In the Introduction of a mid-1990s anthology on Sri Lankan writing in English, an eminent Emeritus Professor cum authority on that subject suggests that Ediriweera Sarachchandra is perhaps the “best” writer the country has ever produced. It is true that Sarachchandra — a noted scholar cum authority of literature in the Sinhala — has made a contribution to English Literary creativity between the 1970s and the late 1980s, with works such as Curfew and a Full Moon and With the Begging Bowl. Sarachchandra has also contributed to the discourse of English Literature in Sri Lanka in the capacity of a translator and critic, as exemplified by his translations of work such as K. Jayathilake’s Charitha Thunak (as The Chaff of Grain), which holds out as a compact and faithful translation, even today, four decades on.
However, the above Professor’s suggestion regarding Sarachchandra’s “greatness” is perhaps dated, as that honour of being the “best” (if not the “better”) has since been vied by several other writers – among them, Carl Muller being one. In 1948, F.R. Leavis isolates four names as the leading figures who contributed and continued what he generously calls the “great tradition” of the English novel. When Leavis crowns Jane Austen, Henry James, George Eliot and Joseph Conrad as the “fab four” in 1948, the English novel is barely two centuries old (Austen’s fiction, the oldest among the rest, being merely a century and three decades old).
In an age where people are over-hasty to put Sri Lanka in the map (and stuff in maps of sorts to the Sri Lankan geo-political definition with zeal and gusto), while one should not be audacious enough to pronounce a “tradition” in Sri Lankan fiction in English – for, as a whole, this department is yet an evolving, self-conscious nook – one should be conscious of the historical trajectory of that creative bench, with sufficient focus on writers one should have a tab on. This is specially so, if one is to re-visit the pre-2000s in search of texts that map the trajectory of Lankan English fiction which belonged to yet another altogether different generation and historical zone. These concerns are not entirely invalid, especially because we are at the threshold of entering the second generation of the post-1989 Sri Lankan readership. If one is to take the approximate time frame of 1989-2009 as a “generational unit”, not only is it completed by a cycle of twenty years, but also as the intermission that marks the tilt of a (UNP) totalitarianism and the consolidation of a (Rajapakshist) regime. 1990 is the year of Richard De Zoysa’s murder and 1993 was the temporal platform onto which Carl Muller sailed in. Similarly, 2009 is the in between year bridging the emergence of Shehan Karunatilaka and the (long awaited) publication of Chinaman.
As much as the likes of Sarachchandra are preferred as the “icon” of Lankan English creativity by the Authority to whom I referred at the very outset, names such as James Goonewardena, Punyakante Wijenaike and Raja Proctor, iconize a crucial developmental phase of the Lankan English novel; specially, if one is to concern herself with the Post-Independence state of our literary output. Though “Nativist Critics” have been harsh on the Romantic and idyllic settings and situations the likes of Goonewardena often banks on, he is one writer of the pre-1990s who is consistent as a publishing author in both fiction and short fiction. Goonewardena’s works such as A Quiet Place, The Call of the Kirala, The Awakening of Dr. Keerthi and Other Stories, and later works such as An Asian Gambit and Tribal Hangover mark the sustained effort of a serious writer, amidst equally serious critics. Punyakante Wijenaike – who writes up to this day – shows a steady maturity between 1966 and the late 1980s. She wins the Second Gratiaen Prize offered in 1994 for Amulet, which – alongside Giraya (1971) – is perhaps her finest among her works of longer fiction.
The 1989-2009 block pools in a host of “celebrated” names in the likes of Romesh Gunasekera, Shyam Selvadurai, Michael Ondaatje, Carl Muller: writers who bring in not only an undeniable trans-national dimension, a lively complex of identity politics, ethnic history and marginalities of sorts; but also curious personalities and idiosyncrasies to boot. This generation also gives birth to a host of pseudo-writers, wannabe writers and powerful mimics who — while being everything else — could also safely pass off as being writers. Depending on their developmental potential – if not connections with influential people and places – the resting place and destinations of this latter group hangs by a pendulum.
However, the first glimpse of us being afoot of a “temporal shift” of sorts was felt when I, a couple of years ago, encountered in batches of young readers (some, also, students of Literature) those who had never heard of Carl Muller. Carl, who, since the Jam Fruit Tree, has been copiously published and lived off by his publishers, has for years been braving his health which is not equally good to him in all weathers. As much as he has been given some literary knighthood by the state, I feel that he can be better accommodated; specially, as he might well be the “Writer Personality Par” of our generation; if not for his extensive bibliography of above-tolerable literature. Carl’s anti-climactic drive is coincidental with the country’s post-2009 dip into chauvinistic extremism, and is symbolized by his “re-invention” of himself as a writer where he – the man who heralded in the Von Bloss Saga in 1992/93 – has now ended up with the cacophony of an embellished “Lion Saga” (as yet, in its fourth volume).
Vijitha Yapa’s reprint of a series of Sarachchandra novels in event of the fellow’s Centenary birth anniversary, therefore, is not solely “good business”. Whether it is the main intention or not, it also preserves and extends for a whole new generation a literature that would have been otherwise naturally deselected (though, this new generation will have to spend 900 rupees a copy each). While Ashok Ferrey – with his Random House publications – may easily do the circuit as the “essential Sri Lankan writer” of the day, one should not feel too bad for a Sarachchandra, a James Goonewardena and a Punyakante Wijenaike to hang on – at least, for the less obvious moments. For, these writers and the zone in which they operated in setting up the post-Independence Sri Lankan novel in English has a potential and relevance which our Toms and Harrys may easily forget in their eager thrust for a place on the moon.