Anuk Arudpragasam || A Passage North

Shortlist 2021

Not a lot happens in A Passage North. Nevertheless Arudpragasam succeeds in sharing an awful lot of information with his readers. He has chosen a contemplative style of writing and uses this to ‘transport’ thoughts, facts and reflections. In this wrapping up beautiful, bitter and horrific moments.

At the start of the novel main character Krishan receives the news that the carer for two years of his grandmother has died. He decides to pay his respects by going to her cremation, signifying a long trip by train from Colombo to the north of Sri Lanka. The novel takes place in a mere two days, from the phone call to the moment Krishan walks away from the burial ground. In the 365 needed to describe these two days the narrator shares all of Krishan’s thoughts with us.

Thoughts about his previous lover Anjum, an Indian woman who is determined to dedicate her life to good causes, caring for the underprivileged. A woman furthermore who is capable of loving without attachments. She has had her difficult moments in love, they have only made her more determined to follow her own, quite difficult path.

Thoughts about poetry, about literature. Entire sections dedicated to summaries of traditional Sri Lankan or Indian (religious) stories, Thoughts also of a more phiolospical nature. Arudpradagam subtly jumps from literature and fact to contemplative reflections on life and death, on live, on responsibility. Often ending in quite beautifully contemplations.

Thoughts also about his country, Sri Lanka, the long period it has suffered from silence when Tamil Tigers fought against the government. A conflict that has come to an end but which can still be felt and seen everywhere on the island. Kirshan never took sides, for the major part of the conflict he was abroad, studying in India. Because of Anjum he has come to consider his responsibility towards his country. He returned to Sri Lanka and worked in the conflict-ridden areas for many years. At the start of the novel he has returned to his parental home.

Rani, the carer, did live right in the centre of the conflict; both her sons were killed because of it. A drama she has never recuperated from. Arudpragasam uses Krishan’s thoughts to share bare fact with the readers. The tortures in prisons, the suicide missions of hard-core Tamil Tigers killing many people. Arudpragasam does not chose to elaborate on the why and how of the conflict, history leading up to a civil strife between Tamils, muslims and Hindu’s. He restricts himself to describing the terrible aftereffects of the conflict.

A Passage North is one long contemplation. Arudpragasam uses Krishan’s thoughts to jump between facts and in time. Krishan is not so much the main character as the vehicle that provides room for reflection. There is no chronological structure, the reflections are almost casual in appearance. One thought will give way to another on a totally different topic. A Passage North kind of resembles an air balloon being softly blown by the wind. The narrator providing a certain restriction, the balloon changes direction many times, is never caught up in a gale.

I suspect some readers will find A Passage North too slow, too contemplative. I must admit I appreciated all the horrors of the conflict being carefully embedded in the soft breeze. I just do not like explicit descriptions of violence. Violence unfortunately has turned out to be part of Sri Lankan history, it had to be part of the novel. I personally find the carefully embedded atrocities to be more effective than the straight into your face ones.

I get why this novel made it to the Booker Shortlist. Arudpragasam has taken me along almost casually in the life of a young Sri Lankan man. In this way resolutely directing me towards the painful history of his country.

About booksandliliane

I am an avid reader and love to share my love for literature. I have my own opinion on books that have been shortlisted, laureated by critics or are pushed on us by bookstores. I will try and explain why I like or do not like a book. Hopefully influencing you in your choice of books to read.
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