A Week in Books: cultural ecology as sophisticated as any on earth

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The Independent Culture

It's hard to think of a more fiercely imagined novel about a place in recent years than Michelle de Kretser's The Hamilton Case.

It's hard to think of a more fiercely imagined novel about a place in recent years than Michelle de Kretser's The Hamilton Case. The winner of two major prizes, this Sri Lankan-born author's second book painted an unforgettably rich and nuanced portrait of late-colonial Ceylon. One of its narrators, the Tamil lawyer John Shivanathan, turns in old age into a cynical peddler of "exotic" tales about his history-haunted home. His rival, the anglicised Sam Obeysekere, spits with disgust that "those terrible little pictures, drained of all complexity, were hailed by his publishers as authentic glimpses of an island paradise".

The representation of disaster wipes out differences, much as packaged tourism and escapist literature aim to do. Seen from afar (especially seen by the deadline-driven media), calamities downsize sufferers into a pure and passive state of victimhood. In the immediate aftermath, this image of simple neediness no doubt helps to open chequebooks. In the longer term, effective reconstruction calls for an understanding that, often, what has been smashed by the rage of nature is not a blank slate but a subtle palimpsest of cultures and histories. And nowhere is that ancient manuscript more intricately drawn than in Sri Lanka, which de Kretser's narrator recalls as "a small island riding an ocean and nothing to break the fall".

Over the past couple of days, reports have described the ravaged coasts of a so-called "holiday island", supposedly made up of plain fishing villages punctuated by "idyllic" beach resorts. Such clichés may serve charity, but they do nothing for comprehension. Ultimately, the survivors of this earthquake will require support that recognises who they are in a way that goes far beyond cartoon images. I can't speak for the stricken parts of Indonesia, Thailand or Tamil Nadu but I do know that the Sri Lankan shores that took the full force of the Boxing Day tsunami no more resembled a pristine "paradise" than the coasts of Sussex or Provence.

In his brilliant memoir of his Sri Lankan clan, Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje reports that, when houses were built along the coast road between Colombo and Galle, "it was said that a chicken could walk between the two cities without touching the ground". The cultural profusion along this crowded littoral more than matches its staggering natural abundance. In the same small town you may spot, within yards, a domed Buddhist dagoba, a sculpture-strewn Hindu kovil, an austerely elegant mosque and a Baroque Roman Catholic church.

A little further up the coast stands the Lighthouse Hotel, designed by the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. It boasts an extraordinary wrought-iron spiral sculpture that depicts the first encounter in 1505 between the king of Kotte and the storm-stranded Portuguese admiral, Lourenco de Almeida. Sri Lanka could this week have looked forward to a celebration of five centuries of conflicted but creative dialogue between East and West.

Tragedy simplifies. For the time being, that dialogue will take the form of a frantic exchange of desperate pleas and cautiously generous responses. Our cash can make a difference, of course. But so, over the long haul, can a sense of informed solidarity with a region whose cultural ecology is as sophisticated and delicate as any on earth. In Reef, Romesh Gunesekera's beautiful novel of the Sri Lankan coastline, the displaced hero Triton looks out over a pebble beach in Wales and asks his marine-biologist mentor, "Is it the same sea here as back home?" The narrator provides an answer: "The sea in our loins. A tear-drop for an island. A spinning blue globule for a planet. Salt. A wound."