Saho: The campus novel and its possibilities | Daily News
BOOK REVIEW

Saho: The campus novel and its possibilities

Ariyaratne Athugala’s latest creative work is a novel titled ‘Saho’ (Comrade). The action of the novel takes place largely within the confines of a university campus. Hence it can be termed a campus novel. This genre came to prominence in the 1950s in the English-speaking world. Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952) is generally regarded as the first novel in this genre although some others would bestow this honor on C.P. Snow’s The Masters (1951). Some other critics would contend that one can trace the beginnings of the campus novel to works written as far back as the 1930s.

In the English speaking world novelists such as Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim), Davis Lodge (Changing Places – Small Worlds – Nice Work – Thinks) Malcolm Bradbury (Eating People is Wrong) were instrumental in endowing this genre with a satirical edge and gaining wide popularity. At the same time highly influential novelists such as J.M. Coetzee (Disgrace), Vladimir Nabokov, (Pnin), Don DeLillo (White Noise) and A.S.Byatt (Possession) displayed remarkable skill in exploiting the potentialities of this genre. In the case of modern Sinhala literature there are several works of fiction that can be brought under the sheltering title of campus novel.

Fictional discourse

To my mind, there are a number of features associated with the campus novel that should elicit further inquiry. First, it is limited in scope as it is invariably confined to a university campus. Second there is a symbiotic relationship between the physical environment and the behavior of characters. The norms, conventions, traditions, institutions that mark campus life are central to the fictional discourse inscribed in these novels. Fourth the slang, distinctive locutions, buzzwords, tropes currently in circulation are deployed to good effect. Fifth, there is an understandable immaturity in the actions of the characters given their young age. Sixth, many, though by no means all, campus novels have a recognizable comic strain and a sardonic edge. One can identify many of these traits in Athugala’s ‘Saho’, and hence it can be usefully characterized as a campus novel.

Ariyaratne Athugala’s ‘Saho’ deals with a limited number of characters etched against the background of campus life. Their aspirations, fears, doubts and emotional entanglements constitute the kernel of the narrative discourse. The interpersonal relationships among Tharu, Sandu, Hiru and Rathu are complex and form the emotional center of the novel. However, the deceased character Saho, who has made an indelible impression on the rest of the limited cast of characters operates as a vital invisible force inflecting the narrative. The pursuit of love, politics, convention-breaking and the movement towards a transgressive counter-culture mark the vibrancy of campus life.

Galactic connotations

There are a number of features in Athugala’s novel that merits closer analysis. The action of the novel takes place in a limited space, but it is self-contained and constitute its own self-affirming universe. It is not without significance that three of the names of characters bear galactic connotations – Tharu – Sandu- Hiru. The ideas of self-deception and self-concealments are integral to the ambitions of the novel. As the story unfolds, the main characters gradually, sometimes reluctantly, come to terms with these deceptions and concealments and in the process attain a measure of self-knowledge and moral imagination that are redemptive.

The author suggests, through the emotional intersections, that moral values and understandings are the outcomes of specific cultural social and linguistic contexts and that it is futile and counter- productive to talk about absolute and final moral values that contain trans-cultural, trans-historical implications. This is a contestable idea but an interesting one that invites further exploration. Athugala seems to be arguing that ethical values are almost always situated values. His denial of moral absolutism enables him to establish the point that there is no available Archimedian viewpoint from which to assess and evaluate human behavior. Hence his stress on the contextuality of all moral discourse.

Another distinctive feature of the novel is the desire of the author to discover and illuminate smaller emotional truths that have applicability to, and that arise from, the dynamics and flow of campus life. In this sense Athugala is able to convert the immaturity that is associated with many campus novels into a distinct advantage. Expressing limited emotional truths in a confined space is indeed a worthwhile undertaking.

The narrative of the novel ‘Saho’ unfolds in an eternal present. This gives the narrative a captivating power. The author delights in engaging the complexities evident in a manifold present. One reason for Athugala’s choice of this eternal presence is that it allows him to make the deceased constitute a living presence. It is Saho who serves to impose an emotional and intellectual cohesion on the novel. The novel’s genesis as a film script also has facilitated this literary strategy. The author seems to endorse the notion of the great Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that the only place in which the past can exist is in the present.

Self-deception

I stated earlier that the idea of self-deception is central to the intent of the novel. There is an important connection between deception and love-it allows the subject to invest his or her life with meaning, purpose and direction. When one examines the behavior of characters such as Tharu in this novel, one begins to understand the veracity of this statement. The eminent philosopher Ralph Demos in a seminal essay on self-deception said that self-deception is ‘ when a person lies to himself, that is to say, persuades himself to believe what he knows is not so. In short self-deception entails that B believes both P and not-P at the same time.’ It is if course important, in any exploration into self-deception, to consider the determining power of cultural discourse. In other words, self-deception can be purposefully dissected in relation to the dictates of cultural imperatives. Ariyaratne Athugala’s novel makes this point with sensitivity.

Ariyaratne Athugala’s ‘Saho’ is a campus novel. It displays the strengths and limitations of this literary genre in the way that novelists like David Lodge have (I had the good fortune of having dinner with him many years ago in Hawaii along with the distinguished poet Reuel Denney). What I have sought to do in this short article is to highlight some of the features of this novel, as an instance of a campus novel, that merits further discussion. Athugala is skillful in depicting the role of the campus environment on shaping his chosen characters and how the environment becomes an expansive screen for the projection of their inner tensions. This enables him to capture the intriguing ways in which the immediate physical and social surroundings affect the fragile fabric of the social identities of his characters. The author is evidently keen to map anew the rugged emotional cartography of his selected characters. The self-surpassing efforts made by them to make sense of their circumambient world and impose an order on it give depth and weight to Athugala’s new work of fiction

Reviewed by Professor Wimal Dissanayake