By Indika Fernando
[Indika Fernando had his education at the Universities of Kelaniya and St. Andrew’s. He has worked in advertising, travel journalism and PR. email@example.com]
Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, composed in 1798, commences with the following lines:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
Music. Death, by Vihanga Perera, is a novel set in the years adjacent to 1998, which opens with two self-consciously pastoral descriptions, not too dissimilar to Wordsworth’s note, two hundred years earlier. The first is one of the valley below Primrose Hill, said to consist of “clean skies, murmuring breezes” and a “river nuzzling by, among the crags down the slope”. In a connecting chapter, the scene moves to the Eastern boundary of Primrose Hill, where a group of young boys and girls seem to pay a musical tribute to a dead peer: a scene set in the semi-wilderness of a remote mountain hideout, almost pagan in its orientation: a wasteland that is “a haven for walkers, a retreat for young lovers; and a stirrer of the romantic’s soul”; a “small, uncharted plot of nowhere land: a strip that had been aborted from the tape when two…chunks of undeveloped property were plotted out for house construction”.
This echoing of the Romantic vibe of the English poetic tradition – both in description and sensation – seems to be strategic and premeditated, as landscape scenes of the aforementioned nature cut into the text at carefully measured intervals. Two further instances that comes to mind is the retreat they young group of musicians make to a hillock close to Kadugannawa, to the heart of “countless, uncharted acres of God’s gifted wild”. Here, the musicians play, write poetry and discuss philosophy – the reference to one of the boys discussing non-Christian (pagan) Aristotle and Plato, again, is of note. In another chapter, the cutting down of a sentimental tree (owned by?) a boy called Bevis is referred to with much embellishment, closely reminiscent of the emergence of a post-industrial psyche, which overrides the values and codes of morality in a Romantic universe. Bevis is shown to struggle against the superior bureaucracy to save his tree, but is finally defeated in the struggle, resulting in a “contemporary replay of that age-old trajectory, where ‘progress’ buys over ‘nature’; and where ‘big business’ steamrolls the aesthetic impulses of life”.
In this way, Music. Death. becomes a retrospection of the ending of a familiar way of life – one which is framed with familiar (even clichéd) images and motifs of the Romantic Psyche – in an inevitable surrender to industry and modernity. Music. Death. is an embellished replay of an outdated technology, an outmoded sense of the world, and a value and moral system which, merely fifteen years from the time in which the narrative is based, is both alien and incongruous to the contemporary reader. With carefully selected references to isolated events in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and in placing them par with more recent years, the writer/persona seems to seek an implosion of his own life, the “essence” of which (not too unlike what one often finds in pastoral poems in the Romantic tradition) is suspended in a happy past. Ralston, the record studio owner who once introduces to CK, the narrator, all the progressive music of his youth, urges CK to “marry and settle down”, as they meet a decade or so later. All the young musicians and their myriad bands of yore, are, years later, defunct and disbanded. Aurelia, who stirs romantic feelings in young CK, with a personality that easily reminds one of the 60s Joan Baezes and the Janis Joplins, has, by the narrative present de/evolved to be a corporate CEO with a “near seven digit salary”.
The text’s dual preoccupation with “music” and “death”, too, provide an unmistakable Romantic vibration. Specially, the morbid flatness with which death is, at times, referred to gives the vibe of it being accepted and internalized as a fact of life, which is too immediate to disengage from. The text opens with a reference to a murder of a mother and a child, and concludes with CK’s elegy for the same. Deaths of schoolmates and friends are referenced with a sardonic, detachment where, at a alumni association party a minute of silence is observed in the name of friends “lost to causes natural and man-made; causes inevitable, and ones caused by a moment’s negligence and sheer idiocy. From friends run over by school vans, trains and their own moments of weakness, to friends taken by fever, water and bullets and knives”.
An alumni association member is earlier seen taking down the names of all the dead fellows, copying the names lest he accidentally leaves out a name: “the last thing you needed was a long dead school mate for an unfriendly Casper”. The closing quarter of the novel shocks the reader with the deaths of CK’s friends Silva, Nana and Nandha. All three persons are shown to have something essentially innocent and unaffected at their core – but, in complement with the Romantic vibration, they are the ones to be overtaken by gloomy death. The idea of death is also seen through the pulling down of familiar spaces with sentimental attachment and memory. The Alliance Francaise building (in which place a chain store is set up) is a repeated motif, which is demolished by the passive industrial drive. The tongue-in-cheek poem dedicated to the school toilet – which is pulled down and is replaced by a flower nursery – is a more light-veined illustration of the same.
Music. Death. does not achieve much as a commentary or a revisionist intervention. Vihanga Perera merely occupies himself with nostalgia and embellishment – but, both are directed at achieving an aestehtically pleasing function. In the few instances where a strong critique does take over – such as in the setion to do with Bevis’ tree – very little is said or done to transform that moment into a valid political statement. On the contrary, the inherent detached/suspended air of the narative (which, again, is more focused on the lost past than the present) dulls whatever political incentive the text offers.