by Carla N. Merinnage
As a reader and critic, I am new to the work of the poet, short story and fiction writer Vihanga Perera, and my reflections on the corpus of literature written by him does not incorporate the development and changes of his style of writing throughout the course of the years. However, out of academic interest, I wish to reflect on his short story collection Postcards to Bentham (2013) which incorporates a corpus of seven “odd” short stories woven together, bringing to light the writer’s fantasies, ramblings, political views, his avid love for cricket as well as confusing, ambiguous and vague plot bunnies.
In this collection, the short story “Julia’s Friend”, albeit rather ambiguous and confusing, explores the narrator’s involvement with a number of women. The different parts of this story are somehow all connected together in some loose logical way, but still, they are horribly out of place when you try to connect the dots at first glance. The author is very elaborate and descriptive, and the evocative scenes described in the story are well-written as you can vividly imagine a mental picture of the events in sequence. However, the story continues to progress till it stops at a seemingly abrupt juncture where you are rudely left pondering as to what exactly just happened.
Of the line up, the story I least enjoyed was “Sacred Avenues”, and I found it a very long and monotonous read. I would not recommend it to anyone who has no passion for cricket (like me). However, I also believe that those who can truly connect with the soul of sports, the concept of team loyalty and of course those who have an avid love for cricket and so forth will find it a good read. But, this story – perhaps, also different in style and temperament to the rest of the collection – was an odd ball for my reader sensibility.
My personal favourite in Postcards to Bentham is without a doubt the opening story of the collection, “Teacher of Baffo.” This story, perhaps, can give you a small inkling to the reason as to why a Gratiaen prize judge in 2011 dissed Perera’s writing. Quoting from the somewhat amusing description from the author’s own Facebook page, “a Gratiaen Prize Judge, in 2011, has dissed Vihanga Perara’s writing as being stories of himself. Vihanga Perera’s writing has been blacklisted from his own sensitive cousins’ children’s bookshelves.”
Yes, Perera’s stories might possibly be “stories of himself”, however arguing as to what extent the writer’s stories incorporate his own personal stories and depraved fantasies would be a waste of time. I personally found “Teacher of Baffo” was like the free psychological reign of the ferocious and foul beast of carnal desires which, for instance, characters like the protagonist Nayonangshu from Buddhadeva Bose’s it rained all night tightly controls and represses his whole life. “Teacher of Baffo” is also a good and interesting start to Perera’s collection, highlighting a central theme which is explored in a number of his short stories: the collapse of hope, meaning, expectation and excitement. It is the kind of story which would invite you to the dark side of literature with the promise of delicious cookies, only to let you down with a batch of burnt and bitter ones.
“Cleona’s Dreams” was another ambiguous short story for me and I profoundly felt the sense of something amiss after finishing the story. Maybe the story offers possibilities of a different read which I am unable to perceive. However it is not a story which I will go back and attempt to re-interpret and re-analyze.
Altogether I would recommend Perera’s Postcards of Bentham to a reader who is interested in exploring a different side to the mainstream of Sri Lankan literature. Maybe some stories will let you down, will be ambiguous and monotonous, but still I believe it will offer you fresh bouts of amusement, excitement and kudos for your imagination.