Booker 2021: A Passage North journeys into the soul of Sri Lanka

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A Passage North

By Anuk Arudpragasam
Granta/Hardcover/287 pages/$29.95/Available here
5 out of 5

A phone call informing Krishan of the death of his grandmother’s caretaker breaks the monotonous routine he has created for himself in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo and sets him on a journey north.

Krishan decides to attend the funeral of the caretaker, Rani, but the physical journey also sends his mind into a deep meditation on his personal life, human mortality and the history and mythology of his people – the Tamils.

Sri Lanka-born author Anuk Arudpragasam’s second novel moves easily between the profound and the mundane, carefully controlled by his dense but sinuous prose.

The book ranges widely and deeply in its exploration of Sri Lanka. Arudpragasam blurs the boundaries between the country’s history, philosophy and individual and collective trauma, carefully framing all of it through Krishan’s memories and experiences.

He revisits his failed love affair, his studies of Buddhist and other religious texts and his deep sadness about Sri Lanka’s civil war and the violence wrought against his people during and after it.

For all its richness, however, the true strength of Arudpragasam’s prose is its restraint.

While a book of such ambition could easily balloon in length and lose focus, he is able to weave each seemingly meandering tangent back into a cohesive whole.

For example, when Krishan begins ruminating on the life of Buddhism’s founder – the legendary Nepalese prince Siddhartha Gautama – Arudpragasam is careful to feed the scene back into the main narrative as a metaphor for Krishan’s own splendid isolation in Colombo.

As carefully and precisely as he does it, his style can still come across as impenetrable. With its deeply intellectual yet materially engaged treatment of Sri Lanka’s landscape and past as well as its characters, the book is not always easy reading.

But its intricacy and winding build-up are well worth it for the beauty it allows Arudpragasam to create.

Often his prose slips back and forth through time from anecdote to historical incident or religious story, creating in single chapters moments of deep emotional resonance, where the many facets of Krishan’s personality are pulled into a confluence to produce a feeling akin to transcendence.

If you like this, read: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Random House, 1997, $14.98, available here), at once a lyrical look at post-colonial life in the Indian state of Kerala and an emotionally wrought story of family drama and forbidden love.

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