Book review: A prism showing hidden nuances | Daily News

Book review: A prism showing hidden nuances

Title: Viragaya

Author: Martin Wickramasinghe

It is very fortunate that the first Sinhala novel to be translated into French is Viragaya by Malalgama Martin Wickamasinghe.

Published in 1956, Viragaya is the mature work of an author who was by then recognized as the master of the Sinhala novel. In most of his previous books, Wickremasinghe described the slow rhythms of village life at the time, and the dramatic effects of change brought about by colonial rule, and the consequent breakup of rural society and the erosion of traditional values. At the time of the writing of Viragaya, nearly ten years after independence, the cultural appearance of the island had been transformed by the emergence of a late nationalist movement that questions the domination of English culture and the pervasive effects of western modernism while reaffirming Buddhist values.

But Viragaya does not constitute a work that is engaged in these conflicts. Its purpose is different. Wickremasinghe wanted to show his Sinhalese readers that the truth of Buddhism is very different from conventional one. Aravinda is the anti-hero of this novel. His Buddhism is a state of being, rather than a conquest of the sprit over passions. The natural detachment of Aravinda makes him the spectator of his own story. This is conveyed in the autobiographical mode Wickramasinghe adopt in his narration. Indifferent to social conventions and gossip, a stranger to his own destiny, like the anti hero of Camus, Aravinda is at the same time the brother of Meursault and his anti-thesis: his non-violence is as detached as the violence of Meursault is pointless. But his indifference is neither inhuman nor is it proud. He has been capable of friendship and tenderness, he looks at himself in a critical fashion and explains his detachment as the outcome of the weakness of his character.

The faces of men and mostly women that he moves away from without them noticing – his father who died before he was able to respond to his aspirations, his mother whom he left to get locked into the part of an inconsolable widow, his elder sister, ambitious and conventional that he pushes away to protect himself, his childhood love that he let go for want of courage, and the child he adopted and who as a woman, distances herself from him – these people have chosen roads from which his own road parts. But it is the extinction of passion and the detachment from conventions, not the abolition of all human sentiment, that lead him to understanding and acceptance. In the admirable pages that close the story of the life of Aravinda, Martin Wickramasinghe succeeds in bringing back to Buddhism all its human completeness.

Bilingual writer (Sinhala-English) author of some 50 works Martin Wickramasinghe (1890-1970) can be considered the founder of contemporary Sinhala literature. Open to the various currents of Western philosophy of his time, such as positivism and Marxism, psychoanalysis and existentialism he remained however deeply faithful to Buddhism philosophy. He brings to literature a new dimension that until then gave little room to the psychology of people; but it is to render with sensitivity the behaviour, sentiments and internal conflicts of his contemporaries who remain authentically Sinhalese.

Viragaya shows the author's deep attachment to Buddhism, the prism through which he depicts the hidden nuances of the Sinhlaese soul. Not without internal tensions the hero understands his strangeness compared to others who accept to follow customs and who rarely ask questions on the why and the how of his acts. So he finds himself, irremediably as it were, drawn towards detachment, towards the absence of passion. But it is also to discover that the practice of this cardinal value of Buddhism exposes him to the incomprehension of his family and rejection by the villagers.

Viragaya is the first book by a Sinhalese writer completely translated and published in the French language.

Professor Eric Meyer 


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