A review of A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam
It comes as no surprise to learn that Anuk Arudpragasam is a philosopher. The Sri Lankan-born author holds a doctorate in the subject from Columbia University, which is reflected in the marked philosophical bent to his writing. The opening pages of A Passage North, his second novel, are a clear indication of what is to come: a careful meditation on the nature of the present, constructed from sweeping sentences and references to an all-encompassing ‘we’. Woven again and again into the fabric of his story, this ‘we’ will later prove important – for as much as A Passage North is about its individual characters, it is also a love letter to a nation, an attempt to touch on universal experiences and define what makes us human.
While there is good reason to suspect that many of the philosophical digressions in this novel reflect the author’s own way of thinking, A Passage North is a work of fiction and, as such, needs a vehicle to carry them. This vehicle is Krishan, a young man who works for an NGO in Colombo, where he lives with his mother and ailing grandmother, Appamma. Following the breakdown of his relationship with the beautiful Anjum, whom he met while studying in Delhi, Krishan’s life seems to be pottering along at a sedate pace, ‘another day coming and going with nothing to show for itself’. And then comes the day that changes everything: not only does Anjum get in touch again after years of silence, but Krishan receives a phone call informing him that Rani, his grandmother’s former companion, has died in a terrible accident. Feeling compelled to honour the memory of a woman he realises he barely knew, Krishan sets out for Rani’s home village in the war-ravaged Northern Province.
Though A Passage North opens after the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, which lasted almost twenty-six years and killed an unknown number of people – estimates range between 40,000 and 100,000 – the conflict is very much at the centre of the novel as the cause of trauma, displacement and fragmented identities. While Krishan is fully aware of the war’s existence, and indeed returned to Sri Lanka from India specifically to work in the former conflict zone, he knows too that he is lucky to have grown up in Colombo, largely protected from the fighting. Having not experienced it first-hand, he is ‘obsessed’ with learning as much about it as possible, unable to look away from the horrifying photos of massacres he researches online. This appetite for images of destruction may also explain his almost magnetic attraction to Rani, who lost her two sons during the conflict – one as a soldier, one to a sniper – and has never since recovered.
As Krishan travels by train to the north of his country, to a ‘cremation ground at the end of the world’, Arudpragasam weaves a narrative that jumps back and forth in time, exploring memory, relationships and the relentless progression of life. The novel is a slow drift, mirroring the natural movement of thought, and so it is that Krishan’s love affair with Anjum is intertwined with his grandmother’s decline into old age, his attempts to understand what it is to live with trauma interspersed with meditations on freedom and desire. The long, comma-ridden sentences and effortless shifting from one topic to the next have a mesmerising effect on the reader, allowing us to sink in deep to a world that on the surface may be unfamiliar. For all it examines hard-hitting themes, there is nothing confrontational about this novel; we are eased into the story and a realisation also afforded to Krishan – that all lives and experiences are more connected than we thought, that ‘whatever one considered the horizon of one’s life turns out always to be another piece of earth’.
When he isn’t being philosophical, or tracing his way along the rabbit warren of his characters’ thoughts, Arudpragasam does a fine line in bringing Sri Lanka to life. The smallest scenes are deeply evocative – a woman from a village standing on a night-wet pavement in Colombo, overwhelmed by the traffic streaming past her – and at times his very specific sense of setting is magical, as when Krishan remembers staring into the darkness from a moving night-train window. Both these memorable scenes and many others besides do in fact play out in the night, but perhaps because of the gloom that hovers around the novel, Arudpragasam’s writing seems all the more luminous.
The dream-like atmosphere to which we are often treated is underscored by the use of quoted – or perhaps better: retold – material, including folk tales, legends and descriptions of documentary films, all of which are concerned somehow with Sri Lanka. Although they too constitute part of Krishan’s thoughts and serve to embed us deeper within a specific geographical and cultural setting, they offer a break from the story proper, standing as watershed moments that allow a moment of escape and can be remembered on their own merits, such as the charming yet somehow heart-breaking story of The Cloud Messenger, an epic Sanskrit poem by Kalidasa. Of course, each story has a purpose within the wider narrative framework – Arudpragasam is too careful a craftsman; there are no coincidences here – but in a book that at times threatens to become overwhelmingly thought-intense, the moments of relief offered by a fable are extremely welcome.
He may not have needed to point it out quite so clearly, but for Krishan the events of A Passage North are a physical and mental journey, ‘from the south of his mind to its own distant northern reaches’. They are by the same dint a journey for the reader, and, one suspects, the author himself. Absorbing, intelligent and laced with poignancy, Arudpragasam’s novel is also a lyrical elegy – for the war dead, for a people, and for a land itself.
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam is published in the UK by Granta Books. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.