Reading Bentham; Or, a Re-formed Vihanga Perera

by Denver De Joodt (tomahawk 69)

In 2007 or 2008, Vihanga, speaking to a reading group in which I was also seated said that in creative writing what matters is sentiment; and not form. Six years later — better late than never — he writes Postcards to Bentham, a collection of short stories that varies from his other published collection, The(ir) (Au)topsy (2006), in both form as well as sentiment. Here, he is more accessible, cohesive and works along a track where meaning is easily made, transmitted and received.

I am an amaetur, and not an academic or a radical. My formal education in Literature ended with the G.C.E O/L (thanks be to you, Lord!) and whatever literary interests I have are self-born. When I read the manuscript of Postcards to Bentham, and as I shared with the writer, the easy accessibility stands out as the key of this collection; for, accessibility matters, even if you are a so-called experimental maverick. You can foul linearity or play around with spatiality and the axes of time, but, from a purely reader perspective, if the receiver of your story is not granted access or permission to enter your work, what mileage do you gain even if it is a good thing you are doing?

148997_113487035385729_223900_nWhen Vihanga Perera requested me to review his novel The Fear of Gambling (2011), one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me was the form. Here I was, reading what I thought was an engaging story, but being denied accessibility and progression every other paragraph. Knowing the writer in a “different time” (which he doesn’t associate with anymore except in the books he writes) helps — but how far can a reader go? What about the readers who do not bother; or readers who do not know? In Postcards to Bentham, however, we have an absolved writer, someone who respects the audience as much as he respects his craftsmanship.

Of the collection, the seven short stories take seven unique paths. No two stories are alike; there is a stark absence of repetition or “echoes” in style or content: a striking difference from The(ir) (Au)topsy. The 2006 collection has way too many overlaps in emotion and sentiment. In many ways, Postcards to Bentham is an improvement. The stories are well written, well polished, cohesive and firmly held together. There are no loose ends or narrative anomalies such as abruptness or uneven movements. Theme-wise, the stories show diversity and variety, while they are mature than the stories in The(ir) (Au)topsy in depicting the world.

The opening story “The Teacher of Baffo” is a pleasant tease for the reader and it makes you want to push on, always anticipating some Casanova-like climax. “Sacred Avenues”, the second story, pushes us to a totally different psychological ground from where “The Teacher of Baffo” ends. In “Sacred Avenues” the personal trauma of a teenage kid who is torn between his lost love and team loyalty to the school’s Cricket XI is well presented. “Photos of Rebellion” is of a totally different pitch and tone. This is, perhaps, the most politically-relevant story, where Vihanga Perera traces the idea of “violence” in current Lankan society through a series of historical and personal encounters.

Stories such as “Julia’s Friend” and “Cleona’s Dreams” has signs of Vihanga Perera’s older style, but neither of these stories bullies the reader. “Julia’s Friend” is designed in four parts where the style which we repeatedly see in The(ir) (Au)topsy, where the story diffuses into segments, than come together and form a continuing line is used. “Cleona’s Dreams” is ambiguous and unclear, giving room to many possibilities: again, a stylistic feature of the the writer in 2006. But, even without a clear grip on a “single slab of meaning”, you can still read the stories on, as they don’t foul you by being over-obscure or esoteric.

“My Generation” is a haunting rendition: a story that traces back from the present to the past three “moments” from a man’s life, who appears to be a psychiatrist. It starts with an encounter with “a patient”, who has a psychosis created by living in our times. The entire first section is in monologue form, where the patient goes on a delusional harrangue. The story ends with the psychiatrist mentally visiting a scene where he plays Cricket with friends in a school ground, long ago. The atmosphere is relaxed and the only problem the shrink has is how to play the school mate who is bowling. Between those two scenes a very strong criticism of our time, and the time we have taken leave of while growing up, is built up that way.

Of the Vihanga Perera books I have read — The(ir) (Au)topsy, The Fear of Gambling and Postcards to Bentham — I feel Vihanga is more expressive as a short story writer. Of course, I count out his poetry here, because I don’t understand poetry, too much. But, I have seen reviews where journalists such as Malinda Seneviratne and Rathindra Kuruvita present varying views. Seneviratne hails Vihanga as a better poet, while Kuruvita disses his poetry as “a drag”. However, my view is Vihanga is a better short story writer, mainly because he thinks in images. His visuals are strong and he depends on the sharpness of detail. A novel has to be structured on a more elaborate platform and Vihanga doesn’t have that capability to build on structures.

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