Review of ‘A Passage North’ by Anuk Arudpragasam

Long shadows

Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel follows Krishnan on his journey north to attend a funeral © Getty Images/EyeEm

by Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times, London, July 2, 2021

The Sri Lankan writer’s second novel attempts to air the wounds of the country’s civil war and refuses to succumb to collective amnesia
It can take just two novels to establish a writer as one of the most individual minds of their generation. Anuk Arudpragasam’s award-winning debut, The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016), heralded him as an author who could tackle big subjects — in this case, the wrenching civil war that tore Sri Lanka apart for two and a half decades — with a striking gift for meditative philosophy. With his new novel, a revelatory exploration of the aftermath of war, Arudpragasam cements his reputation.
Written in long, slow discursions, A Passage North presents the conflict as a dismembering of the collective self of the nation, aside from the more obvious brutalities. It centres on Krishan, a young man working for an NGO in present-day Colombo, who decides on impulse to make a journey to the far north of Sri Lanka to attend the cremation of his grandmother’s former caretaker, Rani. Through the course of the novel’s three sections — “Message”, “Journey” and “Burning” — this deceptively simple story is told via Krishan’s memories and philosophical musings.
As his train travels through “wide landscapes of salt flats and palmyra trees, the copper-coloured dirt roads of the Vanni and the tracts of hard, dry earth that made up most of the peninsula”, Krishan’s own thoughts travel back and forth. He is preoccupied by Rani’s depression, caused by the loss of her two children in the long grinding war, and his past relationship with Anjum, an activist with whom he fell in love while living in Delhi some years before.
Memories of horrifying videos — “trophy footage” that was smuggled out of conflict zones and now resides in archives — that brought the impact of the civil war home to Krishan are interspersed with soaring recitations to himself of old Tamil myths and Sanskrit poems filled with love and longing.
Arudpragasam, 33, was born in Colombo during the first decade of the insurgency in which Sri Lanka’s Tamil population and the island’s Sinhalese inhabitants witnessed pogroms and mass slaughter, mob violence and shattering losses of life.
For his generation, whether they were personally free of war’s intimate terrors or not, the conflict has never wholly vanished. Its repercussions tear like shrapnel through the memories and the lives of survivors, long after the guns have been silenced, the bombs have stopped falling.
Krishan, obsessed with the massacres that devastated the north-east, becomes “more and more possessed by guilt for having been spared”. The journey he undertakes is a way for him to break away from a life of safe but sterile comfort, and to make peace with the truth of war.
The effect of Arudpragasam’s long sentences and page-long paragraphs is one of deep immersion: “It was the fact, above all, that sudden or violent deaths could occur not merely in a war zone or during race riots but during the slow, unremarkable course of everyday life that made them so disturbing and so difficult to accept, as though the possibility of death was contained in even the most routine of actions, in even the ordinary, unnoticed moments of life,” he writes, early in the book.
Arudpragasam’s writing often seems like a refusal to embrace amnesia — a refusal to believe the whitewashed record. It calls to mind the work of WG Sebald who, in works such as The Emigrants and On the Natural History of Destruction, examined the long shadows cast by the Holocaust and the second world war. Both authors approach the nightmare terrain of conflict obliquely at times, and through documentary fiction in other instances, demanding that the reader not only acknowledge the horrors that people endured, but reflect more deeply on the ways in which the survivors are left changed.
Like Sebald, Arudpragasam’s writing often seems like a refusal to embrace amnesia — a refusal to believe the whitewashed record or to put the war and its aftermath in the past.
The final section of A Passage North is a vivid, 78-page account of a village cremation, with its rituals of open, emotionally performative mourning.
A long goodbye to Rani takes place at an amber-orange funeral pyre near a lake frequented by butterflies and dragonflies, and it is here that Arudpragasam’s narrator finds a refuge of sorts. “Even if it was easier for most people to pass over these wounds in silence, suppressing their memories of the world they’d helped construct and the violence that had destroyed it, even so people would remain who insisted on remembering . . . ”
Arudpragasam reminds us, with this extraordinary and often illuminating novel, that there will always be people forced to remember because they “simply couldn’t accept a world without what they’d lost”.
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam, Granta £14.99/Hogarth $27, 304 pages
Nilanjana Roy is an FT columnist

by Tara K. Menon, The New York Times, July 13, 2021

A PASSAGE NORTH
By Anuk Arudpragasam

“A Passage North,” Anuk Arudpragasam’s second novel, begins with Krishan learning of the death of Rani, his ailing grandmother’s former caretaker, and ends, two days later, with him watching Rani’s body burn on her funeral pyre. The intensely introspective pages in between recount Krishan’s thoughts and memories as he journeys from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Rani’s village in the northeast part of the country, once controlled by the Tamil Tigers and still reeling from a decades-long civil war.

Rani, who died suddenly and possibly by suicide, was “irretrievably traumatized” by the loss of both of her sons — the first lost his life fighting for the Tigers, and the second, only 12 years old, was killed by shrapnel on the penultimate day of the war. Krishan, like Arudpragasam, sees it as his duty to fathom her unfathomable anguish. In this novel, to listen and to notice are moral acts.

Arudpragasam’s mesmerizing debut, “The Story of a Brief Marriage,” narrated a single day in the life of Dinesh, a displaced Tamil man living in a refugee camp. “A Passage North” takes a longer and more distant view of the conflict, which raged from 1983 to 2009. Middle-class and highly educated, Krishan is “possessed by guilt for having been spared” the fate of people like Dinesh. The self-loathing that attends this guilt is both cause and result of Krishan’s enduring obsession with the war. Arudpragasam captures Krishan’s sensitive, roving intelligence as he meditates on the conflict, from its idealistic beginnings, when insurgents dreamed of an independent Tamil state, to its “unimaginable violence” and irreparable psychological damage. The bombs may have stopped, the capital may be thriving, but for those in the country’s ethnic minority, recovery can only be “partial and ambiguous.”

“A Passage North” is a political novel, unequivocal in its condemnation of the many atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government on its Tamil civilians, but it is also a searching work of philosophy. Arudpragasam, who has a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia, poses essential, existential questions about how we should live in a world with so much suffering. What are our obligations to others, especially those, like Rani, who have been marginalized and oppressed? The novel offers one answer: We owe them our full attention.

Every aspect of the world Krishan inhabits is subject to scrutiny. In sentences of unusual beauty and clarity, Arudpragasam observes even the most mundane of actions — smoking a cigarette, waiting for a train, making eye contact with a stranger — with an attention so absolute it feels devotional. He is equally gifted at atmospheric, sensory description that transports the reader to Sri Lanka and India and at examining the emotions — elation, fear, impatience, satisfaction, shame — that simmer below the surface of our everyday lives.

Arudpragasam also makes numerous sweeping, universal statements about the human condition and what we share with even those who seem most distant from us. Sometimes sentences strain under this heavy burden. But, more often, because he precedes these claims with such precise observation, they feel revelatory.

“The Story of a Brief Marriage” earned Arudpragasam comparisons to W. G. Sebald and Primo Levi. His resemblance to those writers is only more pronounced in this novel. But in long digressions on various Tamil and Sanskrit poems, he claims another literary heritage. In a moving, elegant reading of Ashvaghosha’s “The Life of Buddha,” Krishan elevates Rani’s trauma, and thus the suffering of so many like her, to Siddhartha’s disillusionment.

“A Passage North” is full of melancholy, but because it takes love and desire as seriously as it does grief and loss, it avoids despair. Krishan is beset by guilt but he is also filled with yearning, in search of a pleasure “that drew the self more widely and vividly into the world.” This novel offers that kind of pleasure.

 

A PASSAGE NORTH
By Anuk Arudpragasam
304 pp. Hogarth. $27.

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