Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Adele Barker's "Not Quite Paradise": Book Review

A few weeks after 9/11, this professor of Russian lit lands in Sri Lanka. She and her teenaged son, who left Tucson after some unspecified dissatisfaction, face a year on a Fulbright. Barker, a steely and incisive observer of her surroundings in this land racked by war, reveals why it's "not quite paradise."

She takes the title of her account after the Victorian and early 20c British colonial narratives she scours. The "colonialist torpor" appears to overcome her too, in the tropics where two monsoon seasons swirl around her base near Kandy at a university where she tries to teach a few undergraduates. Her work load appears admirably light, affording her time to pursue "indolence" and sip endless cups of tea.

Two days gone and her house succumbs to the insects and rodents again. She opens a microwave and sees a film of ants, so black it reminds her of a poem by Sappho about rubble on a beach. She learns to deal with "election violence" as its own expected interruption, along with full-moon holidays and frequent breaks from work. "Normal murders" come to sound almost routine, as the civil war continues to the north, although later events will induce her to enter the war zone, if briefly. For now, in 2001-02, she tries to figure out with "ten words of Sinhalese" where to go next as she encounters the assault of birdsong in a land where others have had to learn the whistles of incoming bombs.

As she relates this all to us, her mood alters, and her own emotions appear to ruffle or smooth chapters in turn. This sudden downshifting into what her native hosts tell her translates as "nothing special happening" in our terms inspires her to recognize how she, as with her "white" predecessors, will always be on display, out of reach of the indigenous mindset, no matter how she labors to master Sinhalese or find a Tamil translator. As she looks at them, so they at her. Refusing to romanticize, what we're left with here, as she insists, is a harsher, more unsettled pair of stays on this unstable island.

However, globalization means change, and Sri Lanka meets its own challenge. Barker returns to the island the year after the tsunami kills 35,000 (the book jacket says 48,000) the day after Christmas, 2004. Eerily, as she was on a listserv, she in Arizona received e-mail warnings from the U.S. Embassy long before the islanders knew the impending disaster, as the Indian Ocean lacks the early warning system installed for the Pacific.

Part two of this book, therefore, finds her determined to traverse the island, to follow the coastal path of devastation. This reminded me of Emma Larkin's story about Burma after a massive 2008 cyclone, recounted in "Everything Is Broken" (see my review). Barker fills her report with similar sadness, and of attempts by international aid workers as well as diligent Sri Lankans to help ease suffering.

She hears from a survivor at a beach she had loved to visit, Mt. Lavinia, three years ago. "Those first few weeks, you could not, madam, have believed this ocean. There were pots and wooden spoons floating on the waves. It was a kitchen, but we couldn't eat the food it prepared." (qtd. 171) For half a year after, the islanders would not eat the fish caught, for fear of the diet that had sustained them.

Barker tells nearly nothing of her life prior to her visit; she aims instead to focus on Sri Lanka. (A list of suggested works and links is provided on Beacon Press's reader's guide for the book but it is lacking here, as is an index.) While researched and nuanced, as one supposes would be a work by a literature professor, it tends to minimize other sources in favor of Barker's own confrontations with them, and how she aligns them with the events witnessed and people interviewed.

A contrast with William McGowan's harrowing 1992 "All Man is Vile" (see my review) notes how McGowan strives for a war correspondent verve akin to Ryszard Kapuściński crossed with a preference for the exotic oddity as with Bruce Chatwin. For Barker, who writes after a dozen years more of the war have ground on, you find out far less about the reasons for the war, and you feel less of its savagery, but you learn to listen as she does to the conversations of the locals, more hesitantly.

She avoids the pitfalls of a memoir that rattles on about the writer's own shortcomings, even if the context for the war and the chaos it creates is under-explained. This tone, rather detached, reflects how she learned about the events as they were told (or not told, just as often) to her as a resident--not a tourist, but not an expatriate. Yet, as other reviewers on Amazon agree, you don't learn what drives her away from Arizona to of all places Sri Lanka. Her son's difficulties are often muffled. She appears about to reveal more about her motives, then she retreats. That liminal status never leaves her.

She tries to teach the students in Jaffna about Dostoevsky, Dickinson, and Woolf (whose husband had lived as a colonial in Sri Lanka and had written about his stint). But the civil war follows her north, and she must flee. In the end, after her two sojourns, she asks the same question of her students and neighbors and hosts as she had years before: "were they, I wondered, any the less on display for me than I was for them?" (291) (Amazon US 3-24-12)


Tony Bailie said...

Sinead and I went to Sri Lanka a few years ago. It was after the tsunami so maybe 2006/7. People told us about the waves washing down the streets where we were walking. We went to Kandy, visited the rock temple at Dambulla, climbed the truly impressive Sigiriya. All fantastic places. There was an edginess about it because the war was still going on. We weren't allowed to get out of our taxi or take pictures in Colombo and told not to travel by train. Great Buddhist bookshop in Colombo by the way. But for some reason I never fully engaged with the country, I didn't dislike it but I think there was something in me just refusing to let it enchant me. Hopefully will go back some time and give it another go.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, a few years at some Irish lit conference the poet Richard Murphy was reading from his then-new autobiography "The Kick." Whatever he read from then did not "kick" in, but I recall now that he's from a planter family who'd been gentry in Ceylon; his father was Colombo's mayor. He now lives there in retirement, himself. He has some poems in "The Price of Stone" about the frescoes from the 5th c. in Sri Lanka--perhaps the ones you saw?