Island of a Thousand Mirrors
(St. Martin's Press)
Ceylon was the island paradise you and I always longed for. Gentle people in an aromatic Elysium, the tea plantations, green everywhere, the cooling breezes from the ocean, an ocean of gentle waves, and the towns filled with the scent of richly flavored rice dishes coming from the different houses, people gentle and winsome, respectful, engaging. And the coconut palms,
He grasps a coconut in one hand, smashes down with the machete. A spume of liquid arcs skyward . . . We drink sweet, fresh coconut water, cool as well water. Afterward, he hacks the coconuts open, fashions small spoons of husk so that we can scoop out the inner flesh, gelatinous as egg white, creamy as ice cream.
Yasodhara and Saraswathi grow up in Sri Lanka --- back when it was Ceylon --- at one with the sea and the trees and the frangipani, in the sea, the startling curl of the "thousand mirrors" (schools of tiny fish moving just beneath the waves). The palms and the fruits (and the fruit-bats). Idyllic is the word for it, but in the hands of Munaweera, it is beyond just that. This is the story of two girls and their parents and Ceylon in the lush times of peace, before the Tamils began war with the Sinhalese: a devilish war that went on for twenty-five years, until 2009, killing over 100,000 people. It was a war that grew out of (what else?) the typical and central English policy of playing off one side against the other, in this case the Sinhalese against the Tamils.
It was not always thus. This is Yasodhara's father as a boy, swimming in the lush sea, "Further out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands."
To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a touch and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father's outspread sarong being sung to sleep.
Author Munaweera has a special gift, taking us back to the time of our paradise youth, smells and sights and the gentle voice of the past that is part of all our lives. We are with the Rajasinghe family when, one day, they wake up in paradise: waving goodbye to the English as they sail off into the horizon, taking their divisive colonial ways and their terrible food with them. And then . . .
Those of us who did not have to live through it must wonder how freedom from the colonials was, in so many cases, to leave such a horror behind. In the Congo, South Africa, Indonesia, Algeria, Viet Nam, India, Ceylon and hundreds more ex-colonial spots around the world there was loosed a fearsome genie that destroyed so much and so many when the French, the English, and the Portuguese took their leave. All these new countries became invested with a maniacal fervor, civil wars that devastated entire populations.
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In Thousand Mirrors the reader gets torn from the bucolic to the grisly in no time at all. The Tamil Tiger regionalist fervor took over, south against the north . . . and a mindless bloodshed took place. Some of the characters here fare well. When the fighting begins, they are blessed with the chance to leave for another country. One of the more comic scenes of Thousand Mirrors is the young girl young Lanka seeing a Los Angeles supermarket for the first time.
There are carrots without blemish, beets without a trace of the earth in which they grew, fruits of the most gleaming perfection. Mountains of tangerines, sparkling red onions, bloodless meat.
"We had not imagined such munificence was possible, that there were so many ways one could clean a countertop, so many specialized ways of wiping an ass."
But in the home country comes war, and some of our favorite characters are murdered. Saraswathi is captured and raped by Sinhalese soldiers. The author here uses her extensive talents to show us this rape in heavy detail. It gets so grim --- being dragged from her home, having her clothes ripped off, being smashed in the face by a rifle, the soldiers violating her again and again --- that it begins to feel gratuitous, that the author is dragging it out just to show us how grisly she can make things.
This reader tried to move on to a part of this book that was a little less calculating. But it was not simple because our author has a rather menacing case of Repetitive Motion Disorder (also known as Occupational Overuse Syndrome), so we get to go through the ghastly rape scene three times. As some of us know, rape is a soul-busting experience. But to play with it as a novelistic gimmick can quickly turn to exploitation.
When Saraswathi is forced to become a Tamil Tiger at age sixteen, the reader is offered several more doses of The Authorial Ghastlies. The Commandant of the Tamils demands that Duwa show her loyalty to the cause by making her first kill . . . a captured Sinhalese soldier.
"The Commandant cuts him loose, kicks the chair away from him so that he falls heavily on the ground. From his scream and the way they flop against the ground, I know that his wrists have been broken. The Commandant points at me, says, 'You haven't killed one yet, have you?'"
The soldier crawls away dragging useless back legs, trailing blood and urine like a dog run over on the rail tracks. He looks over his shoulder at me. His eyes bulging red, a stream of words in his stupid, fat-tongued language, incoherent sounds interspliced with pleas to his bastard mother, "Anaaaay ammaammammmammma, ammmmmma."
"He covers his face with his arms. I push them away with my gun. I want him to see me. I straddle him, my boots on either side of his face. When his pleading eyes meet mine, I put the mouth of the rifle against his lips, push them aside so that it clicks against his clenched teeth. I hear that click and I pull the trigger."
There's more, much more . . . but let's move on.
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The world can be a lovely place. It can also be a swinish place. Most of those of us who consider ourselves professional writers know this, but we always try to show tact and affection --- even a sense of grace --- to our readers. There's murder out there, and carnage, butchery, fetor, disgusting foulness crap and slime and horror, combined with rapine, torture, and grotesque bodily violation.
Any writer worth his or her salt knows how to put this stuff down on the page. But any writer worth his or her salt will also and willingly pull the punches. We can feel comfortable in giving a modest hint of the harshness of life, done simply and well: but there is something else; as in all relations, and we do have relations with our readers, we can and should choose to respect certain limits.
Ms Munaweera knows how to put the gorgeous and scintillating world of Ceylon down on the page. She also knows how to put blood, guts, gore, sheer animal cruelty. It is this reveling in the gore that sets her apart in my book, for it is no more than a spree of horror, one that makes a reader uneasy, makes us wonder why such a talented writer is unable to staunch her fascination with the abominable side of humanity celebrating it again and again,