There is a review of Marlon Ariyasinghe’s debut Froteztology on the Lakbima News of Sunday the 06th February, by a writer whose identity is left unclear. This piece is titled “Frotesteria at Galle Literary Festival”. An insider tells me that the writer of the piece is a part of Sri Serendipity Publishers – Marlon’s patron house. If, by any chance, this is indeed by a Sri Serendipity feature, we may safely assume that the inspiration for the piece is derived from Robbie Williams’ mega hit “The Ego has Landed”; for the phrase summarizes the opening two paragraphs of the article.
Since I wish to make this Sri Serendipity-praising article my point of departure, let me refer to some sections from it: “And yet again” the writer states, “Sri Serendipity has done it, taking on the status quo of the establishment fearlessly with the same furore of a matador savouring those last pauses before the inevitable death thrust and the same gusto of a fleet of vultures nipping away at the thick hide of a slain animal” (italics mine). The implication is that the “act” denoted by the murderous metaphor had been done before — that Sri Serendipity has, even earlier, taken on the establishment and its impede. This assumption presupposes the fact that Marlon’s Froteztology is, indeed, a thrust by a matador. But, we will come to that later (as I hope to review the poetry in a seperate piece).
Where literature is concerned, Sri Serendipity has Mark Wilde’s Chucking the Dragon and Herman Gunaratne’s The Suicide Club in their trophy cabinet. While Chucking the Dragon has raised vibrant debate among readers, overall, we can bookmark it as a “should be read” in contemporary Sri Lankan literature. The Suicide Club, however, comes across as a frail affair altogether. More crucially, the text reads as a reinforcement of the “status quo” and the “establishment” and a justification of coloniality — a stark contrast to the Sri Serendipity(?) claim focused above.
The article further reads as follows: “Sri Serendipity’s target is the derelict remnants of the moth eaten boa of democracy’s carcass that we (the a-political generation) plan to offer as inheritance to the future young of this land, as a show of faith and pride and above all because ours will be a legacy of apathy, if this endures” (italics mine). The writer refers to a “we” being of an “a-political generation”, all up against a possible “legacy of apathy” which, if not for Sri Serendipity-like interventions, would be the future’s inheritance. Whether the writer is being sincere or parodic is an inevitable question, because her reference is to an “a-political” group. Perhaps, the likes of Sri Serendipity operate on a different plain of politics – a plain different to mine and yours – which, in degrees, is closer to a state of the “a-political”, and the review I question in this space is a testimony to the fact.
There is little doubt that Marlon Ariyasinghe writes in a voice that is “fresh” in Sri Lankan English writing. The accusatory tone, the blunt and direct interrogation, the deliberate casting aside of poetic diction, rhyme and the like for the stakes of pure attack – in my experience as a reader of Sri Lankan writing there has been no attacker of the polity who had got about his business at the same pitch and with the intensity as Marlon does in Froteztology. I recall a pre-Froteztology article written on Marlon’s poetry where a reviewer/journalist denounced him on the grounds of him being more or less a peddler of accusations in the guise of poetry. This reduction, I felt, was an inability to come to terms with Marlon’s craft and agenda in mind. How I read the same poem/s was as deliberate attempts at being de-establishmentarian, in the process of which the writer rids himself of all “poetica”. However, this criticism holds no further bearing as the same reviewer/journalist, in the course of 2 months or so (the article was published soon after SLAM 010 where Marlon read some of his poems), has turned around to praise Marlon’s “voice” as being commendable.
The article with which I began this piece identifies this — our contemporary — as a dark age. “Poetry is back and better than sex in the city according to publisher Juliet Coombe, who says this is the first Sri Lankan poetry collection to be launched at GLF in five years, and fully colour illustrated ever in the country”. The article-writer hopes that “Froteztology will be a testament to the eclipse of this apocalypse, because ours is not the spirit of subservience but a spirit that fights, and nothing will stand in the way of those who want to frotezt” and adds that the book will be “a torch that be lit in the hearts of the men and women of this country”.
If the purpose of a review is to gain some market-mileage, this form of sweetening does very little harm to it. But, if this is the form of trivialization on which the so-called “frotezt” is founded on – if one’s protest of social and political malice is this superficial and sensational – Sri Serendipity is, then, the bull (in addition to the bulling); not the matador.
The writer identifies that Marlon’s “Luciferian alter ego” (whatever that is) “seems to tell us ‘speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ and that the pages of Froteztology are “damned pages, and you hold in your hands the blood of kings and lambs and men and women”. So, let us speak some truth for a change.
The attacks made in Marlon’s book, I reiterate, are “vocal” and are in a “fresh” pitch and tone. But, a collection of angry poems don’t make a protest on its own. A protest, as I see it, involves a wider discourse in which questions such as “what are you protesting against?”, “for whom is the protest?”, “what do you expect to reach through the protest?” play defining roles. Marlon and Sri Serendipity appear to be in contradiction regarding this “object” of protest.
Marlon is protesting. But, the book comes out in a glossy montage — a magazine-like rendition of Sri Serendipity‘s tested mould of pictures+cartoons+rock lyrics+stuff. This is a paste they worked with in Chucking the Dragon and (to a contextualized lesser extent) in The Suicide Club. But, in Froteztology, it goes totally out of proportion. What I feel is that the complex of images, paintings and cartoons actually distract the reader from the suabstance. It is, in essence, a “jazzing up” — but, as highlighted in the book’s preface, Marlon’s will is to protest. Yet, the layout and the distractions that it accompanies displaces this will / purpose.
Marlon is protesting. But, the book is launched akin to the GLF — the literary festival where the “ordinary consumer of literature in Sri Lanka” is shut out. Marlon protests. Yet, he reads his poetry to a “twilight event” at the same festival. Marlon writes to protest. The publisher promotes the poetry as the “new sex in town”. A protest does not happen by the poetry per se. But, as already highlighted, the wider implications of the discourse in which you operate is what defines the “protest” or the lack of it. So, the glossy mavericks, the GLF factor and the elite environs in which the poetry is dished out all impede on the protest potential of the work.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono take to bed in their “Bed Peace” campaign against the Vietnam War. They huddle up under a sheet and say “say no to war; make love”. In their manifestation they are “protesting”. They have a live TV run of the event, with a host of journalists surrounding the bed. Massive billboards in strategic New York locations announce to the world that the “Bed Peace” campaign is on song. John comes out of the sheet to give his charismatic nippy quips to the journos and media people. This is no protest. This is John and Yoko making some savoury the “showbiz” way. But, for the lesser critic this is a protest that changed the world forever.
I am reminded of Winston Smith of George Orwell’s 1984. He walks right into O’ Brien’s study in a radical will to protest. But, in his act he merely stumbles into the camouflaged directive of the Establishment. A review of Froteztology is due. This is merely to set the ground for such a review. But, all said, it is my desire to see Marlon re-emerge on some radical, progressive ground. The matadors and the bulls, in any case, are not been known as Marlon’s expertise.
“Poetry is the new sex in town”? Tempting, but….