As well as survivor’s guilt there is the guilt of the non-combatant – the shame of missing out, a feeling experienced even by those who, for reasons of age, could never have taken part. The interwar generation of British writers (those, like Auden and Isherwood, too young to serve in the First World War) suffered from this. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, their main impetus for engaging with it, at the front or in print, was anti-Fascism. But there was also a sense of atonement: a belated opportunity to stand up and be counted.
Krishan, the protagonist of Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, has a bad case of non-combatant’s guilt. He isn’t in the least bellicose. But he’s haunted by the experiences of fellow Tamils during the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war. Born, like Arudpragasam, at the end of the 1980s, he was barely twenty when the conflict came to an end. And though his family’s origins are in the north-east of the country, where the final action of the war took place, he has spent most of his life in Colombo, in the south, with an interlude even further away, as a PhD student in Delhi. All the same, he has in recent years ‘become more and more possessed by guilt for having been spared, coming to long for the kind of life he might lead if he left the inert spaces of academia he’d become sequestered in and went to live and work in a place that actually meant something to him’. It’s arguable that he has done exactly that, spending two years as a social worker in the north. But we learn little or nothing about his time there, and as the novel opens he is back in Colombo, in the house he shares with his mother and grandmother, still beating himself up.
On the face of it, the death of his grandmother’s carer, Rani, has nothing to do with this yearning to ‘be part of some larger thing, part of some movement or vision to which he could give himself up’. But the shocking manner of her death (probably suicide: she has fallen down a well), and his journey to her funeral in the north, immerse him in a history of violence from which he is unable, and doesn’t want, to escape. Most of his knowledge of the war has been acquired at a safe distance, from newspaper cuttings and documentary films. Only Rani made him look at it close up. He has seen photographs of the two sons she lost in the war; the younger one died the day before it ended. Afterwards she had spells in a psychiatric hospital and continued to undergo ECT treatment even while caring for his grandmother. He finds it strange that ‘after having survived so many shells and so much shrapnel during the end of the war, she’d died the previous day in such an arbitrary, almost careless way, her neck broken at the bottom of a well’. But that’s how trauma works. Primo Levi died in a similar fashion, decades after surviving Auschwitz.
A Passage North is a novel about war’s aftermath: we don’t hear bombs and shells falling. In Arudpragasam’s previous novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, we hear little else, ‘each explosion tight and self-contained, like a huge bag of marbles being emptied over a cement floor’. Set during the last days of the war, it’s unsparing from the off (‘Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms,’ runs the opening sentence, ‘but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm’). Any hope that the marriage of Dinesh and Ganga will survive seems foolish and, in the circumstances, with people dying all around them, almost beside the point. When not dodging bombs dropped by the army, Dinesh is hiding from the Tamil Tigers, for fear they’ll conscript him. Every so often he has a moment of respite, through something as banal as cutting his nails or washing his hair, and allows himself to imagine a future with Ganga, to whom he has been married, hurriedly, at her father’s bidding, the previous day. But then another bomb explodes and you remember the word ‘brief’ in the title.
Arudpragasam has said he began his second novel in reaction to the first, as an attempt to spare himself another sustained engagement with war. He planned to write about masturbation and chart his protagonist’s frustration at being forever interrupted, mid-wank, by his grandmother. That idea fell away and so did any hope of leaving behind the conflict. The war is over in A Passage North but its impact is still being felt; damaged limbs can be repaired or replaced with prosthetic ones but injuries to the mind persist. Rani’s sufferings are proof of that. Her history is the history of what Arudpragasam has called ‘the government’s systematic destruction of Tamil society’, which by the time of the war’s conclusion, in 2009, had claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians.
Among earlier fiction to come out of the civil war, Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost (2000) is set during the early phases and the linked stories in Romesh Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll (2014) in its aftermath. There’s also Samanth Subramanian’s compelling non-fiction account, based on interviews with survivors, This Divided Island (2014). The voices in these books speak of scarcely believable cruelty and self-harm: ‘People do lose control, don’t they, in times of war? The whole business is insane’ (Gunesekera); ‘Unwatched by most of the world, the war raged and raged, feeding itself some strange fuel that lent it such durability’ (Subramanian); ‘Every side was killing and hiding the evidence. Every side’ (Ondaatje). Arudpragasam’s two novels don’t seek to be even-handed; they present the war exclusively from a Tamil point of view. Krishan is gently ruminative rather than angry, but his horror at the massacre of Tamil civilians is matched by his romanticising of the heartland they lost. Where Seamus Heaney’s North (1975) depicts a rugged island repeatedly invaded, colonised and fought over, the youthful protagonist of A Passage North conjures an island paradise – an idyll of palmyra trees, copper-coloured dirt roads and devotional music rising from temples, before its people were killed or driven out.
The burning, in 1981, of the Jaffna Library, with its archive of centuries-old Tamil manuscripts, was ‘a huge impetus for the separatist movement’, according to Arudpragasam. At several points the novel breaks off to recount a story from an ancient text: a poem about a poor man called Poosal who constructs an imaginary temple to Siva in his mind; a Sanskrit poem about a man in exile who asks a cloud to deliver a message to his wife; a first-century poem about Prince Siddhartha eluding his father’s attempts to keep him in ignorance of age, sickness and death. These may look like digressions but all have some bearing on the main narrative. Krishan compares Siddhartha’s shock on encountering mortality to Rani’s after losing her sons. It also resembles his own while observing the decline of his grandmother. For a young man, Krishan is unusually sensitive to the tribulations of old age.
The Sri Lankan civil war lasted 26 years – longer, if you factor in earlier Tamil-Sinhalese tensions. The Story of a Brief Marriage takes place during the course of 24 hours; A Passage North over a few days. Dinesh can’t remember much of his life before he and his mother took to the road along with thousands of other evacuees; a brief, brilliant passage in the novel describes their flight and his mother’s death. Krishan’s memories – of his relationship with the girlfriend he had in India, Anjum, and the peculiar circumstances that led Rani to become his grandmother’s carer – are similarly foreshortened, as if he has come to consciousness only in recent years. This chronological compression is offset by the expansiveness of the prose, which is slow, fluid and, however dramatic the action it describes, quietly contemplative. The Story of a Brief Marriage has a smattering of dialogue and the occasional shortish sentence; A Passage North has neither. If not quite Sebaldian (there are paragraphs), it betrays Sebald’s lugubrious influence. It’s as if he – or Proust, Musil or Henry James – were being deployed to speak the mind of a privileged but unworldly young man in the 21st century.
In his teens Arudpragasam read philosophy rather than fiction and later studied philosophy for his PhD. That, too, has left a mark. The meditative Krishan likes to test out ideas. For the most part the prose avoids becoming too abstract but it does sometimes zone out, drunk on its own cadences and subclauses:
Watching [Anjum] as she watched him, the landscape rushing by behind her but aware only of the blinking of her eyes and the beating of his heart, Krishan was grateful that they were part of the same place and the same time, that for now at least they were together in the same moment, a moment that contained not only what was proximate and what was distant but also what was past and what was future, a moment without length or breadth or height but which somehow contained everything of significance, as if everything else the world consisted of was a kind of cosmic scenery, an illusion that, now that it was being exposed, could quietly fall away. What for lack of a better word was sometimes called love, he had realised that night, was not so much a relation between two people in and of themselves as a relation between two people and the world they were witness to, a world whose surfaces and exteriors gradually began to dissipate as the two individuals sank deeper and deeper into what was called their love …
And so forth: Krishan’s vapid elucidation of what he has realised (with its unfortunate echo of Prince Charles’s ‘whatever “in love” means’) still has a page to go. There are passages like this where Arudpragasam is in need of an editor, but elsewhere something more interesting is going on. Krishan is impersonal even at his most intense, as if still getting to know himself, and can only work out what he thinks and feels through others:
Sooner or later though he would feel the need to contact Anjum, to hear from her and to obtain from her some kind of external corroboration of the thoughts and feelings still lingering in him from their encounter, some kind of proof that these thoughts and feelings were justified, a consolation for the loneliness he began to feel as their separation became more concrete.
Dinesh is similarly uncertain whether his feelings for Ganga are (or could be) reciprocated. He has hopes of endearing himself to her but worries that she sees their marriage as a sham. Even in a long marriage partners can remain unknowable to each other, and with this one – a rushed job – we’re locked inside the head of a teenage boy, whose only experience of women is his mother. Both he and Krishan are awkward millennials, unsure of what they want and how to conduct relationships; they wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Sally Rooney novel. The women are stronger: more grounded, less vulnerable. Krishan’s relationship with Anjum fails, in part, because her work as an activist matters to her more than he does. Where he’s aimless and lovelorn, she has conviction and agency.
At one point Krishan persuades Anjum to watch a film with him: Beate Arnestad’s documentary My Daughter the Terrorist, which features two members of the Tamil separatist group the Black Tigers, Dharshika and Puhal, young women trained to carry out suicide bombings. Dharshika in particular fascinates Krishan: he marvels at her willingness to die for a cause and decides that her father’s death, in a government bomb attack, was the trigger; a year later, still only twelve, she ran away from home. Krishan’s own father, we learn almost incidentally, was killed in the Central Bank bombing of 1996. But it doesn’t occur to Krishan to see any parallel or to examine the way his father’s death affected his mother, his grandmother and himself. While the traumas of Rani (whom he’s known for only a couple of years) and of Dharshika (glimpsed only on film) are explored at length, his own trauma remains buried. The languorous sentences – all surface – just keep rolling along.
After watching the film, Krishan recognises that Anjum and Dharshika are kindred spirits and wishes that he too could achieve ‘extinction of the self and submission to higher powers’. The higher power, in Dharshika’s case, would have been a male Tamil Tiger leader responsible for recruiting her and other women. Krishan admires their resolve, ‘even if he didn’t fully agree with everything that all the other members of this lineage had done’. In the context of suicide missions, assassinations and the murder of fellow Tamils suspected of treachery or lack of commitment, the word ‘fully’ here is uncomfortable, no less perhaps than Heaney’s lines ‘report us fairly,/how we slaughter/for the common good’, or Brecht’s ‘alas, we who wanted kindness could not ourselves be kind’, or Auden’s phrase ‘the necessary murder’ in ‘Spain’, to which Orwell took exception: ‘Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.’ Krishan can’t help having been somewhere else but his take on Dharshika is puzzling. ‘No Black Tiger had ever returned alive from a mission,’ we’re told (if arrested, the young women would swallow cyanide), and Krishan knows that Dharshika is dead. Yet he sees her as having freed herself from patriarchy rather than being one of its victims. There’s no sense of her life having been wasted or of her conscription being a form of child abuse.
There’s similar discomfort in Krishan’s adulation of Kuttimani, head of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, who was arrested after a bank robbery and sentenced to death. ‘There had, apparently, been people killed in the course of the robbery,’ Krishan concedes, but that doesn’t deter him from glamorising Kuttimani as martyr and mystic, a man in pursuit of ‘the freedom that came when one had access to a horizon, when one felt that the possible worlds that glimmered at its edges were within one’s reach’.
Krishan’s is a belated, dreamy spirit of resistance. But he’s nostalgic for a time and place he never knew, fascinated by the idea of a Tamil heartland and understandably appalled by what happened to Kuttimani, who on receiving his death sentence asked that his eyes be donated to a blind Tamil boy or girl (so that they could see the independent state he’d fought to create), only to have them gouged out during a massacre of Tamil prisoners. The novel is much preoccupied with vision and visionaries. One sequence describes a staring contest; another the different ways, brazen or furtive, in which men gaze at women; a third the way images from the past are superimposed on what we see before us. Above all, for Krishan, there’s the attraction of what he can’t see, the yearning that brings him north to Rani’s cremation:
What was called desire always had a concrete object, a notion of what was necessary to eliminate the absence one felt inside, whereas to have what was often called yearning was to feel this absence and yet not know what one sought … Unable to distract oneself, by frenetic activity or single-minded pursuit, from the painful sense of lack, one’s only consolation was to look out across vast distances, as if surely somewhere in the expansiveness of the horizon, across space and sea and sky, some possibility was contained that could make life self-sufficient.
Krishan needs to get a life and an impatient reader might be tempted to tell him as much, while also advising him to drop the coercive ‘we’ or generalising ‘one’ he adopts when floating his ideas. Impatience with his meandering is hard to stifle. I found myself interrupting him, if only because no one in the novel does; even Anjum, with her quite different way of looking at the world, can’t get a word in. Close third-person narration suffers when the narrator gets a free ride, and there’s nothing to suggest that Arudpragasam – who resembles Krishan in age, class, ethnicity and education – regards him as unreliable. His interminable yearning goes unquestioned, as though it were essential to the human condition rather than a luxury only the privileged can afford.
Krishan, of course, would be the first to admit that his yearning is a weakness; he’d like to do something, if only he knew what. The novel has a lot to say about yearning, as if intent on revivifying an old-fashioned word (Chaucer’s ‘this man wol nothing yerne/But youre honour’ from Troilus and Criseyde), and even with the final image, of Rani going up in smoke, the yearning isn’t quite dispersed. Still, Krishan has reached some sort of accommodation with himself, now he has stood where Dharshika once stood and seen what his homeland really looks like. While grieving for Rani as (in Ondaatje’s words, about a similar character in Anil’s Ghost) ‘one of those who try to kill themselves because they lost people’, he also reads her death as a message to him that ‘any attempt to cure or solve absence would lead, sooner or later, only to death and the extinction of thought.’ It’s a lesson he might have learned more quickly. And he’s no wiser as to what his next step should be. But there’s a chance he will grow up and move on.