Noontide Toll, by Romesh Gunesekera, Granta, RRP£12.99, 256 pages
“They say this island of ours is the crossroads of the world,” observes Vasantha, the hired driver and narrator of the interlinked stories in Romesh Gunesekera’s new book, Noontide Toll. “But the more I see of it,” he counters, “and the more people I meet, the more I understand the real truth of the matter. We live at one of those crazy junctions where everyone gets stranded not knowing which way to look, never mind go.” That crazy junction is Sri Lanka today: a developing world country moving through the early stages of its post-conflict history, crowded and traversed by citizens rising and wrecked by its long civil war, and by ambivalently returning emigrants, keen foreign investors and romanticising tourists.
Best known for his early novel, the Booker-shortlisted Reef (1994), for many years now the UK-based Gunesekera has marked out a distinctive place for his writing about Sri Lanka within the larger south Asian literary world. Without resorting to Salman Rushdie’s hot pyrotechnics, Michael Ondaatje’s postmodern cool, or Amitav Ghosh’s historical elaborations, Gunesekera can conjure strange and wonderful images – schoolboys chasing Italian lingerie models around at a cricket ground photo shoot; the sea at night as “a dog’s mouth. The edge was foaming, the water darkening” – in stories that appeal for the way their immediate simplicity sustains deeper meanings.
This is very much the case in Noontide Toll, with Vasantha, our narrator, a quiet and attentive driver given to common man philosophising: “All I know is that with a van, at least, you are never stuck . . . If you are on the move, there is always hope.” We learn little about his past, save that his poor, leftist-minded father was more ideological and less successful in life. As for the present, Vasantha tells us that he moves around too much to have any meaningful connections to people other than his passengers.
While attending to their questions and needs, as well as joining in their conversations, tours and meals as per their fickle wishes, Vasantha tries to make sense of his clients and their varied longings: the ageing Tamil emigrant who returns from London to his boyhood home in Jaffna for the first time since the war began, accompanied by his disaffected son, only to discover that it is now a failing guesthouse run by a civil war survivor; the “megastar” army general who enjoys island-wide regal treatment because of his wartime heroics, but then has a tense reunion with one of his former soldiers, now a bitter amputee, and buffs away his bad conscience by making intimidating small talk with Vasantha as they drive to Colombo.
Indeed, the strongest of these stories attend to the effects of Sri Lanka’s recent and rough past on minor but telling present-day conflicts. In “Scrap”, an anxious government guide, touring with a group of Chinese businessmen and their young translator, tries to focus attention on the impressive landscape around them, which is full of lush green rice paddy and “new lotus monuments of victory”. He also wants to emphasise the investment potential in all the junk metal left over from the fighting, ready to be hauled off in this new peacetime. But the translator looks around at what’s clearly a recent war zone and asks for the Sinhala translation of words such as “minefield” and “security”.
In “Roadkill,” the book’s most impressive story, Vasantha is more than an observer of such tensions: he’s a producer. He makes small talk with a Tamil hotel manager and argues against her insistence that: “ ‘After a war, it is best not to ask about the past.’ That is not true, I thought. After such a calamity, surely one should? How else will we know what really happened?” He accepts her point of view a little while later, when by chance he notices “a thick scar where the skin had crumpled at the base of her neck”.
Compared with such quietly devastating exposures, the book’s weaker stories offer too much preachy and pedagogic formulations about Sri Lanka’s recent history, or string up the messy ends of otherwise well-wrought tales. As much happens in “Humbug”, in which Vasantha is driving for a bookish tourist couple given to sucking hard candies to ward off carsickness. They visit a house where Leonard Woolf wrote fiction during his posting as a British civil servant in colonial-era Ceylon, and afterwards serendipitously meet a local eccentric whose family history features a direct connection to Woolf. The old man’s stories about Woolf in Ceylon beguile the couple, but then his request for a gift goes awkwardly wrong. Gunesekera builds to this moment with a wonderful deftness evident across his many books but then the tourists offer the disappointed old man a hard candy in place of what he really wanted.
This feels too easily melancholic, too neatly packeted up for the complex nature of the people and place Gunesekera reveals through the eyes and words of Vasantha, a driver given to much contemplation while working one of our world’s crazier junctions.
Randy Boyagoda’s ‘Beggar’s Feast’ is published by Viking (UK) and Pintail (US)
Illustration by Juliana Wang