All post-colonial societies try to reclaim home turf from a version of history imposed by the colonizers who, in order to justify their activities, usually present the colonized as uncouth people in need of enforced enlightenment. Stories about home, migration, longing for Arcadia abound. Old ways become the material of legends. Ancient cities develop new genealogies. Houses are turned into the centre of the universal experience of longing to overcome the paralyzing emotion of non-belonging in one's own homeland, and, by extension, of belonging nowhere.
Longing is a powerful storyteller's ally. (Consider, for example, Joyce's Ulysses.) The post-colonial predicament could best be summarized in this slightly amended Caesarian saying: came, saw, conquered, bred misery, left in a hurry. And it is exactly at that moment in the history of his homeland that Romesh Gunesekera, Ceylonese by birth and a Londoner by residence, begins The Sandglass, his latest novel about apparently reclaimed land, a presumably regained home, a definitely insoluble feud, and all-encompassing death.
Gunesekera attempts to render the emotions accompanying the birth of an independent state, to present the awakening of indigenous energies aimed at transforming the inherited post-colonial mess, and, last but not least, to enumerate the causes of the most intimate transformation experienced by individuals. To that end, he relies on a multi-perspectival narrative having faintly mythological overtones, and weaves it around the never fully fathomed personalities of the Mother and the Father. Consequently, two core narratives unfold in reciprocal causation: that of the Mother (one of those warm, never hurried yarn-weavers who infects the listeners with unexplained yearning for the past), related by a family friend; and that of the Father (a cold, calculating, never fully realized silhouette), presented by the son. In the centre, like an axis on which the two narratives gyrate, is a mystery of violent death and sudden departure from Arcadia-the house never transformed into a home by its inhabitants. And although The Sandglass has two storytellers with two opposing viewpoints, there are three, not two, centres of gravity: the Mother, the Father, and Death.
Now that both the Mother and Father are gone and Death apparently reigns, the narrative becomes the only means of deciphering the meaning of the past and its lesson for the present. To develop his novel, Gunesekera uses a notion of time contained in the sandglass of the characters' lives. It moves out of its upper container continually: "She [the Mother] said it as though she somehow knew that she no longer had time, that suddenly time was no longer on her side. She had memory but no time. It made no sense to me then. Only now am I beginning to understand how time might run out. Will run out for all of us."
The tragedy lies in the fact that time often disappears without leaving any trace, blown by Death into nothingness. Rarely, very rarely, is a narrative found within its grainy substance.
The friend and the son, Prins, start their narratives from two opposing perspectives: the friend as a witness who is still in possession of his own time and who decides to use it in order to narrate someone else's memories; the son who increasingly identifies with his father, searches memory and emotions, hoping to understand what motivated him.
"`And your mother? What about your mother?' Pearl was the one who had just died after all. Jason had died long ago and, it seemed to me, in a different world altogether.
Prins stared down. `I am not sure I understand my own feelings. I have been thinking about her and him. How it could have turned out so differently if he had lived. For a long time I've cut out, you know. Blown and flown. I was trying to understand something about him first. And she always seemed to me to be somehow in the way, you know, like a screen. I felt I had to get it all in another way, from another direction.' He sighed. `Then, recently I began to see it was totally impossible. I was sort of making my way back when...'"
If the confrontation, re-evaluation, and contrasting of the two stories drive the narrative, what does the hesitant "when" hint at at the end of this quote?
Jason, the Father, is a self-made businessman, clever and capable, a skillful rider on the wave of the post-colonial reclaiming of Ceylonian business ventures, always on the lookout for fresh opportunities. His chief opponent, Esra, is as powerful as he is, as unscrupulous in his dealings as he is corrupted and corrupting. Jason has the misfortune of crossing Esra's path twice: in his private realm by purchasing a house adjoining Esra's estate and in an aborted business enterprise. Since Esra would not tolerate enemies, "Jason Ducal had died on March 22, 1956 at eight fifteen in the evening. He was found on the floor of his office with a bullet in his head, and a smashed watch on his wrist."
This death by an assassin's bullet brings the dream about Arcadia to a screeching halt, makes the Mother leave for London, scatters the family, and provides an impetus for the narrative. Years later, Prins falls in love with Esra's granddaughter, joins his father's murderers in a business venture, rejects the truth about his family's past, and vanishes without a trace.
Does death end every dream, every enterprise, every endeavour? Gunesekera seems obsessed with death. He describes so many versions of it: death by assassin's bullet, death by lack of will to go on, death at birth, death by exhaustion. There is even death by design, as Prins seems to believe that he is destined to die having reached his father's age, to close the Ducal century, the century of the self-made man-creative in their business endeavours, impotent in their ability to create a life in which they are content. But Gunesekera tries to strike a balance by intercepting all present, past or forthcoming deaths with the same sentiment: "Over the years Ravi seemed to have developed a plan to completely erase his life from the face of earth. But he had not counted on Naomi and me, and on Prins coming back. He had not anticipated our needs. The hole that Pearl would leave. The hunger for history. The resilience of a story. Even one of disappearance."
Any reader of The Sandglass who associates Death with Afterlife either by custom or inertia or genuine belief will not fail to notice a total and deliberate absence of any transrational extension to the characters' lives. Yes, life is examined from many perspectives in The Sandglass, but the desire to explore any possible aftermaths to life is simply not there. And why?
In one of the most lyrical parts of the novel, Gunesekera has his narrator rewrite the representational imagery of Heaven:
"Outside, the silence of freshly fallen snow pressed against the window panes; there was no traffic to be heard on the road. This was silence like the dream of heaven. I began to realize how wrong all those composers were who heaped scales upon scales in their vain attempts to capture the grandeur of heaven: what they really needed to do was to stop. To hold their breath and try to imagine a stilled heart and the peace that can only come from the absence of conflict, of abrasion, of friction, of sound itself. No wonder we never hear the angels on our shoulders: they do not speak. They melt at the prospect of sound, perhaps even prayer. Heaven is not music: heaven, if anything, must be silence. The stillness of the centre, the eye of a storm whirling across the universe. An unveiling mind.
When our breath is finally released tongueless... there can only be silence."
It may be this experience of terror emanating from the silent centre that makes Romesh Gunesekera write. We shall leave it to the reader of The Sandglass to decide whether Gunesekera writes to stop time for the present in order to dig his hands in sand and feel life slip through his fingers, or whether the writer is trying to affirm that storytelling is a form of afterlife, our final defence against silence.
Roman Sabo is a Vancouver poet, essayist, and translator.