the shaping of texts' meanings by other texts. It can include an author's borrowing and transformation of a prior text or to a reader's referencing of one text in reading another. The author not only references ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' but weaves the characters into his own story.


The term "intertextuality" has, itself, been borrowed and transformed many times since it was coined by poststructuralist Julia Kristeva in 1966. As critic William Irwin says, the term "has come to have almost as many meanings as users, from those faithful to Kristeva's original vision to those who simply use it as a stylish way of talking about allusion and influence"

One of the best examples I can think of to describe this phenomena is in Manual Puig's 'The Kiss of the Spiderwoman', which is an excellent example of a post-structuralist novel. Puig uses intertextuality to introduce the political theme of authority and power which is intrinsic to the novel. Molina's way of telling film narratives are authoritarian and repressive as they force their own point of view upon the reader.

The conversations that the characters engage in, when not focused on the moment at hand are focused on films that Molina has seen, which act as a form of escape from their environment. There is therefore a main plot with five subplots. These subplots are films presented as mini stories (in the form of films) which comprise much of the novel.

Another example of inter-textuality in Latin American literature is Isabel Allende's 'The House of the Spirtis', in which uses inter-textuality in quite a different way. Her story essentially follows the same lines as Garcia Marquez's ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'', since it chronicles the life of several generations of the same family.

Family saga

In both novels, Latin American history is explored through the medium of a lengthy family saga and many parallels can be drawn between characters in both novels. What is different is that 'The House of the Spirits' refers unequivocally to a specific reality whereas ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' offers allegorical glimpses of reality from the refuge of patent unreality.

Dilshan Boange uses a rather more similar technique to Manual Puig's 'The Kiss of the Spider Woman'. In 'Hola El Che' the Latin American characters belong to Macondo, the city which features in ''One Hundred Years of Solitude''. Remedios the Beauty is an excellent example of a character that has been transported from ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' to ''Hola El Che''. She was the daughter of Santa Sofía de la Piedad and Arcadio, and becomes the most beautiful woman in the world, and desire for her drives men to their deaths. Remedios is childlike until one day, when she floats to heaven, leaving both Macondo and the novel.However, although still rather ethereal, she seems to have evolved in this new novel. Here is a quote about her from ''One Hundred Years of Solitude''

"Actually, Remedios the Beauty was not a creature of this world.

Until she was well along in puberty Santa Sofia de la Piedad had to bathe and dress her, and even when she could take care of herself it was necessary to keep an eye on her so that she would not paint little animals on the walls with a stick daubed in her own excrement. She reached twenty without knowing how to read or write, unable to use the silver at the table, wandering naked through the house because her nature rejected all manner of convention.

One day, as she began to bathe herself, a stranger lifted a tile from the roof and was breathless at the tremendous spectacle of her nudity. She saw his desolate eyes through the broken tiles and had no reaction of shame but rather one of alarm"

Thankfully in 'Hola El Che', Remedios does not wander naked anywhere around Sri Lanka! Neither does she appear to have any of the same needs for high maintenance care as in the original. The characters from Macondo seem to have evolved from being rather one or two dimensional stereotypes, to multidimensional people in this novel.


Aureliano Segundo who also appears in 'Hola El Che' was the son of Arcadio and Santa Sofía de la Piedad. He was immense, boisterous, impulsive, and hedonistic.

Although he loves the concubine Petra Cotes, he is married to the cold beauty Fernanda del Carpio. In Dilshan's novel, it is Aureliano Segundo who tells the fascinated teenagers all about Macondo.

The Founding patriarch of the City of Macondo, José Arcadio Buendía believes that this city, surrounded by water exists and so whilst on a journey with his wife to find a better life, he invents Mocondo according to his perceptions.

Ideological transfiguration ensured that Macondo and the Buendías were always alienated and estranged from their own history, not only victims of the harsh reality of dependence and underdevelopment but also of the ideological illusions that haunt and reinforce such social conditions.

The clear inference is that much of modern Latin American society is alienated from its cultural and ethnic roots. The fate of Macondo is also both doomed and predetermined by its very existence.

Fatalism is a metaphor for the particular part that ideology has played in maintaining historical dependence. It locks the interpretation of Latin American history into certain patterns that deny alternative possibilities.The narrative seems to confirm fatalism in order to illustrate the feeling of entrapment that ideology can create.


I wonder if by using this type of inter-texuality the author of 'Hola El Che' is suggesting that the history and culture of Sri Lanka has elements in common with Latin America. It is after all, a post-Colonial society. Having said that, the majority of Sri Lankans do not seem to be alienated from their cultural and ethnic roots.

Neither does it seems that Sri Lanka is dogged by the same sense of remaining dependent. These elements appears to be key differences between the two societies, yet not one that I can speak of with any authority. I would like to hear a debate on the subject between Sri Lankan critics. The other interesting technique which Dishan uses in 'Hola El Che' is Magical Realism. This is a literary genre in which magical features and storylines appear and are accepted as everyday reality. Magical realist stories often have a dream-like landscape and call on folk-lore and myth to question the true nature of reality. Time may be manipulated to appear cyclically or in reverse, rather than in the more usual linear way. It is often unclear whether the reader is intended to view the magical or everyday elements as the more 'real'. Magical realism was coined by Franz Roh in his article Magischer Realismus ("Magic Realism"), describing the works shown at the event.

Magical realism

The term is now more often applied to a literary genre which appeared much later. This "magical realism" came to prominence in the 1960s in Latin America and ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' is often described as the seminal magical realist story. In the original Spanish the term was "Lo real maravilloso", which translates as "the marvelous real", gives a good impression of the nature of the style.

Magical realism in literature also has links to Science Fiction and Fantasy and the works of the English romantic poets.

Magical realist writers write the ordinary as miraculous and the miraculous as ordinary.

The ice that gypsies bring to the tropical village of Macondo in 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' is described with awe. How can such a substance exist? It is so awesomely beautiful that characters find it difficult to account for or describe. But it's not just novelties such as a first encounter with ice that merit such description. The natural world comes in for similar attention.

The miraculous, on the other hand, is described with a precision that fits it into the ordinariness of daily life. For example one of the characters in 'Hola El Che' has an enormous stomach which miraculously disappears in full view of the young Sri Lankans. However the event is presented almost as though it should not be a surprise. The very presence of Remedios and Aureliano Segundo from the fictitious Macondo in modern Sri Lanka is also miraculous and should be impossible. Yet this miraculous event is presented as mundane.

I would suggest that the use of Magical Realism is often used in literature as a back-lash against Colonialism. Latin America and Sri Lanka both had European laws, rules, logic and discourses imposed upon them. When this happens, writers often begin subverting "scientific" and "logical" literature by letting minor voices compete with the major ones. These voices can be folklore, myths or urban legends.

In the case of Latin America, these societies have always been fractured by wars, conflicts, changing frontiers, political uncertainities and by a multitude of religious and spiritual beliefs. This is also true of Sri Lanka, yet only to a certain extent and not quite in the same way as Latin America.

There Magical Realism has always been a way to grasp more adequately the complexity of South American oppositions, while using local discourses. 'Hola El Che' uses the Latin American references within a local Sri Lankan context. Perhaps the text is pointing towards Latin American history as an example of a society which has moved on very successfully from its colonial roots and established an identity for itself.

However, putting all that aside, 'Hola El Che' makes for an enjoyable and entertaining read. It is particularly intriguing for those readers who are familiar with Garcia-Marquez's ''One Hundred Years of Solitude''.

The writer has a Master's Degree in Hispanic and European Studies from Aberdeen University, Scotland. She also writes for The Guardian (UK).

New arrivals

Eight translations

For literary month Kumara Siriwardhana has translated eight books for the literary month. Kanthapura, and Nadi Sutra are published by Kinkini Creations. Imamge Diyaniya and Vishnuge Maranaya are published by Fast Publishers. Sinha Minisa is a Dayawansa Jayakody publication. Udavuvata William, Iti Kumaraya saha William and William Saha Gini Keli are Mal Piyali publications.


Sanskruthi, a publication by Sanskruthi Prakashakayo has articles on the late Martin Wickremasinghe and Munidasa Cumaratunga, a poem on upcountry dance, Lionel Wendt's tradition of literature and arts, a stage drama, urban agriculture as well as an article on the P. Weerasinghe Research Library.

The articles on Wickremasinghe and Cumaratunga have been written by Sunil Wijesiriwardena while the stage drama Mage Kalaye Weerayek was contributed by Sudath Abeysiriwardena. The article on the introduction to urban agriculture has been written by Tilak T. Ranasinghe.

The poem on upcountry dance is written by Rabindranath Tagore. Ariyawansa Ranaweera gives an overview of the dance as appreciated by Tagore himself.

Jinadasa Danansuriya's article on the Lionel Wendt tradition of literature and arts discusses the cultural life of Lionel Wendt in depth.

The article on the P. Weerasinghe Research Library written by Sriyani Mathugamaratnayaka.


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