A while back I wrote a review of Sam’s Story by Elmo Jayawardena. It has appeared, shortened, in a recent update of the Businessworld website. Towards the middle of the page here …
I also saw the full review here.
Taking advantage of the internet, I am posting the full review:
A poignant story from war torn Sri Lanka
What I liked most Sam’s Story is the point of view and the ease with which the book flows. The book is in first person and Sam’s voice resonates throughout the book. I read Elmo Jayawardena’s book with curiosity because I have not read much fiction from Sri Lanka. I wanted to learn more about the place where one of the longest wars in history has just got over. The war in the northern peninsula is central to the story, but more than that, what the book highlights is the poverty that plagues its people and how the people are exploited in different ways by war mongers, the rich people.
Something is not quite right with Sam. It is either his inability to study at school, or to remember things, or to communicate, and be coherent to the world. These are the reasons why the world thinks he is stupid and is either merciless towards him or patronizing. Yet, Sam can think, he can make sense, he does connect the dots, only he does not know how to express his understanding.
I never could figure out why people asked me so many
questions. Maybe they thought I knew all the answers to life.
… I think people like to ask questions. I don’t mind that so much.
But why pick on me? I don’t like questions. For as long as I can
remember, it has been this way with me. My life has always been
simple. No questions, no answers. Just take it as it comes. I have
never looked for answers in life. What’s the point?
… No, I have never worried about knowing what the answers
were. Maybe that is why I do not like questions.
Assuming, from the book’s acknowledgement, that Sam is real, Jayawardena lends voice to Sam’s experience in a region torn by war for fifteen years. Through wry humour and an ability to focus on the immediate situation of the victims of war and greed, Jayawardena tells the story of how the war ravages the common people.
The book has hardly any dialogue and is mostly Sam’s interior monologue. The story starts with Sam landing at the master’s house (Big boss), encountering the River House, befriending the people there, especially the master’s son and dog, hating the cook for he is not only ugly but is also from the other side – whose people are fighting with Sam’s people – and ends with a tragic incident in the master’s family. In between the story goes back to Sam’s village, his earlier appointment near Colombo, and how he got his name.
Unlike Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Sam tells the story not only of his present but also his past, seamlessly moving through the time zones. The book is located in two locations: the River House and Sam’s village, and a little bit in Colombo. They are not one and the other to each other. In both Sam is marginalised, in both he knows only the periphery of the happenings, in neither place does he ponder deep on the situations because he is sketched as someone who can’t, in none of these places does he find any chance of betterment of his life. The past lends fullness to Sam’s character. When we learn of how Sam came home from school to tell tall stories about sweets he ate when he got only wrappers, how his mother took care of the six of them, how the elections promised them everything but gave them nothing, how Sam lost his friend Piya in the floods, we understand that Sam comes from an unrelenting harsh place. One of Sam’s brothers dies in the war, the other deserts the army. Like Mother Courage, for Sam’s mother it is only the loss of her children. When the country becomes poor, Sam says:
It was beyond me to understand what this no-money business
was all about. I knew what it was like to be poor. Back in the
village we had always been poor. My whole family was full of
poverty experts. I mean we had been like that our entire life
and we knew a lot about what it was like to be really poor.
We ate poor, we slept poor and we lived poor. We certainly
knew what it meant to be dirt poor.
The understated voice and tone of the book uplift it, leaving the reader with knowledge of a place and its people who remain resilient in the face of horror. Jayawardena also achieves this by infusing a simple hope in Sam, which in some ways survives his harsh life. Sam strength comes from his living in the here and now, and unflinchingly calling a spade a spade.
The strength of the book is also its slight weakness. When Sam is created as such and the book talks of his experience in first person, the writer is left with no scope to pad the story with insight into the events, or provide a larger picture. That makes the book a loosely episodic, series of occurrences of Sam’s life in Northern Sri Lanka, but does not give the reader a plot or a link to answers of questions that the book raises. Our narrator is incapable of looking beyond his circumstances, we are forever stuck with his eyes, but he can connect the dots.
There were always so many stories about how the war was going.
I heard this talk whenever I went to the market. About them
winning and us winning, news like that. Sometimes there were
more details. Some road taken and some town lost and some
boats sunk or some aerobblane brought down in the jungle. …
The real truth, I think, was that both sides were losing. But
nobody wanted to say that.
The wit of the book pushes us to read on and think, but that thinking is also shaped by what we now know of the land: through media and other commentaries. I picked up the book wanting to know more about the land, what I got was a human account of a great tragedy, from the periphery.
Notice that the book was written while the country was in the middle of the war. Many years of trying for peace had come to nought. The chance of peace was slim. In such circumstances Jayawardena did not have the privilege of hindsight. He could not write about how the war ended, how peace was restored. He had to create hope in the midst of an ongoing struggle. He has done that well. I can never forget Sam.
Tags: Elmo Jayawardena, Sri Lanka