“Noontide Toll” by Romesh Gunasekera
This collection of linked stories, set in post-civil-war, post-tsunami Sri Lanka, is narrated by a retired clerk who has sunk his savings into a minibus and now hires himself out as a driver. Each story traces a different journey, with passengers that include three Russians on their way to a new luxury spa; a Roman Catholic priest and his acolyte pursuing a kind of detective mission; a Czech couple who share a walk on a beach with a night watchman whose entire family perished, along with more than 30,000 other Sri Lankans, in the 2004 tsunami; a delegation of Chinese businessmen appraising vast “junk fields” of military scrap; and a Sri Lankan general (also a renowned ballroom dancer) en route to a meeting with a woman whose family he has all but destroyed. The 14 stories in “Noontide Toll” function like the stages of a tour through a place that’s trying to emerge from the ruins, yet is still “trapped by the past despite the prospects ahead.”
The convention that the rich regard the people they hire as invisible has allowed many authors before Gunesekera to embed servants as the reporters of stories and the rooters-out of secrets. But if Gunesekera’s hired driver, Vasantha, goes unnoticed by others, he also regards himself as invisible — a ghostly figure for whom hope has “completely dried out,” a man whose “moment passed long ago.” This self-conception imbues the book with a muted, somber tone and — interestingly, given its peripatetic nature and structure — a static quality. Vasantha is always moving, but “every road seems to lead to a hospital.” Despite all the miles he has logged, he feels he’s “spinning in sand.”
In “Roadkill,” a story set in 2011, two years after the army has finally crushed the decades-long Tamil Tiger insurgency, Vasantha drives a wealthy Sri Lankan couple into formerly rebel-held territory, where the husband wants to show his pregnant wife a property he hopes to turn into their home. They break their journey at a recently built hotel that represents, as Vasantha spells out for us, “the new era.” But the past pulls like a counterweight. Conversing with the assistant manager, Vasantha comes to suspect that she’s a former Tiger cadre, her trigger finger “callused and discolored.”
Each story in “Noontide Toll” raises the same quandary: How do we balance the need to remember, so as not to repeat our mistakes, with the need to forget, thus transcending them and moving on? It’s a vital question, one not asked solely in recently traumatized countries. But each story here poses the question in some closely related form, rendering the dynamic predictable. Certain characters and features blatantly embody the past (Vasantha himself; an inn that Leonard Woolf visited in 1908, now scheduled for renovation), while others betoken the future (a flippant teenager, ignorant of history; various personifications of carpetbagger capitalism). In fact, modernity is almost always caricatured as philistine: a man planning to stock a rebuilt library with practical books rather than obsolete “nonsense” like poetry or classics; a marketing pundit en route to a Power Point seminar in a “brave new world of infinite opportunities.”
One measure of literary merit is how well a work resists simple thematic summary. In “Noontide Toll,” unfortunately, the schematic purpose of almost every element is all too evident. But in a story involving a fashion shoot in a cricket stadium, the various parts, including a mob of schoolboys who unexpectedly swarm the pitch, all seem to bear more than one fixed meaning. What’s more, “Shoot” ends dramatically, with action and dialogue instead of Vasantha’s ruminations, so we’re left with an unmediated moment, vivid and ambiguous. Likewise in “Humbug” the author compiles and compounds his elements — including a cryptic crossword clue that an old Sri Lankan and an English tourist collaborate to solve — giving the story the rich indeterminacy of life, and of good fiction.
Gunesekera is best when writing simply, directly: “Great leaders make great mistakes. It is a sort of status symbol that they cannot resist.” And: “From what I have seen in comfort stops up and down the country, it is a big surprise who does and who does not wash their hands. Not all foreigners do. Pontius Pilate did, but the Unilever man from Birkenhead, the other day, definitely didn’t, despite the discount he must get on soap products.” But elsewhere Gunesekera adopts an effortfully clever style that makes for such mystifying anomalies as a “mouth puckered by a rush of flattish air” or a sea like a “blue whale in clover, or something.”
A husband and his pregnant wife, after eating a chicken curry, retreat to their room “to gently burp and gurgle their antenatal intimacies.” They seem to be related to a later well-fed couple “halfway between stuffed to bust and conjugal cohesion,” or others lounging in “pamper rooms of cozy lust and languor,” or the newlyweds like “mice in a Moscow ballroom rather than a couple girding their loins for a strenuous bout of honey spooning.” Other bits of botched wordplay: artillery as “the boom-pah-pah of the Sri Lankan Army” and a desert described as “no man’s empty sand.”
And yet, despite such patches of awkwardness, “Noontide Toll” succeeds as a sort of elegy, both for its narrator and for the old Sri Lanka. At the same time, it offers a few slivers of hope. When a teenager shows interest in the tales of his returning emigrant father, Vasantha says, “I was pleased he had been listening. Tomorrow belongs to youngsters like him.” And he yearns to see “how a new generation can build something despite the weakness of the old.”
Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunasekera – poetic and full of wit
Review by Shehan Karunatilake, ‘The Guardian,’ UK, July 26, 2014
These gracefully crafted road stories expose the simmering tensions in postwar Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a land of arguments. Arguments that cause punch-ups on live TV, shoot-outs during elections, riots over religion, and wars that go on for decades. Our civil war may have ended five years ago, but the arguments never stopped – over why we harass minorities, why we silence journalists and why even countries with dodgy human rights records find us offensive. Then there are the arguments over whom the island belongs to, who deserves justice and how the war was won and lost.
The gracefully crafted road stories of Noontide Toll play out amid these arguments in a postwar Sri Lanka simmering with unresolved tensions. We follow the adventures of “Vasantha the van man” as he transports tourists, soldiers, entrepreneurs, aid workers and exiles to the ravaged north and the
renewed south, all the while observing his passengers. Vasantha’s thoughts are the soul of the book, rambling and poetic, wrapped in folksy wit and shrewd observation. Through him, Romesh Gunesekera examines the central argument that continues to rage across the island and its many roads. How should Sri Lanka address its past? Do we dig it up or do we bury it?
Vasantha begins the book as a pragmatist. “The past is what you leave as you go. There is nothing more to it.” The narrator’s ambivalence makes him good at his job, and keeps the book’s tone from veering into polemic. “What they saw, what they heard, what they thought, what they remembered was their problem, not mine.” It is his voice – wry, knowing and highly entertaining – that elevates this collection to something greater than the sum of its episodes.
One might level the same criticisms as those directed at the heroes of The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire. What driver or tour guide born of the subcontinent’s working classes would speak like this? This matters a great deal to some, less so to me. That said, Vasantha serves more as a point-of-view device than as a rounded protagonist. While there is mention of his past, his family and his regrets, Noontide Toll is less about his journey than about those he transports. Through his eyes, we see snapshots of war zones, portraits of those who visit them, and outlines of what they may be seeking.
Some seek justice, like the priest tracking the war criminal in “Mess”, or money, like the Chinese entrepreneurs in “Scrap”, the soldiers taking
marketing classes in “Fluke” and the film crew in “Shoot”. The soldier in “Ramparts” seeks guidance, the guilt‑ridden general in “Humbug” seeks forgiveness and the Dante-reading Romeo at the Jaffna library in “Renewals” seeks an exit. Others revisit the past, like the exiled Tamil father in “Deadhouse”, or conceal it, like the terrorist turned hotelier in “Roadkill”.
Noontide Toll comes from the same wellspring as Gunesekera’s early work, the Booker-shortlisted Reef and the underrated Monkfish Moon. In all three books, simple stories told in delicate prose reveal curious insights, powerful ideas and painful losses. Many Sri Lankan writers face internal dilemmas when describing this island of contradictions. Do we write as outsiders, or admit complicity? How truthfully can we describe Sri Lanka? Do we parade the horrors like a human rights documentary, or present the beauty like a travel brochure?
Gunesekera, a storyteller at the height of his powers, manages to do all the above without having to change gear. The book is an elegant balancing act and a pleasure to read. His snapshots capture the island’s terrors and its treasures, and give you an insider view of the many outsiders drawn to this troubled nation.
The book is littered with symbols, including the van, once white, like many that feature in reports of political abductions. The white van is now a symbol of Sri Lanka’s intolerance of dissent; while the characters seek peace and
reconciliation, the vehicle they travel in reminds us of how far away those destinations are.
Overall, the stories of the north are stronger than those from the south, reflecting where most of Sri Lanka’s unresolved arguments reside. One hopes there will be a sequel featuring the east and the west, maybe even the coast and the hills. As the postwar era continues to mutate through extremism, militarism and a xenophobic suspicion of the west, there are many places, arguments and ideas still left to explore.