A Fragrant Tragedy

June 10, 2013

From the opening of Ru Freeman’s ambitious and moving new novel, On Sal Mal Lane, set in her native Sri Lanka, we know that tragedy looms. The Prologue, in italics, sketches the background of the conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamils that erupted into war, and the first chapter of regular text begins in this way:

“God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.”

Lest we forget the context, this narrative voice from on high returns from time to time to update national political developments and remind us of the doom hanging over the characters.

Yet the novel’s basic action scarcely ventures beyond the tiny, flower-bedecked, semirural lane of the title, on the outskirts of the capital city, Colombo. The people there form a microcosm of Sri Lankan ethnicities and religions—Sinhalese, Tamils, mixed-race Burghers; Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics—all in the space of nine households. Most of the plot centers on the children of Sal Mal Lane, especially the four Herath kids, who are sensitive, talented and a bit more upscale than their neighbors.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest achievement lies in the way it locates significance in the tiniest domestic actions. A wayward teenager, Sonna, quarreling with his father, is denied a birthday party. As a make-do, Sonna’s mother invites the Herath children over for an elaborate dinner without stating that it’s for the boy’s birthday. Later, discovering the truth, the Heraths feel bad that they didn’t take a present. They count out coins from their allowance to buy a chocolate for Sonna, put it in a shiny bag and try to deliver it. He isn’t home, though, so they stash it in their refrigerator to keep it from melting. The next day, Mr. Herath, rummaging for a sweet after lunch, finds the candy and eats it. The children are too abashed to stop him, afraid their mother will find out they’ve been associating with Sonna. Having no money to buy another treat, they reconcile themselves to feeling ashamed, and they let the matter drop.

Ending a chapter, this little tale hovers as a portent. How will the mistakenly consumed chocolate contribute to the slowly unfolding tragedy? This technique encourages the reader to focus on causes rather than on what comes next. For me, though, the weighty foreshadowing has its downside because it discourages page-turning; I was none too eager to arrive at the moment of implosion.

Another potential difficulty is that the profusion of characters makes it hard to become deeply invested in any one of them. Eventually the reader comes to care for several of these people, but it takes a while. Among the Heraths, there are four children of various ages, plus the father and mother. Five other children play significant roles, as do ten or more adults. The interplay is complex, and even the troublemakers and bigots have some redeeming features. The upside is that we get a rich, complex view of a neighborhood, both its uniqueness and its inability to escape the sociopolitical trends that are drawing the larger society into turmoil.

The language is often as fragrant as the blossoming sal mal trees that surround the lane and the spicy curries prepared by the women. In these lyrical passages Freeman’s affection for her homeland shines through. Here’s a paragraph plucked almost at random:

“The gusty wind that dominated a short respite from the monsoons was beginning to tease the children of Sal Mal Lane. It tugged at their school uniforms, inverted umbrellas held against the sun, and combed and recombed their hair, first this way then the other. It whispered stay! stay! to them as they stood waiting for their school buses, shivering in the cool morning hours, a request they tried not to hear. They giggled as their skirts and shirts lifted this way and that, their books fell out of their careless hands, and the ribbons tied into their braids and ponytails, blue and white for the Herath girls, green and white for the Bolling twins, refused to stay in their knots. But each evening the children acquiesced. They put down their books, put on their home clothes, and went outside. They went to fly kites.”

Another treat is the occasional profound remark that could be framed and mounted on the wall. At one point the younger Herath boy, Nihil, seeks reassurance about the rumors of civil war and the announced intention of other boys on the lane to join the army. He questions his friend, old Mr. Niles, who answers: “People do not go to war, Nihil, they carry war inside them.” At times such philosophizing can become a bit heavy-handed, but it serves to reinforce the themes of the novel.

When the long-awaited tragedy arrives, it occurs on two levels. On one level we witness a political event as the quiet street is overcome by the conflict raging around it. But the greater tragedy is rooted in the personal stresses we have seen developing: father vs. son, neighbor vs. neighbor, social outsiders trying to gain a place among those they admire and envy. No one on Sal Mal Lane is entirely innocent. As the second-oldest Herath child, Rashmi, reflects near the end, “Everybody was responsible for what had happened to their street.”

Even as calamity intrudes, however, the people of the lane bond together, across ethnic boundaries. The victims are cared for by their neighbors. The dénouement rekindles a sense of hope, and the novel ends with a young person reading from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, “a tale of striving for high ideals amid human frailty, turmoil, and change.”

On Sal Mal Lane is not a quick read but one to savor, one whose images and ideas will linger in the reader’s mind.


Leo Tolstoy, in a 1901 painting by Ilya Repin (from Wikipedia)

After seeing the Joe Wright/Tom Stoppard film version of Anna Karenina a few weeks ago, I was reflecting about the way we approach classic tragedies. The film heaps multiple layers of artificiality on Tolstoy’s master work. It places the tale on a stage set and, even when venturing into the outer world, shatters any semblance of reality with devices like obviously fake snow (worse than you get from a spray can) and movements choreographed to resemble high school dance routines. It’s all very clever, but Anna’s ultimate tragedy failed to affect me, and I was reminded of recent stage adaptations of Cyrano and Romeo and Juliet in which the amped-up comedy worked well and the tragedy fizzled.

It seems that we no longer trust tragedy enough to play it straight. We have to skew it to suit our ironic, sophisticated sensibilities—and the result is that the tragedy itself has no impact.

One recent exception was Inis Nua’s highly artificial stage drama Dublin by Lamplight, which provided a surprising jolt of tragic loss after an evening of gags. In an earlier post I reflected about what made that particular stylization work when so many others fail, and my tepid response to Anna Karenina sent me back to similar musings.

While I was meditating about this aesthetic problem—and whether we should even bother staging, filming, or writing tragedies if we don’t believe in their premise—the gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Twenty young children slaughtered, plus six educators, plus the shooter and his mother. The outpouring of grief and outrage was immediate and nationwide, and my thoughts about literary tragedy seemed insipid and irrelevant.

“There are degrees of tragedy, and this is the highest degree,” said local resident Dan Zimmerman (as quoted by the Associated Press). But technically, in the classical sense, Sandy Hook is not a tragedy; it’s something worse. As Jay Heinrichs argues in his blog about language,

Don’t call it a tragedy. ‘Tragedy’ implies an act of the gods, something terribly sad but inevitable. Instead, call it a massacre. A massacre is the most violent kind of crime, and it implies that more than one person was involved.”

Whatever term we use for Sandy Hook and other mass murders, it’s good to know that our campy culture can still respond with deep emotion. But, after the initial shock passed, I came back to pondering why occasional stories tap this feeling while so many leave us unmoved. The easy answer is that the Sandy Hook bloodbath was real, whereas Anna Karenina and Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers are merely characters in stories. But this ignores the fact that all disasters except the ones we experience personally come to us as stories. And there are plenty of reality-based narratives that bounce daily off the shell of our indifference: Fatal expressway crash detailed on the evening news, with the reporter standing by the skid marks—yawn. Assassination of courageous reform leader in Wherezatistan, the last great hope for his nation—yeah, what did you expect from those people?

Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal points out that stories have always been central to human cognition, a primary way we give shape and meaning to our world. Yet, in our current culture, what does it take for a painful story to make an impact?

It does seem that size matters—sheer numbers make us pay attention. Any one of those little kids in Sandy Hook would have made an affecting story, but one or two would not have drawn the visceral response we gave to twenty.

Youth and innocence also count for a lot. If the victims are young and blameless—too pure to have the traditional “tragic flaws” or to be held responsible for their fate—we’re much more likely to care. As for a guilty person like Anna K., well, maybe she had it coming, maybe she didn’t, but evil happens to everyone. Classical tragedy no longer creates enough shock to the system. After what the world has been through in the past century, I suppose this is not surprising.

Further, inexplicability helps. If we can rationalize away a dark incident, we forget it. If it’s inconceivable that such an awful thing could happen, then we’re stirred.

A well-known quote from Donald Barthelme goes like this:

“The loss of experience is a major 20th-century theme. One makes love with The Joy of Sex hanging over one’s head, and so on.…Unmediated experience is hard to come by, is probably reserved, in our time, to as yet undiscovered tribes sweltering in the jungles of Bahuvrihi.” [A thoughtful comment that ends in a joke, since bahuvrihi is not a place but a type of compound word.]

I’d argue that wherever human beings have culture, experience is never unmediated. We interpret in terms of the categories we know. But there’s a difference between a 13th-century peasant whose mediators are confined to parents, other family members, neighbors, and the village priest and us modern hyper-connected techies with cultural referents bombarding us via TV, Internet, movies, music, books, magazines, etc. We have too many stories colliding in our heads. We’re also ultra-aware of possible fakery, from the tricks of Photoshop to the lies of politicians to the distortions of hurried or irresponsible journalists. Only a truly real story breaks through the layers of mediation. And to be counted as real it must be BIG, SHOCKING, SCARY.

Which leads to the question of which is scarier: the fact that we need major catastrophes to register such pain, or that our civilization presents us with these events with such reliable frequency.