Chaos theorists tell us that a butterfly that stamps may begin a sequence that ends with the crashing of a typhoon upon a city. Romesh Gunesekera's Reef manages to align and illustrate these two congruent ideas. The staggering consequences of delicate shifts and subtle notions and the vast disjunction caused in society by small initial breaks in civilisation are each, in this book, embodied in the danger posed by poison and technology to the polyp, the tiny creature that built the coral reefs which form the ramparts of Sri Lanka. It is the microscopic polyp that gives the protective but dead, and sometimes deadly, reef its living skin. So immanent a metaphor offers risks for a writer.
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T he month before the tsunami of Boxing Day , Romesh Gunesekera took his mother to visit the coast of Sri Lanka where he was born. Two years into a ceasefire between the government and separatist Tamil Tigers, there was optimism that decades of sectarian bloodshed were at an end. When news of the waves' devastation reached London, Gunesekera was floored by the "sickening sense of another disaster" setting the country back.
In Gunesekera's Booker-shortlisted first novel, Reef , a marine biologist warned of the vulnerability of the island's protective coral reef, saying that "if the structure is destroyed, the sea will rush in". Driving down the coast road from the capital Colombo, Gunesekera had seen "heaps of coral, used to make cement.
It's precisely those places," he says, "where the sea came straight in and demolished the houses. In Reef, the fragile, living coral is partly a metaphor for a land poised to crumble into fratricidal self-destruction. Gunesekera's fiction often touches on loss, flight, memory, the eroding passage of time and the despoilment of ostensible paradises.
Now 53, he left what was then Ceylon in , before the conflict took root, moving to the Philippines aged 12, then to England at But since his debut short story collection, Monkfish Moon , his fiction has largely been set between Britain and Sri Lanka, or on unnamed tropical islands resembling his birthplace. His fourth and most recent novel, The Match, traces its protagonist Sunny Fernando's passion for cricket from a Colombo childhood, through teen years in the Philippines, to adulthood in Britain.
Its paperback publication by Bloomsbury coincided with the Sri Lankan cricket team's reaching the world cup final. Gunesekera confesses that, though he bowled as a boy to a coconut-branch wicket, he is "not a sporty person", yet writing this sometimes humorous novel rekindled his enthusiasm for the game. The book is punctuated by cricket matches and political flash points. Six weeks after a suicide bombing in Colombo in , Sri Lanka won the World Cup for the first time.
After the peace talks, it played a test match against England at which Sinhalese and Tamils cheered the same side. For Gunesekera, the game is a way of "exploring identity and belonging.
In cricket, there's an element of heightened ethnic identity, but everyone knows it's a sham; you can easily switch teams. They're moveable lines. If you go back in time, they're not so deep-rooted; families are intermingled. As Sunny drifts, his marriage faltering and his past slipping away "like loose change", the novel explores how complex, individual identities are really built, through what we choose to remember or imagine.
But he finds that, without an anchor in the past, he's weightless. His solution is to create a past in London that's entirely his own, not that of a group. That's what most of us do - form our own identity, so you're uniquely you. Gunesekera seems more at ease discussing his characters' lives than his own.
He lives in north London with his wife Helen, a local government worker. They met as students at Liverpool University, and have two daughters: Shanthi, a student, and Tanisa, who is still at school.
Although he left Sri Lanka aged 12, Gunesekera visits often, and in received a Ranjana, a national honour from the president. Among his inspirations are the sixth-century verses graffitied on the rock of the Sigiriya fortress, the first secular poetry written in Sinhala, the majority language of Sri Lanka. The country, he says, is "a place I've got to know more since I left. When I was there, I wasn't imaginatively living there; I was reading trashy fiction.
He was born in , in Colombo, the second of three children. His father worked for the Central Bank of Ceylon. Not long after independence from Britain in , "nationalist fervour and nation-building were in full swing", he says. Though he went to an elite Sinhala school and was bilingual, his parents were part of an English-speaking middle class at a time when "English was seen as the sword that cut off people's mother tongues".
Unlike India's remoulding of English into a unifying national language, Sri Lankan policy was to let it die out. Gunesekera's schooling was "terrible; my English teacher didn't speak English". Though the policy was eased as the international handicaps became clear, many problems, in his view, "stem from language. The nationalist movement supported Sinhala by suppressing Tamil; there were competing nationalisms.
It was a fundamental mistake to make parallel streams in education - or a calculated political gamble. Politicians were playing with it. His parents divorced when he was eight, but later remarried, living together in London till his father's death 10 years ago. When Gunesekera's father moved to Marcos's Philippines to set up the Asian Development Bank, his son followed for five years.
He came to see his "run-of-the-mill British colonial inheritance" as parochial in a country whose imperial power was the US, and which cheered for baseball not cricket. His early life did not lack drama and tragedy. One of his teenage friends was killed by another in a martial arts knife fight.
Earlier, his closest boyhood friend had died of cancer aged Yet, "I was lost in a world of books", he says. He devoured the rebels of the Beat generation, and began to write at Joining his mother in Liverpool when he was 17, his impression was of somewhere "very staid; a small country of quaint ways". After studying English and philosophy at Liverpool, he moved to London in For 12 years he wrote while a senior official at British Council headquarters, until he become a full-time writer in He wanted to create "a fictional, imaginative Sri Lanka through words, as others had with places like the Deep South.
It doesn't matter to me if it corresponds to reality. The reprisals that followed an attempted revolution in Sri Lanka were "the first period of mass brutality and killing that changes everyone's consciousness". They presaged the "suppurating ethnic war" in which bodies would repeatedly roll in the surf. When police burned Jaffna library in , and there were anti-Tamil pogroms in , he says, even from a distance, "you feel something terrible is happening in which you're implicated".
Ranging back to the 60s, Reef explores a feudal master-servant bond between Mister Salgado and his young cook Triton that shifts as they take refuge from the troubles in London.
Growing up with servants, says Gunesekera, "I spent a lot of time in the kitchen talking to people who were as close as friends. It was a familiar world, and a way of exploring a power relationship that would eventually equalise itself.
Reef, Gunesekera insists, is "not a story about a lost paradise. Triton's world had its harshness. But that sense of loss mirrors what happens in your mind: most people are able to see the past in a better light. Most childhoods are full of anxiety, but that tends to get smoothed over so you have a sense of nostalgia.
It's not nostalgia, in the sense of yearning to bring back the past, but recognition of the erosion of things as you live. The motif of time passing underpins his second novel, The Sandglass , a complex reconstruction of warring dynasties and corporate greed.
It was written, he says, when "the violence in Sri Lanka was at its height. So I wrote about a woman dying of old age, and what other, deliberate killings might mean. We are, Gunesekera believes "all artists of our own lives". Heaven's Edge , set 30 years into a post-nuclear future on a mythic "emerald island", was partly inspired by rereading Homer's Odyssey and by other quests, from Conrad to the Ramayana.
Yet where the past is "choked with wars, disputes, borders as pointless as chalk lines in water", it explores whether killing for personal or national freedom is ever justified. It was written before September 11, but published amid a "rising level of violence all over the world - and acceptance of it", he says. But the idea of intervention being good has led us to Iraq. The Sri Lankan peace brokered in was shattered within a year of the tsunami, in The conflict now raging has displaced , people in the past year.
Gunesekera, who was "perfectly aware that maybe we'd be back to square one", blames political short-termism and "people making money out of the war". But "there are no easy answers". While his fiction is peopled by wanderers, its universal concerns are not only with violence, but our fractured relationship with the past, and how we move on to have many homes.
A terrible sense of loss keeps accumulating in our lives. Topics Books. Fiction reviews. Reuse this content. Most popular.
Reef, by Romesh Gunesekera
It is a personal story that parallels the larger movement of a country from a hopeful, young democracy to troubled island society. Naipaul, and Anton Chekhov. Reef explores the entwined lives of Mr. Salgado, an aristocratic marine biologist and student of sea movements and the disappearing reef, and his houseboy, Triton, who learns to polish silver until it shines like molten sun; to mix a love cake with ten eggs, creamed butter, and fresh cadju nuts; to marinate tiger prawns; and to steam parrot fish. Through these characters and the forty years of political disintegration their country endures, Gunesekera tells the tragic, sometimes comic, story of a lost paradise and a young man coming to terms with his destiny. The New Press is a nonprofit public-interest book publisher.
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Why did we love it so much? To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber. Please subscribe to sign in to comment. Reef, by Romesh Gunesekera Paperback review. Eimear McKeith. Sat, Sep 20, , First published: Sat, Sep 20, , More from The Irish Times Books.