Beggar’s Feast, by Randy Boyagoda, Penguin, RRP£8.99 / Pintail RRP$16.99, 336 pages
Beggar’s Feast begins with a ritual of crow scaring. A poor boy, seven years old in the dust of a Ceylonese village, is set by his father to run at crows: if he scares them off, he will be awarded a sweet. The crows aren’t impressed, and the sweet goes elsewhere – with all the humiliation and disappointment that implies. The same happens on the boy’s eighth and ninth birthdays. On his tenth birthday, “he had decided that he wouldn’t chase this bird into the air. He would stomp it into the ground.” The crow flees, and in his triumph “the boy almost forgot how he had wanted to grind his heel into that bird until its blue-black wings snapped”. Almost. A hard lesson, Randy Boyagoda suggests, is learned.
Running from the last year of the 19th century to the last year of the 20th, Boyagoda’s second novel is the story of how that low-born boy, who comes to call himself Sam Kandy, makes his way in the world by sheer effort of will. To defy what Boyagoda calls “the fate-roped world” or the “jurying stars” requires a lifetime of running at crows: “one hundred years of steel and pride, fever and speed”.
The story is far from comic but Boyagoda’s plotting is essentially picaresque. Left at the age of 10 on the doorstep of a monastery, Sam absconds in short order – leaving the chief monk with the parting gift of a good hard kick in the balls. He flees to the big city, runs scams, wheels and deals, learns from a succession of mentors and betrays them one by one to move on to the next thing. He’s the sort of social climber who uses spiked boots and crampons.
When he returns to the village he does so as a big-city big-shot with a home-made name and a powerful car who disdains chewing betel in favour of newfangled cigarettes. He courts, and marries, the local nobleman’s daughter. Still, he’s constantly absent – his children later experience him “as engine noise and parcel string, as a day’s flash of love and pinstripes”. But even as he fights the circumstances of his birth, the parochialism of his ambition makes it impossible to escape: it is, finally, his home village that he longs to prove himself to.
The implication, I suppose, is that to escape from poverty and low birth in the Ceylon of the early 20th century requires not only the skill of self-reinvention but the ability to ignore or remove one’s conscience; that hard times make hard men. Sam is all forward motion: his engine pure rage. One dramatic and well-handled central episode finds him humiliated – he is mistaken for his wife’s driver – and he responds with shocking violence.
Sam is, for this reason, risky as a protagonist: a Jay Gatsby without the romance and yearning; a Gordon Gekko without the charm. Other characters (children, wives, business associates) flash and vanish around him so it’s Sam who must anchor the reader in the story. And he is so unavailable to sympathy, so unreflective, that it’s sometimes hard to get a purchase on him.
Beggar’s Feast is richly detailed and carefully interwoven with the real history of Sri Lanka in the 20th century: the conflict between ways old and new, war profiteering, leftwing agitation, and the anxieties and hopes of independence. It is also, in some ways, maddening. It’s full of self-delighting sonorities that will impress some readers as literary or poetic but can also simply register as overwritten: “And now, twenty years later, always, he looked forward, upward, to the great twin boulders that marked the entranceway to the walauwa itself. Boulders that, in years past, had always barred the way forward, upward, for men like his father and his father and his father too, the men of his family back unto the very first of his line who emerged from untold, unknown history . . . ”
This to my ear, could do with being dialled down a bit. But there’s no question that this is a story of great ambition and complexity, with serious things to tell us about class, modernity and the death-struggle between destiny and desire.
Sam Leith is author of ‘The Coincidence Engine’ (Bloomsbury)