Books: A tear-shaped homeland

THE SANDGLASS by Romesh Gunesekera, Granta pounds 9.99
MY EVERY breath seemed imbued with petrol. I wanted to close my eyes and imagine a warm sea and our salt in the air. I did not know what I was doing in there." So thinks the protagonist in the prologue to Romesh Gunesekera's last novel, Reef (1994), when in an English petrol station he comes across a fellow Sri Lankan (Tamil, unlike himself). These poignant sentences could form a motto for all Gunesekera's fiction from the subtle, resonant short stories of Monkfish Moon (1992) to the present novel, The Sandglass, his most ambitious book. For all the delicacy of his art, for all his preference for ambiguous inference over overt judgement, throughout his work one emotional truth plainly reverberates: Sri Lanka compels the leaving of it. Not for nothing is it "tear-shaped"; fecund and beautiful, it is the putative site of the Garden of Eden, of the paradisiacal Atlantis, from which humanity was exiled. Even those who stay there are forced, by the uncertainties and cruelties of its unflagging civil war, to live in a kind of exile. With its tainted, blood-stained past, stretching far back beyond the British occupation, and its unpredictable future, it would seem unable, in any satisfying sense, to provide a home for its inhabitants.

The attempt to establish a home is at the heart of The Sandglass, and in particular the doomed attempts of two neighbouring but contrasting families, the Ducals and the Vatunases. Jason Ducal, self-driven, self- made, profiting by the withdrawal of the British from "Ceylon", is able, in 1948, to buy a house in a district of Colombo "where no Ducal before him had ever dreamed of owning one". Jason sees his house as a ship, which in form it resembles, from the "bridge" of which he can survey his own spectacular progress. Ironically its name, bestowed by the Englishman who built it, is Arcadia, and it is tear-shaped like the country itself. Next door lies the Vatunas family's property, "the result of a deep and intense relationship between the sleeping earth and the ambitions of a line of modern dynasts. And for the Vatunases, from the first to the last, land defined everything: the shape of their lives, the shape of their bodies and their heads and the shape of their dreams."

The history of the Ducal and Vatunas families is pieced together - with perhaps some side-glances at William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom - by an outsider, one distant in time and space if not in emotional concern from the places and events. Chip, the novel's narrator ("I had left Sri Lanka some years before but still had no place of my own)", comes in 1975 to lodge with Pearl, Jason's widow, now resident with her family in London. Pearl's name, of course, connotes, without undue strain, Sri Lanka itself, famous for its pearls, and resembling one in both size and loveliness. After a brief introduction telling us how haunted he still is by the Ducal history ("with the scheming Vatunases ... forever coiled round them"), Chip takes us take us back to February 1993, when Prins, Pearl's only surviving child and once good friend to Chip, returns from Colombo for his mother's funeral. For two days (their progress beautifully and intimately evoked) Prins and Chip try to talk into some coherence the difficult, fragmented past. Prins left the London of his exile not just for Colombo but for a relationship with a Vatunas daughter, Lola, but he has found no resting place, either externally or internally. In particular he has become obsessed by the nature of his father's death, which may or may not have been the accident it has been conveniently labelled. Jason, for whom, as for his son later, entrepreneurial activity and a hunger for spiritual adventure are inextricably intertwined, left behind notebooks in which he recorded his thoughts. And one of his last was: "The imagination is our most molested flower, so easily crippled in a heartless paradise."

Prins' story is - one assumes - to parallel his father's. When Chip, a globe-trotting businessman, revisits Sri Lanka, he cannot find Prins. No-one knows where he is, or what has happened, this sudden descent of obscurity only too characteristic of this "heartless paradise". Yet away from it the fate of Sri Lankans may be no kinder. There is nothing better in this novel than the account of Prins' brother, Ravi's quiet tragic life in England, culminating in a suicide so undramatic it scarce deserves the name. "He not only tried not to make any impression in his daily life, but he tried to undo all past impressions ... He had been so meticulous over his exit that after he passed away not even a single letter arrived for him to remind anyone of his curtailed life."

Reef, one of the outstanding novels of our decade, succeeds to a considerable degree because of the voice to its narrator, the houseboy Triton who works for the gifted but lazy oceanologist whom he follows into exile. For much of his narrative he is unaware of the metaphoric nature of the situations he describes. Chip in The Sandglass is, by contrast, only too aware, and moreover anxious to underscore. Closer to his creator than Triton, he is far less successful as an autonomous character, especially when juxtaposed with the quite brilliantly realised Prins. Now and again, too, I wondered if the oblique method of presentation doesn't impair our emotional response to events and relationships. Yet this is also part of the novel's point: only the oblique is possible for these confused heirs to a former imperial possession. The Sandglass is a novel of true distinction, the work of a profoundly honest mind, one utterly unconcerned with the authorial self, intent instead on the lot of fellow humans and its meaning. He wants, in the words of the beautiful close to his novel, "to free the future from the shadows of the past", to be spun "forward from this hurt earth to a somehow better world".