Critique of Criticism — Dhanuka Bandara On “Water In the Moon”.

[Written for the Nation]

by Dhanuka Bandara

Critical interest in Sri Lankan literature is largely inadequate.  The outburst of creative expression in English in the last few years has been subjected to little critical scrutiny. Vihanga Perera’s Water in the Moon – which in its title travesties Ameena Hussein’s Moon in the Water for no good reason other than boisterous frivolity, it seems – seeks to fill a spacious vacuum created by a disinterested critical literati.

Vihanga is not the inheritor of a critical tradition that could boast of a steady commitment to the evaluation of Lankan literature in English; rather his work of criticism is a solitary gesture that comes after sporadic gestures of the critical kind. It should also be said in my introductory remarks that Vihanga’s theory-free, largely jargon less writing makes it accessible to the general readers who are denied the epistemological prerogatives of the academic types. However, I am by no means the best person to comment on Sri Lankan literature because I prefer to have as little contact with it as possible.

Vihanga’s focus narrows itself to sharp critical perusal of Lankan fiction in English since 2009. The watershed of 2009 – the end of the Sri Lankan civil war that most of the Sri Lankan writers no doubt sorely miss – is of paradigm shifting significance for Sri Lankan literature. The enduring thematic interest in the war on the part of the Sri Lankan writers in the absence of the war has been replaced with forays into other kinds of subject-matter. Vihanga, to the best of my knowledge, is the first critic to submit his analysis of literature of this period to the general readership.

The concern with "class", Dhanuka writes, is a bit too obvious and limiting.

The concern with “class”, Dhanuka writes, is a bit too obvious and limiting.

However, Water in the Moon is neither extensive nor exhaustive. For one thing, it only focuses on fiction and Vihanga, for some reason has casually dismissed other kinds of writing. Out of fourteen essays in the collection, four are on Nihal de Silva. Vihanga’s interest in De Silva’s work seems a bit inordinate. Especially when the only thing that excites our critical interest where De Silva’s works are concerned is their decided mediocrity. Vihanga’s essays on Shehan Karunathilake’s Chinaman and Mark Wilde’s Chucking the Dragon are well worth reading. The two submissions on GLF (Gala Literary Farce) – although they are idealistic to the point of exasperation – provide the readers with an alternative take on the festival which highlights its moral perfidy. Alas the tone of moral righteousness and indignation that pervades Water in the Moon could tarnish its reception amongst more cynical of readers.

Water in the Moon in large measure limits itself to an analysis of class in Lankan fiction. This, I believe, is the singular drawback of the collection. Vihanga in his zeal to deflate what he would term as “Colombo-centric elite literary output” restricts his criticism to the lineaments of class and geography. Vihanga, for all his critical panache, is parochial in his approach to Literature. I guess, criticism works best when it transcends boundaries of region and, better still, nation.

Vihanga’s analysis of the ingredients that endear works of little artistic merit to an upper-middleclass readership is compelling enough. However, to my thinking, the class politics in Lankan fiction does not necessarily bear upon its artistic merit. One could produce a perfectly good work of fiction that nevertheless abounds with elitism. On the other hand given that English is the shibboleth of the upper-middle class anybody who reads or write in English in this country is by default an elite at some level. Let me also add that if at all the Colombo readership is elite the intellectual arrogance of some of us in Kandy is its worthy counterpart.

Shehan Karunatilaka spinning on Indian tracks

Shehan Karunatilaka spinning on Indian tracks

It is quite old fashioned to say this,  but what makes a certain work of art great is the insight that it lends into the nature of humankind and its technical excellence. Of course, the former could hardly be attained without the latter. I am sure Vihanga and I both agree that Sri Lankan fiction – at least most of it – deserves very little credit. The reason for this, I would argue, is that Sri Lankan writers read very little or – it is quite likely – they don’t read at all. Ours is a country where there is no reading culture. Great writers are also great readers. However, too much reading can breed self-contempt and make one refrain from writing altogether. This is the great predicament of some us. Thus to be a writer one has to be audacious and – at least to some extent – presumptuous of his own talent.

Water in the Moon does not break away from the politically correct literary criticism that is fashionable in English. However, in fairness to Vihanga it should be said, perhaps, Lankan fiction is not evolved enough for us to look at it from any other perspective than class or race. If class is the only thing that Lankan fiction submits to analysis, one cannot blame Vihanga for making the most of it. Anyway, I hope that Water in the Moon would be soon followed by a sequel which would provide us with a broader critical spectrum; this could also prompt greater sales!

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