by Himali Liyanage
As a reader I like to see ‘Postcards to Bentham’ as a “beginning” of a new era in Perera’s writing, instead of a discontinuity of his former “rough” style. It takes the reader through a series of comprehensively diverse pictures with depth and vividity, where Perera loses his “roughness” but not his style.
Since his first novel ‘Stable Horses’ (now translated into Sinhala as ‘Heela Ashwayo’) he was advised publicly by many critics and his own readers to recycle himself and to change. Has he taken in the words of the world, or has he kept on giving his word to the world for what it is worth? What makes him not lose this battle? I find the answers to these above questions embedded in ‘Postcards to Bentham’, one of the most fascinatingly crafted short story collections from Sri Lanka that I’ve read recently.
If I begin with the book cover, ‘Postcards to Bentham’ vouches for what is meant by the popular adage that a ‘picture says a thousand words’. Perera has learned the lesson of having a proper book cover not because people judge the book by its cover but because most of the loved books happen to have a cover that is, too, remembered by the readers. The Book title goes hand in hand with the cover and also with the stories without manhandling the reader but letting the sensitive and the cleverest reader to connect the dots. I guess that’s how Vihanga Perera tries to stay in a close circle of readers instead of mass marketing and, to me, the trick works efficiently.
As a reader I like to see ‘Postcards to Bentham’ as a “beginning” of a new era in Perera’s writing, instead of a discontinuity of his former “rough” style. It takes the reader through a series of comprehensively diverse pictures with depth and vividity, where Perera loses his “roughness” but not his style. My favorite story from the collection is ‘Cleona’s Dreams’ written illustrating in every one of its penetrating delicate detail, reminding us of his motto once more, that there is nothing sacred in this world. I take ‘Cleona’s Dreams’ as the only completely fictional creation from the collection and the rest of the stories are “somewhat real”, woven to look like fictional fantasies, same as his other previous work. On page 51, when Perera describes the first time he saw the quote “The prisoner too is a human”, written on the wall of the Welikada Hira Gedera, connecting it with an incident of a shooting that later happened at the prison ground, I’m convinced that he is truthful about both memories. Perhaps that’s why we all agree Vihanga Perera is one of the most genuine writers of our time in Sri Lanka. He has not lost that quality even after many many years since his first book.
For me, the best short story from the collection is ‘Teacher of Baffo’. I feel a déjà vu of the “R. K Narayan effect” when I read ‘Teacher of Baffo’ because of the mystical power the characters of the story have to be connected and one with the reader, while being yet contented in their own little world. In the same way Narayan’s stories are meant not to explain but to excite sensation, ‘Teacher of Baffo’ is something the reader must feel within his or her own heart. However, Perera is again uses his words craftily and effectively to weave the story with a cinematic effect.
In the story ‘Four Photos of Rebellion’ you will find the writer’s familiar humour assuring you that he is the “same writer” we have encountered all along, but a tad mature from his ‘Autopsy’ days. His teasing about the “mother’s mobile phone” elates to most Sri Lankan middle class mothers and that is among what makes the writer’s work realistic and relatable in the atmosphere of current Sri Lanka: a main thread that is subtly discussed in every story of ‘Postcards to Bentham’. The Sri Lanka which Vihanga Perera speaks about is born out of a mind that breathes Sri Lankan air: from a writer to whom the realities he talks about are immediate; with which his engagement is more “real”. It is a Sri Lanka and a commitment we can never get out of a Shyam Selvadurai, Michael Ondaatje or a Nayomi Munaweera. Not that these writers are ‘wow’; but, these are the writers writing in English (from Sri Lanka) that the world speaks about and people pretend to have read.
I feel that ‘Julia’s Friend’ — the fourth story of the collection, and the only one which resonates his earlier “confusing”, “no-plot” story writing style — is written as a token gift of his private life: a story which, perhaps, is not private to his closest, loyal people, so that only they know what the “truest” interpretation of it is, but allowing the rest of the readers to interpret the story in their own ways over a cup of tea; or a psychiatrist by the side.
I do not understand the story ‘Sacred Avenues’ and I don’t see the point of rewriting another one like that after he has written ‘The Fear of Gambling’: a novel with more than 200 pages on the same subject matter – Cricket. Perera, however, seems not to have gotten over with it yet. Having said that I am sure ‘Postcards to Bentham’ is a collection of short stories reflecting what Vihanga Perera believes as his socio-political philosophy which shows no signs of changing in the near future. Only that his writing style has been polished and crafted into a smooth, advance flow, enabling better story telling.
His grammar or the linguistic qualities of the book I cannot criticize. I too am a story teller.
[Himali Liyanage is a New Jersey based lyricist, novelist and story-teller. She has been a critic of my work for many years and a friend at other times — VP]