Nostalgia for old Ceylon: lush foliage and tender feelings from Romesh Gunesekera

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

Empires are born to die; that’s one source of their strange allure. An untenable form of society judders, in technicolor and often loudly, to an inevitable end. Romesh Gunesekera was born in Ceylon in 1954, and much of his fiction has lingered in fascination on its years as a dominion — no longer a colony, not yet a republic. Reef, his first novel, took us to 1962, to the island’s coast and the childhood of Triton, a gifted chef. Suncatcher, his sixth, is back in the capital Colombo two years on.

Kairo, who’s narrating what was then his teenage point of view, is a similar boy to Triton: same curiosity, same restlessness, same goodness of heart. He goes to school, when it isn’t closed — though usually it is. The government’s a mess, and there are whispers of revolution from speakers on passing vans. But Kairo is young, and Colombo is still an enchanted place. Suncatcher is a novel of indolence, built on the way that lush gardens and tender feelings are described.

Inasmuch as there’s a plot, it’s about Kairo’s friendship with Jay, a richer boy from up the road. The latter is enigmatic and smart; the two build an aviary together, learn to drive a cranky VW Beetle and visit Jay’s uncle on his country estate. Their bond is quickly forged, but it’s strained by trouble in Jay’s family, and finally there’s a catastrophe that happens out of the blue. A girl called Niromi adds a frisson of sex, a Tamil boy, Channa, a glimpse of the Ceylonese caste system. But events only matter in how they’re refracted through Kairo’s young mind. More is made of the local milk bar, the first in Colombo, than the threat of a military coup.

It’s no crime that Gunesekera puts sensibility over plot; so did Proust. Still, there’s always machinery, and the sprockets are rusty here. Kairo keeps overhearing the secrets that shape his life; he’s forever at his ‘listening post’ on the landing, or wandering into earshot of hapless adult chat. And few people in Gunesekera’s novels talk like creatures of flesh and blood. Kairo, for example, doesn’t like seeing Niromi with Jay: ‘The heart, I’d learnt, was the size of a fist: it pummelled the young dove I’d nurtured inside.’

But Suncatcher can be sumptuous too, painting the ‘slowly blistering air’ in the paddy fields and the wild colours of jungle life. And why not luxuriate? Childhood, like empire, was never a naturalistic thing.

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