Among the litany of war novels and war movies, Distant Warriors stands out with its fed-up teenage stance. The novel isn’t apathetic, but its focus on two surly boys captures the essence of those who want to move beyond the hateful memories and just sleep in on the weekend. Miles away in Australia the old hatreds swirl around the boys, who could almost care less. Of course, it’s young men who usually get served up to die.
Distant Warriors is set in Melbourne, hence the ‘distant’. In a perhaps unintentional metaphor for the international situation, the Tamils are holding a well-organized fundraiser and the Sinhalese are mounting a drunken and largely incompetent protest. The scenery is Western, but the same familiar nationalist vitriol comes from the parents, lawyers, and clergy â€“ some for Eelam, some for Sri Lanka.
Rajan is the Tamil teen, and he’s got to wake up to his little brother blaring the LTTE anthem to his glowing parents. On the other side, Priyantha’s dad ran off with the lady from Tandoori Village and the son gets drawn into a Sinhala mob. His Chinese girlfriend is on his case like the Sun Tzu Art of War quotes that open each chapter. Her advice, however, is more along the line of ‘you’re a dumbass’. The tone of the novel is suburban and evenhanded, though spiced with lyrical gems like “He stared hard at [the email], the way people regard interesting but not necessarily authentic or true things: like breast implants or weather reports”. Another example is “race and culture are like a wire mesh separating individuals… through the mesh you could talk to people on the other side, exchange views, share feelings. If the holes are big enough’, he said with a chuckle, ‘you could even have sex”. The characterization is capable and the players are sympathetic, reprehensible, and tragic as needs be. The switching of perspective from Tamil to Sinhala is managed through the parallel teens, and by showing both sides behaving in similar ways. The end is slightly forced, but memorable.
Distant Warriors appeals primarily to the generation that left Sri Lanka young, and those that never lived here at all. At the same time, it is relevant to those who did live through the horrors and inequities of the past. The former could learn to take the matter a bit seriously, or to at least think about it. The latter might think twice about passing on a birthright of revenge, trauma, and death. Many war stories are heavy-handed and self-righteous, trying to guilt you into feeling something. Despite its rushed ending, Distant Warriors takes another route. The most pressing arguments here are that war keeps you up on the weekend and pisses off your girlfriend. In a way, this hits harder.
The author Channa Wickremesekera was born in Colombo and lives and teaches in Australia. Distant Warriors is published by Perera-Hussein Publishing House. Available at all leading bookshops and all the other places you can’t find the LT anymore.