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Sunday, 22 July 2012





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Reviving Henry Jayasena's literary legacy

Lazarus has come forth. Vijita Fernando has revived Henry Jayasena. As I held the English translation of Lazarus in my hand, I tried to imagine how happy Henry Jayasena would have been, if he had been able to hold this book, to leaf through it, with Manel beside him.

How wonderful it would have been if the translation had been published during his lifetime. At least, he had the opportunity to read a first draft of the manuscript. At his last book launch he wept, commenting that it could be his last such event. It will never be the last, as Lazarus was launched last week. He will be with us at many more book launches, when his other books are reprinted, and are translated into English. They are books which would always have a universal appeal.

Had the publisher not mentioned that it was a translation, the readers familiar with Henry Jayasena's writings in English, such as 'Bala Gilano', and his column in the Daily News, could have easily been fooled into believing this was Jayasena's own work. That is the skill of the translator, who reigns as the doyen of English translations in Sri Lanka.

I read the English version with the same interest and enthusiasm as I had read the Sinhala novel, so many years ago. Vijita Fernando's work also supports our conviction that her English translation brings out faithfully, what Henry Jayasena has meant to convey.

Emotive force

It is confirmed by Henry Jayasena himself, as mentioned in the preface by Dr. Lakshmi de Silva, another most respected translator, "He was in absolute transports of delight because he felt the English version had all the rapidity, the emotive force and the grounding of maturity that gave its especial flavour to the bildungsroman of a strong minded individual who undergoes the experience of growing to manhood in Colonial Ceylon in the early 20th Century and witnesses the counter-play of Buddhism as an expression of cultural identity against the aims of the missionaries and the weight of British Imperialism."

About the original work by Jayasena, Dr. Lakshmi de Silva says it all in one word, 'bildungsroman', a term used to describe Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister', and Dicken's 'Great Expectations.

Lazarus is probably the only Sinhala novel to have been written around the tea plantations in Sri Lanka, and now the English version has been made available for the readers not only in Sri Lanka but in England too, for them to see our tea estates and their own country before and during the World War I, through the eyes of a Sri Lankan.

It was a refreshing contrast to Ondaatji's 'Cats Table' to read the description of an ocean voyage by a Lankan Buddhist, who could contemplate the mighty ocean and eternity, thinking that "Sansara is deeper than this mighty ocean; broader, infinite. How apt is the Buddha's comparison of Sansara to the ocean? If one could truly grasp even a tiny amount of his doctrine, no being will ever be alone in this ocean".

Cultural values

Lazarus in Sinhala reads like a Piyadasa Sirisena novel, but more mature, more developed, written in smoother flow of our language one hundred years after Sirisena. This novel too is in a way a reaction to the works of literary compradors, who still go down on their knees to colonial and post colonial western masters, to remind our readers of our own cultural values. This is one more reason for the need of this English translation.

That is why Lazarus says in the opening pages, "Now I am Rodrigo. Don Lazarus Rodrigo. These are names easy on their tongues. All right. Think.

If I say my name is Wijesiriwardena, can they even pronounce such a pure Sinhala name?" Neither Henry Jayasena, nor the protagonist, tells us why he was named Lazarus. "Couldn't that conceited man find a good Sinhala name for me? Wijesiriwardena or Lazarus Palihakkara ... or Lazarus Kulasekara?". Lazarus is only concerned about his father's surname.

He had nothing against his first name Lazarus. Did Jayasena pick the name Lazarus for the title from Lazarus of Bethany, from the Gospel of St. John, or the poor man mentioned in St. Luke? Or was he a character from Henry Jayasena's own past? He would not have used a title or as the name of his protagonist such a name which is not very familiar to the Sinhala reader, without a special reason. Lazarus is not an uncommon name in the west.

There was coincidentally the Canadian playwright Henry Lazarus, and also American poet Emma Lazarus, and German philosopher Moritz Lazarus. But why this name was used, doest not hamper the reading or enjoying Henry Jayasena's novel or its translation.


Lazarus was published by Henry Jayasena 13 years ago, in 1999. We saw him first through his 'Janelaya', and then read him in 'Minisun Vu Daruwo' in 1965. Very few among us know him well enough. For many, Henry Jayasena means Sudu Seeya in the teledrama, or as Azdak in Hunu Wataya, but he was also a great writer, who was not appreciated or who received the recognition and respect due to him. He knew the mind of the child, as we saw in 'Tawat Udasenak', of the young office workers of the early sixties in Janelaya. He could go back to the beginning of the 20th century in Lazarus. He also had the strength to face all obstacles and to fight them, as he tells us in 'Bala Gilano'.

English translation

His son Sudaraka has taken the first step in reviving Henry Jayasena, by coming out with the translation of Lazarus, and the collection of songs for children 'Sudu Seeyage Kavi Sindu'. We look forward to seeing all writings of Henry Jayasena in print, both in the original and in English translation, because he belongs to all of us, even in the 21st century.

It is time to get to know Henry Jayasena, not just as a dramatist, an actor and a writer and a poet, but more as a human being who loved and understood his fellow men, their strengths and weaknesses. It is time for us to re-read all his published works, his novels, biographical sketches, his plays and the children's books.

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