Wedding Gifts and Other Presents by Asitha AmeresekereBy confluence | June 12th, 2009 | Category: Book Reviews |
Unfortunately Ameresekere fails to deliver, and one is left feeling short-changed
says Migel Jayasinghe
This is a collection of 12 literary items which the publisher describes as ’stories’ on the back page. These strange ’stories’ failed to impress me as in any way worthy of the fanfare with which they are presented. A BAFTA award-winning filmmaker, this is said to be the author’s first attempt at a literary piece of work.
Having quoted the first paragraph of the ’story’, ‘Stoned Angels’ the publisher goes on to describe the book in the following glowing terms. (My comments are in parentheses). ‘Incredibly charming and beautifully written with a balance of pathos and humour, Ameresekere shows us that a chance encounter, a hidden revelation (whatever that is), or even an angel (how commonplace is that?) could reconfigure the world.’ The hype does not end there. Indeed, the write-up ends with the claim that ‘… this stunning debut (is) the work of a writer with a spectacularly original and compelling voice.’
The title of the book has no bearing on the contents, except that the various stories are claimed to have been written as presents to individuals at their weddings, birthdays and other unstated occasions. As befits a filmmaker, Ameresekere’s settings for these ’stories’ range from mundane to the exotic. The first story listed in the Contents page as ‘Litmus Test’, becoming ‘The Litmus Test’ later (definite article added), is set in a ‘village outside Tangalle’ in Sri Lanka, while in the next story ‘Shame of the Pig’, the author moves on to Sorrento in Tuscany, Italy. Another story is entitled ‘Someplace Montana’ obviously set in the US.
My first reaction after reading a few of these stories, was that the author was trying to import ‘camera tricks’ from film to the literary genre. Or else, he may have been trying to imitate the ‘magical realism’ of contemporary writers whose writings originated in languages other than English. Unfortunately Ameresekere fails to deliver, and one is left feeling short-changed. For example, the first story ‘Litmus Test’ (or ‘The Litmus Test’) features a tutor of English, Rajasingha, a widower with a nubile daughter (we learn later), who gives private tuition to a line-up of village lads. The term ‘litmus test’, more appropriate to a science teacher, is what Rajasingha applies to the young men to size up their suitability for his daughter’s hand. At the end of the story, it is revealed that the girl Dilshani, is dumb (deaf too, perhaps), but not so dumb as to be without her own resources of getting her young man by her own devices. Perhaps one of the few conventional-sounding stories in the book with a beginning, middle and an end, it still fails because of its many drawbacks.
First, the crude characterization of Rajasingha as a boor, calling his one-legged servant ‘buffoon’ and ‘idiot’ without provocation, appears pointless. Contrast that with the description of his clothes as ’spotless’ and ‘colour co-ordinated’ while his ’spacious study’ is covered with a ‘thick layer of dust’. The errors in English that his tutees are supposed to make are not very credible. For example, Fernando mixes up personal pronouns (he for she, you for I, etc) and de Silva confuses the tenses (past for present and vice versa). There are also quite a few inapt, or made up idioms like ‘devil would make a workshop out of him’ and ‘chasing a pregnant chicken across the road?’ Even with an unmarried daughter at home, surprisingly, Rajasingha breakfasts alone. Does her disability prevent a Sri Lankan from keeping house for her father in a village home?
The next story, ‘Shame of the Pig’ with the unilluminating title, is even less credible than the first story. A strange woman (?’goddess’) admires the patisserie displayed in ‘Mister’ Guiseppe’s restaurant and cake shop, but does not buy. This happens on several days. (Why ‘Mister’ and not ‘Signor’ as the story is set in Italy, is not explained). Guiseppe learns from her that she does not eat butter and provides her with a bun which does not contain butter. He refuses payment. Guiseppe is depicted as a man married to his work as a restaurateur, with no time for women. However, he falls for this one, and they get married.
Guiseppe then discovers that Isabella, his bride, eats her food greedily like a pig. It is an affliction, or compulsion that she cannot do much about. Because of this, she refuses to attend a party, thrown in Guiseppe’s own restaurant by a minister of state, in honour of the newly wedded couple. Unexpectedly though, she turns up, with Guiseppe too joining her to eat the first course - tomato soup, in a disgusting manner, like pigs, to the consternation of the guests.
Allowing for the exotic location, this is a tasteless and meaningless tale, an imitative parody at best, of magical realism.
In the ‘Sonnet Story’, Shakespeare’s wife Ann successfully uses a harmless ruse of pretending to have an affair with two actors designed to cure her husband of writer’s block. Two of Shakespeare’s sonnets are reproduced here as being the result, or product of Ann’s endeavours, but no adequate citation is provided. Not only is the story unconvincing, but appears school-boyish in its conception.
The next story ‘Drum’ was totally indecipherable to me. I could not make out what the relationships were of the various characters in the story to each other. I could not discern any storyline with the usual beginning, middle and end.
A short cryptic tale of one-and-a-half pages is ‘Lecher’, with inexplicable statements like ‘His face was beautiful despite being warped’. Another cryptic short tale of just over one printed page in length, is Medusa’s Bathroom’. While ‘Lecher’ describes a man salivating over girls visiting a bar or cafe, there are no clues as to what ‘Medusa’ is all about.
In ‘Someplace, Montana’ the author adopts a pseudo-American style of the pioneering days of the wild west, with a protagonist named Tobias B. Salinger. The story jumps from one episode of an inarticulate young man as visitor, to another with two very young girls in whose presence Tobias becomes inarticulate. There is a lot of pancake eating and utterances of ‘gotta’, ‘gonna’, ‘outta’, ‘kinda’ ‘cos’ and ‘ya’. My conclusion is that all this is nothing but piffle.
In ‘A Little Rest’, a young man decides to sit down ‘in the shade of a tree’ and doesn’t get up, until he grows old and a woman comes to cart him away, presumably as he dies. The villagers, village elders, and priests view him as a spectacle, not knowing what to do about him. The young man’s mother comes in search, finds him, but doesn’t get anywhere with him, and disappears. The man’s subjective state is written about by the writer (e.g. ‘When he closed his eyes he dreamt nothing’), but there is no attempt at characterization or plot. The author’s lack of sophistication is evident in such statements as; ‘He wasn’t mad since he didn’t have a mad look about him. … There seemed nothing criminal in his countenance’. The author uses terminology that is inappropriate in context. (…they ordered the villagers not to interact with the young man …).
‘The Artist’, appears to be a story set in France at the time of the storming of the Bastille, and has the ingredients of a stirring tale. However, it disappoints in being nothing more than an evocation of a period with no insight into the protagonist’s- the artist’s, actions. In similar vein, ‘Stoned Angels’ is an inconsequential attempt at a story featuring a coughing ‘angel’ on a tree rescued from a crow’s attack by a Mr Keats. ‘A Song & a Dance’ is an allegory where the personifications of ’song’ and ‘dance’ find each other ultimately after many vicissitudes. It is too laboured an attempt to merit being categorised as creative writing.
The very last story in this collection is ‘A Dog’s Tale’. The dog, Dante, writes about his master’s and mistress’s infidelities with each other. Nothing original here except that the dog rather coyly refers to the ‘picture box’ with ‘little men running around kicking a ball’.
This book might be an attempt at being postmodern, like practically all of the visual arts have been, for quite some time. It could be reflecting a movement like ‘the theatre of the absurd’, or just Dadaist nihilism. In a world full of objects that are designed purely for their utility value, the author could be making a statement that useless and stupid-seeming utterances have their place as aesthetic objects. They have to be valued in and of themselves like Tracey Amin’s ‘Unmade Bed’.
Given the choice though, this reviewer will settle for a reproduction of ‘The Three Muses’ to a Tracy Amin original any day.