Mother and child preparing an exhibit at the Wendt commemorating Black July
There’s a book club meeting next Wednesday (6th) at Barefoot. The book being discussed is July, by Karen Roberts. I’m including a semi-review here and if you like you can get the book at the Foot or Yapa and come for the book club thing. Black July in 1983 is probably the defining moment in modern Sri Lanka, very much for the worse. In reaction to the LTTE killing 13 soldiers (now an almost daily occurence), people rioted in the streets – murdering, raping and robbing innocent Tamil civilians. If you could cut the tension before, this was the knife. However, this moment only occupies a slim chapter in ‘July’. The rest is the story of an average Colombo neighborhood with Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher neighbors. It’s the Sri Lanka that could’ve been, before Black July shattered the illusion.
Just for reference, Sinhala girl, Tamil boy, tragic love. Quite a few novels seem to go for the Romeo and Juliet pairing of Tamil/Sinhala couples (Road to Elephant Pass, for one). I think Ranjan Ramanayake (One Shot) even offered to marry Prabhakaran’s daughter to end the current conflict. I would vote for him just for comedic value. Anyways, there’s this couple at the core of the story. Getting in their way is the typical Sri Lankan family thing and a supporting cast of neighbors.
I don’t think the book is especially thematically original or anything, its main benefit is that it simply documents 1983. It does use a bucolic Toddy Tapper as a sort of role model for the young couple. He married a much wealthier woman and got his ass kicked in return, but they’re poor and happy together.
This isn’t as much a literary theme as just life in Sri Lanka. They can’t get together cause they’re Sinhala and Tamil (despite the parents being friends), but parents come up with similar objections based on caste, wealth, religion, etc. For better or worse, romantic love is less of a concept here and it is perfectly acceptable to match people through ads in the paper. I don’t think this is incorrect either, marriages fall apart for financial and social reasons much more than for love. Still, families meddle in everything and the particular manner in which the Sinhala girl’s parents try to fix her up is entertaining.
This is another seeming standard in Sri Lankan novels, or at least, um, two of them. Distant Warriors also ambles along through normalcy to build to a violent and abrupt ending. I was also watching this Japanese film ‘Audition‘ which, in a similar way built up through normal trips to hotels and daily life to a deeply fucked up ending which had a man’s foot being sawed off, leaving me (literally) cowering behind the seat. I mean, I actually got out of my seat and kneeled on the floor so I wouldn’t have to see any more. But I digress. July is all normal family problems with sorta heavy-handed and one-dimensional hints as to who the final antagonist will be. I’ll quote from the general descriptions of the riots in ‘July’, cause I think they’re worth recording.
‘By noon, there were thousands of people on the streets. A few were workers trying to find their way home. The others were men intent on murder and mayhem. They carried sticks, knives, axes, lengths of cable, and containers – plastic cans, tins, bottles – of petrol. Most didn’t even know what they were doing there but were swept on by the hugeness of the whole thing. They prowled the streets in packs of fifty or more…
The streets were littered with empty cars, their fuel caps opened. They had been drained with hosepipes and greedy sucking mouths. Ammunition for the anger. In the distance, she heard a muted roar. Her steps quickened, as did her heartbeat. Just past the junction she stopped, afraid to go any further. About a hundred people crowded around something, screaming and cheering. Some laughing slightly hysterically.
Something – vulgar curiosity perhaps – propelled her into the crow. The wall of sweat-stained soot-blackened backs parted slightly to give her a glimpse of a man on his knees, who screamed for mercy, who called out to many unhearing gods to save him. She saw the wild fear in his rolling eyes, smelled the coppery odour of blood, which lay around him in a small but growing pool. He had deep slashes on his arms, his head, his torso, his back.’
I like July more as a historical document than a novel. As a novel I’d say it’s average. The family scenes are typical and the prose is the same, and the thematic webbing is non-daring. However, what it does do is picture a Sri Lanka that most Sri Lankans would know, that isolated cul-de-sac of sanity off a turbulent and eruptive street.
Barefoot Book Club thing is next Wednesday (the 6th) at 6pm. Feel free to read the book and come