Review: ‘The Red Tern’

by Zulma Publishers, France, Spring 2022

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Antonythasan Jesuthasan

Originally in Tamil, translated into French as ‘La Sterne Rouge’

A major Sri Lankan voice

Ala is born and raised in Sri Lanka, in a Tamil village prone to attacks from Sinhalese paramilitary groups. Exposed to inter-ethnic violence, she is still a child when she joins the Tamil Tigers. At fifteen, madly in love with her commanding general, she is ready to die in combat. But the suicide-attack she is preparing to commit never takes place. Ordered to blow herself up with no collateral damage, she rejects this pointless death and turns herself in. Ala is condemned to three hundred years in prison, by a Sri Lankan military court, but released five years later. With exile her only choice, she flees Sri Lanka for Europe. At her journey’s end, another life begins.

But is Ala truly the person she claims to be? Through its cleverly-crafted story within a story, the novel subtly explores giant, universal themes: roots, commitment, violence and freedom. How does a girl of fifteen find herself on the brink of committing a suicide attack? How does a suicide bomber contemplate death? How can she find her way back to civil society? How does she see Europe?

The Red Tern is also a magnificent tribute to the Tamils of eastern Sri Lanka, their wisdom, deities and demons, their witchcraft and theatre – a culture obfuscated by colonialism and rescued here from oblivion.

“A rare and precious voice“ Lire

Author Antonythasan Jesuthasan is best-known for his leading role in Jacques Audiard’s superb film Dheepan (Palme d’or at the Cannes Festival in 2015), but he is an exceptional writer, too – of novels, short story collections, essays, plays and film scripts, under his pen
name Shobasakthi.

Antonythasan Jesuthasan was born in 1967 in Allaipiddy, a village in the far north of Sri Lanka. A former child soldier in the Tamil Tiger liberation movement, he reached France in 1993, where he claimed and was granted political asylum, since when he has lived and worked in Paris. Three of his novels have been translated into English by Anushiya Ramaswami and published by Penguin Random House. The Red Tern follows his acclaimed novel Friday & Friday (Zulma, 2018)


by Camille DOUZELET and Pierrick SAUZON, Asian Cultures Club, France, February 4, 2022

[translated from the French by automatic translation with some edits]

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Take an island: Sri Lanka. Place two peoples: the Tamils, Hindus, minority and the Sinhalese, Buddhists, majority. What do you think is happening? War of course! It would be a misunderstanding of humans to consider another alternative.

For obscure reasons of precedence over their arrival in this territory, these ethnic groups fought for thirty years, from 1980 to 2010. This is what Antonythasan Jesuthasan tells us in his novel, The Red Tern, a nickname that his fellow fighters attribute to his heroine.

The Sri Lankan author is well known in France, but not as a writer. Indeed, he was the main actor of Dheepan, the beautiful film by Jacques Audiard. Of Tamil origin, the novelist shares with us the life of his heroine Ala and her family in the broad sense through scholarly back and forth between the war and her life. This allows him to tell us the ancestral habits and customs of Tamil villages. Just as much as he reveals to us the conditions of community life deteriorating inexorably because of the Sinhalese.

Until she was fifteen, Ala led a pretty normal life if not for a dark grandfather a little too enterprising. From there, the heroine’s existence turns into tragedy. So, she joined the Tamil Tigers in search of their independence. The narrator reports, in fact, two confessions of Ala, who became a captain in the separatist army. Chosen by her general, with whom she is in love, Ala must blow herself up during the inauguration of a bridge in Colombo. She refuses this act because, she thinks: “I wanted to die with my head held high…”. Only a glorious death on the battlefield suits him.

But, arrested by the Sinhalese police, she was handed over to the secret services. For months, she endured many tortures so that she sold her comrades. She resisted and was sentenced to three hundred years in prison. Nothing can save her anymore. Except perhaps, a Westerner she spared during her refusal to obey her leader…

Throughout his magnificent story, the author tells us about his people threatened in their integrity, as well as in their culture. In 1981, in fact, the Sinhalese burned all the Tamil archives. This implied on their part, an attempt at genocide. However, the Tamil people fought for their survival and their right to the land of their ancestors in the same way as their enemies.

The war is reported to us, not as a great exhilarating adventure, but rather as a succession of random skirmishes or cowardly assassinations without any other form of trial.

However, Antonythasan Jesuthasan sometimes describes certain events with tenderness or humor. Both those due to violence and those involving daily relations between the warriors or between General Sultan Baba and Ala. Scenes of torture or suffering are not spared us while remaining legible. However, there is no complacency on the part of the author. He wishes to testify to the horror of these fights as well as their inanity. Like the heroine who knows well, in her prison, that her struggle is futile, but necessary.

A rich, complex novel. To read imperatively for her humanity who confirms that this fight has been fundamental both on the identity level and on the feminist level.

The Red Tern, Antonythasan Jesuthasan, novel translated from Tamil (Sri Lanka) by Léticia Ibanez, 310 p., €22.50, ed. Zulma. In bookstores on February 03rd.


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