University of Massachusetts Press
160 Pages; Print, $22.95
I have never been to Sri Lanka, but I suspect that, were I to visit, it would not be immediately obvious that I was in a country that had experienced decades of civil war fueled by ethnic rifts. I suspect, instead, I would encounter a society in pursuit of normalcy, and that the pain of all that had transpired would only slowly make itself known in the form of dark humor and surreal moments, improbable scenes in which unresolved emotions begin to bleed.
This, at least, is what I gather from reading Hasanthika Sirisena’s collection of finely rendered portraits of homeland misfits and overseas expats, The Other One.
One must always tread cautiously when critiquing fiction addressing cultural norms and historical realities of which the reader has insufficient familiarity. Navigating one’s own ignorance in addressing an author’s apparent shortcomings is a task fraught with endless pitfalls. I am sure that there is much I am missing here, things I do not and cannot know.
Happily, Sirisena’s collection is so entertaining and exceptional that I need not risk tripping over myself with any attempt at “critique.” Instead, I implore you to buy and read the book, without reservation.
The twenty-six year civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils was driven by historical and religious grievances, some of which can be traced back to the effects of English imperialism. The brutal conflict cost an estimated 100,000 lives, and ended in 2009 with the defeat of the “Tamil Tigers” following a relentless onslaught by government forces. During and after the conflict, many Tamils fled the country outright.
Sirisena’s fiction takes an oblique view, steering clear of the usual formulas associated with the literature of historical tragedy. There is no trace of political commentary in any of these stories, nor is there any attempt to “explain” events though the lens of history. Instead, these stories present the conflict and its aftermath as a subliminal cloud of anxiety that is inextricably woven into daily life, complicating the progress of the usual human dramas, and bifurcating every potential love affair. Perhaps there is nothing left for these characters to say aloud because everything has long since been said ad nauseum. The conflict has passed into their very bones.
The stories contained in The Other One present individuals and their shadow-selves, as the title suggests. The “other” could be a friend, a spouse, a parents, or simply an imagined path not taken. In every case, the “other” presents the conundrum of an alternate self, or an alternate life.
The opening story, “Third Country National” is not the best in the collection, but it introduces perfectly sense of macabre and underlying absurdity that defines the work throughout. The protagonist caught between two worlds is Anura, a cleaner at an air base in Kuwait. His work is bedeviled by an unseen predator haunting a decorative fish tank he is tasked with caring for. Clearly, Anura is the epitome of the displaced person, stuck with a job that, within its setting, is virtually comical. Sirisena uses the comedic element to amplify the underlying horror—as war continues in the world “outside” the fish slowly disappear, one by one. This story evinces perhaps a little too slavishly the golden harmonies of the MFA writing workshop—the past, the present, a conflict, and a quirky objective-correlative. Nonetheless, the story provides unexpected suspense, and alerts the reader that this is no ordinary collection of polite stories. These pages have teeth.
“War Wounds,” addresses the toll of caring for the war wounded. Anoja must stay in Sri Lanka with her children, to care for her brother, Rajnith, a veteran whose head injury has left him with a severe cognitive impairment, from which recovery will be slow. Her husband has been overseas in Perth for two years, and presses her to follow. She wants to, but cannot abandon Rajnith to unreliable siblings, or to the impersonal care of a mental health facility, where his...