The Fear of Gambling (FOG), is, on the surface, several stories braided into a single-story form. FOG consists of four consistent, continuing and primary story strands; the narrator’s quest for a woman that he once lost, his search for the successor to his art, his nostalgic record of his Domestic Cricket career with Cousin CJ and his failed years as a self-made Table Tennis player, just as the book cover tells. In bringing these strands together, FOG is a blurring of many boundaries; of time, space, autobiography, the real and the fantastic, truth, fiction and metafiction. And through this blurring, FOG focuses on the grey spaces of the current political landscape, literary representation and the search for identity.
The diffusion of the plotlines and the random episodic style of writing Vihanga has used to tell his story/ies made this book a very difficult one for this reader to not only read and map, but also to attempt to locate the episodes in a coherent order of sorts. This difficulty was made even more so by the frequent, seemingly random, shifts between time and space. However, these very interruptions and shifts are exactly what makes the book appear rather like life in general with its random, and chaotic, episodes. However, Vihanga seems to know exactly what he’s doing for within the seemingly randomness of it all, there is a method to the madness; plotlines that appear arbitrary develop into foils for other plotlines while personal anecdotes elucidate greater national truth. For example, the narrative of the narrator’s cousin’s personal history is constructed through specifically chosen moments and so evolves into a foil for the chosen trajectories of larger historical narratives.
In essence FOG appears to attempt to capture a moment in time that would, in all its essence be lost in a matter of days and weeks. In that light, FOG doesn’t appear to attempt to give a specific message on a specific issue, but rather succeeds in representing a time and space that is ‘in the passing’; it is an attempt to nail down a moment that would be gone too soon, historicized with the general at the cost of the particular. As the narrative comments, in the latter stages of the book, “history will be rewritten…(and it) will be hasty and gaps will be left.” FOG seems to be trying to depict some of the gaps that will be left gaping. Giving into his signature tongue-in-cheek style and attitude though, Vihanga captures this moment of the ‘present’, ironically, by moving between the past, present, future, and even spiritual, realms seamlessly.
What I really enjoyed about this book, and for which I would ultimately recommend it, is its depiction of the political landscape of the last two and half years in Sri Lanka. The immediate post-war political and ideological landscape is captured effortlessly, interwoven with the narrator’s and his cousin’s personal journey/s. FOG is topical in its preoccupation with the increasing militarisation of the nation and the seeming breakdown of law and order, which are skillfully captured through ball-by-ball episodes of rugger, that is juxtaposed with the ringing silence from and of the political opposition. Vihanga appears to be holding most, if not all, of us responsible for this current political climate – either by being someone who passively accepts the current status quo or being one who enables it to take place by allowing or even encouraging its reinforcement through the (constructed) attitude that celebrates the “victorious forces”. Pseudo-nationalism is exaggerated fictionally, as much as nationalism has been embellished politically. And the incapacitation of the citizen’s responsibility/ies in a democratic country is captured by a short series of questions through which the narrator vents his frustration with the system.
Running alongside this representation of the political is the personal narrative of the search for identity; once the narrator’s mirrored self escapes from the mirror and is ‘freed’, his journey becomes binary where two identities attempt to negotiate one journey. Interspersed within this journey are the chronicles of love lost, attempted, waited for, imagined and finally found unexpectedly. It is in these ‘personal’ narratives that the poet strolls in – the writing is raw, emotionally and sexually charged and ultimately lyrical – a strength Vihanga is to yet fully explore and harness in his longer fiction.
FOG ends not with the end of the story/ies, but because the book must end. As much as Joyce’s Ulysses’ uncertain end reminds the reader that the book captures only a limited time in the characters’ lives, the ending of FOG reinforces that the story/ies told, and the events and memories recounted, are only the specifically chosen moments of much longer trajectories of personal and national history. FOG is closer in style to Vihanga’s first book The(ir) Autopsy and, like it, every time it’s read, some new and different perspective seems to emerge. In that sense, I personally find FOG a strange literary work because the obvious way to reading it seems to be from the first page to the last when it claims to “be over right now”. However, having read it that way the first time around, now I find that opening it to a random page and reading on from there gives new perspectives and begins other threads of thought – and this process can be done repeatedly. Hence, as a book, it seems to never be (really) over!
[This was written as a preview of FOG, by Ms. Manikya Kodituwakku, Dept of English, OUSL, Nawala]