A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam – 2021 Booker Prize shortlist

One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.
              – Gaston Bachelard ‘The Poetics of Space’

Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel, ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’ won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. It took place in the Tamil-majority north of Sri Lanka and summarises a few days during the harrowing final months of that country’s civil war. In his second novel, ‘A Passage North’, Anuk Arudpragasam uses the civil war as an historical artefact, a memory, but one that bears many irreparable scars.

Using a basic plot, the novel follows a few days in the life of Krishan, living in the capital Columbo in the South. He has just received a phone call informing him that his grandmother’s former caregiver, Rani, has died after falling down a well in the north of the island. Only a short time prior he had received an email from a former lover and activist Anjum, an email he had yet to properly read and digest. Krishan makes the journey by train to the previously war-torn north of the island for Rani’s funeral.

However, it is not in the simple narrative where the riches of this novel lie, it is through the intimate descriptions of relationships, the physical and mental journey that Krishan undertakes, the exploration of the spaces we inhabit and the blurring of time where the gems are discovered.

The novel opens with the words “The present, we assume, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted.” A novel rooted in time, but in the present, we can draw on our memories, dwell on the past, or we can daydream the endless possibilities of our future. A work that takes place over only a few days, always rooted in the present, but drawing on the experiences and remembrances of the past.

This is also a novel of space, whether it is the enclosed spaces the characters inhabit, for example Krishan’s grandmother is restricted to her bedroom because of mobility issues, or the space behind a curtain in a sleeping partition on a train, or the separation of the north and south in Sir Lanka or even the restriction of staying in Sri Lanka.

The predominant associations he’d had of the northeast for most of his life had been formed during short trips to Trincomalee and Vavuniya when he was a child and a longer trip to Jaffna during the cease fire, when he was seventeen or eighteen, from the painfully nostalgic accounts he always heard from older relatives living abroad about how idyllic their childhoods in the village had been. For most of his life he’d visualized, then he thought of the northeast, wide landscapes of salt flats and palmyra trees, the copper-colored dirt roads of the Vanni and the tracts of hard, dry earth that made up most of the peninsula, the piercing, lilting rhythms of devotional music rising up from temples during festival season, the sound of people speaking their untainted Tamil loudly and musically, without restraint. These images had filled him with a sense of freedom, with the possibility of living a life radically different from his own, but they’d been suffused at the same time with a dreamlike quality that made it hard to think about them in any concrete way, just as the news that arrived each day in the newspapers about shelling and skirmishes, about advances, retreats, and cease-fires, had always been of importance and concern but rarely disrupted the flow of events in his own life in the south of the country, part of the white noise of life that he’d learned since childhood to take for granted.

Although aged an infirm, Krishan’s grandmother, Appamma, is keeping her connection with the outside world through constant questioning, Krishan himself views the civil war through images, videos on the internet, not relying on the mainstream media, they are alike, it is through others that they are informed.

A novel of digressions, some have mentioned Thomas Bernhard, it is constructed by long winding sentences, paragraphs that run to pages and no dialogue. Throughout Krishan’s journey, not only his train travel to the north, he recollects images and learning from his past, the text incorporates the Tamil story of Poosla story from the Periya Purānam, the Sanskrit story The Cloud Messenger, a Sanskrit version of the Life of the Buddha, the story of Kuttimani’s death, a Tamil leader, remembrances from a documentary My Daughter the Terrorist about female members of the Black Tigers, Buddhist women’s poetry originally written in Pali along with a raft of observations about the civil war.

I found the section about Australia’s advertising and treatment of refugees most pertinent, as I know the campaign does exist.  As Krishan travels north, post war, he observes:

Looking out through the opposite window at the other platform, where a small group of people were waiting for the train headed south, Krishan noticed a large, freshly pasted billboard on the far end, its left half depicting a rough sea under dark clouds that seemed on the verge of erupting. Tossing and turning in the midst of the waves, seemingly on the point of being engulfed, was a small, rickety fishing boat, and in thick red Tamil letters, emblazoned across the centre of the image, were the words THERE’S NO WAY: YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO SET FOOT IN AUSTRALIA. The right half of the billboard consisted of a black background with dense white text that Krishan couldn’t decipher at first, though as the train jerked back into motion and his carriage moved past the billboard he was able to make out a few line, which stated that traffickers were trying to profit by cheating people  who wanted to move to Australia, that Australia was no longer accepting people who tried to come to the country by boat, that boats attempting to reach the country would be steered back into deep waters by the Australian navy. He’d heard similar advertisements on Tamil radio stations and TV channels, usually aired in prime-time spots in the late evening and night, but this was the first billboard he’d seen and it was no accident, he knew, that it had been put up at Vavuniya, the first station in the Tamil part of the country. The Australian government had put tens of millions of dollars into such advertisements, not just in Sri Lanka but in other countries with large displaced populations like Iraq, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, hoping to stem the tide of people from these countries who tried to make the long and arduous journey by boat. It was difficult to say whether the advertisements actually worked, for most of the people who made the journey chose to make it despite the exorbitant sums they had to pay the middlemen, knowing very well the danger of crossing thousands of miles of deep sea in dilapidated fishing boats, tightly packed for weeks with other asylum seekers in nearly uninhabitable conditions. Such people made the journey knowing their chances of reaching Australia were slim, that even if they did survive the boat trip they were likely to be kept in illegal offshore detention centers of years. The majority of them were people who’d lost everything during the war, people who, even if they hadn’t been detained, bereaved, tortured, or raped, had seen untold amounts of violence, for whom life in their homeland had become more or less unbearable. It was true probably that severe trauma could never be escaped, that you carried it with you wherever you went, but trauma Krishan knew was also indelibly linked to the physical environments in which it was experienced, to specific sounds, images, languages, and times of day, as a result of which it was often impossible for people to continue living in the places they’d seen violence occur. It was often hard, he’d read somewhere, to convince a person who’d had a serious car accident to get back into a car, many such people preferring to take another mode of transport wherever they could from then on, and if this was the case with car accidents how much harder must it have been to convince people to remain in places they’d been bombarded by shelling, places they’d come face-to-face with punctured bodies and severed limbs? Even if they were the only places they’d ever known, places their forebears had lived and that they themselves had never imagined leaving, how was it possible to convince such people not to risk their lives going elsewhere, not to attempt migrating to countries that seemed, in their minds, far removed from these sites of trauma, even if they know they were likely to die in the process and even if they knew, in the heart of hearts, that most people in places like Australia and America and Europe would never let them live in their countries with full dignity?

Our novel slips into these recollections of trauma and current circumstances and then quickly digresses to memories of his activist lover, their physical connections, where the intimacy of space is explored, or to another musing on the smoking of a cigarette and the addictive personality. A novel combining the exploration of spaces, and the passing of time. Here the Krishan is musing on the levelling of Tamil cemeteries:

The truth was that eventually most people would have ceased remembering the past anyway, even if all remaining traces of the Tigers had been left untouched, for the truth was that all monuments lose their meaning and significance with the passing of time, disappearing, like the statues and memorials in Columbo dedicated to the so-called independence struggle against the British, into the vast unseen and unconsidered background of everyday life. Deliberately or not the past was always being forgotten, in all places and among all peoples, a phenomenon that had less to do with the forces that seek or erase or rewrite history than simply the nature of time, with the precedence the present always seems to have over what has come before, the precedence not of the present moment, which we never seen to have access to, but of the present situation, which is always demanding our attention, always so forceful and vivid and overwhelming that as soon as one of its elements disappears we forget it ever existed. A short we wore every week for several years can be thrown away and then forgotten forever the week after, a table on which we ate two meals a day for a decade can be replaced and the strangeness of the new arrangement gone within a month, and even when  something vital disappears, something our lives have centered on for years, even then we move on very quickly, very quickly adjusting to the new circumstanced, so that within a few months or years the new way stats to seem like the way things have always been.

Despite the enclosed spaces where Krishan lives, travels, funeral rooms etc. he is also always musing on the horizon, the space of endless possibilities, contemplating grandeur, the immense future, a place (possibly) away from Tamil struggles. You’ll have to read the book to understand all the references to the horizon as I do not want to add spoiler alerts.

This was an immensely enjoyable novel, dense and with many a philosophical or political musing. I am very pleased it has made the Booker Prize shortlist. I am also very pleased that more people in the wider world will at least read two pages about our archaic government’s refugee policies, the more international knowledge, the more international pressure. Thank you Anuk Arudpragasam.

2 thoughts on “A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam – 2021 Booker Prize shortlist

    • There’s one section I found quite difficult however as I was led along I became more entranced – reminds me of Booker contenders of old. I’d love to read your thought once your done.


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