What is the first Tamil novel

There is only one day left for love - a debut novel from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is not a focal point on the literary map of the world, but Anuk Arudpragasam's name is worth remembering. He succeeds in creating an existential and poetic sketch from the time of the civil war.

The bloody civil war in Sri Lanka lasted more than a quarter of a century. In the end, shortly before the Sri Lankan Army's victory over the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, thousands of Tamil civilians who had sought shelter in makeshift camps set up by the movement died again. The conflict took place almost exclusively in the north of the country, where the Tamil minority hoped to finally be able to live in peace.

Those who lived in the south of the country were largely spared the atrocities of war. Anuk Arudpragasam - he was born in 1988, five years after the outbreak of war - grew up in the south of the island, in Colombo. But his family belonged to the Tamil minority; the war and with it the now more, now less explicit hostility of the Sinhalese were thus part of their daily life. Arudpragasam himself has been living in Sri Lanka again for some time after completing a degree in philosophy in the USA.

Persistent paralysis

With his debut novel “The Story of a Short Marriage” the author returns to the years of the civil war. It has long been a topic in Sinhala and Tamil literature in the country, but among the English-speaking authors only Michael Ondaatje or Romesh Gunesekera have taken up it so far. The fact is: Despite the peace in the country, the wounds of this war have still not really healed. The trauma of a nation that has practically operated on its living body and has been put into persistent paralysis is too deep.

So it is not surprising when Arudpragasam begins his narrow and haunting novel with just such a scene: We are in one of the camps in the middle of the jungle close to the coast and witness how the last doctor left there without a boy wounded by a bomb Anesthesia amputated another limb. And yet “The Story of a Marriage” is not a novel about the war and its atrocities, even if they keep falling over the characters. Rather, the author takes the war as a background in order to reflect on the human condition itself: What happens when people live under traumatic circumstances - and how is it possible to remain human in a completely dehumanized environment?

Fanned out time

Arudpragasam therefore tells a story that at first glance might sound banal: A man - his name is Dinesh and is in his early twenties - and a woman - her name is Ganga and is offered by her father as a bride to Dinesh - marry. But of course nothing is banal in an environment in which dying has become part of everyday life and one's own imminent death seems inevitable. The writer follows his two protagonists for just under 24 hours; The time they have is also very limited. It is precisely this period that the novel unfolds in an extremely artistic way: for Dinesh, from whose point of view the plot is brought closer to us, the marriage becomes an awakening from his own trauma: He realizes how cut off he lived for the sake of survival ; Memories - for example of his mother who was killed while fleeing - arise.

But above all, for the first time, he believes in the possibility of a future again. Death seems to be abolished for a short time. For a short time, Dinesh and Ganga seem a couple like each other; tenderly, Dinesh explores her sleeping face. They are passages of moving poetic beauty, free from any kitsch, from any feeling. In a subtle and yet crystal clear, almost razor-sharp language, Arudpragasam exposes the fragile and emotionally complex inner life of people who want to preserve their humanity in the midst of death.

Meditation on life and death

Dinesh therefore repeatedly reflects on the fundamentals: What does happiness mean? What is a marriage? What does it mean to die? These reflections are based on a poetics that is close to the body: Dinesh does his ablutions with the utmost care, examines his bowel movements - always bearing in mind that this body is the last and only thing it still has in its bare existence reduced existence.

Above all, the novel is based on an ethic that is equivalent to a spiritual meditation, in that Arudpragasam ultimately describes life as the span between inhalation and exhalation, expansion and letting go, birth and death. Buddhism knows these images - but in Sri Lanka it is more likely to be attributed to the Sinhalese, even though the island was shaped by a culture of religious mix long before the civil war. In fact, Arudpragasam is nowhere in the novel about assigning blame, but rather about the question of how the trauma of this war can finally be overcome. In the end, death will triumph in this novel too. “The story of a short marriage” is nevertheless an eminent book about human hope - and a debut novel, the promising author of which is already playing in the league of Michael Ondaatje.

Anuk Arudpragasam: The Story of a Short Marriage. Translated from the English by Hannes Meyer. Hanser Berlin, Berlin 2017. 224 pp., Fr. 31.90.