Saturday, January 2, 2016
John Gimlette's "Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka": Book Review
A few years ago, the title "At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig" caught my eye, naturally. It was a travelogue through Paraguay, full of interest and wit. The author, John Gimlette, has wandered into many realms before and since that one, and he's chronicled them similarly. Inspired by his Tamil neighbors in London, he decides to visit Sri Lanka.
While William McGowan's harrowing "Only Man Is Vile" (1992; also reviewed by me) delved into the civil war in the eastern territory between the Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist Sinhalese, Gimlette visits the island nation as its people struggle to recover, a few years into a precarious peace. He is admirably cautious in sifting through the accounts of strife. His notes suggest further reading on topics, a valuable resource to a nation about which much lately had been reported.
His book's chapters track some of the titular paths the elephant takes as it traverses, for thousands of years, the terrain, without caring for the humans who have settled there since. Starting in Colombo, he takes in the dry zone of the north-central province, the cinnamon forts and traces of the Portuguese colonization, echoes of Dutch burghers on the south coast and Sinhalese redoubt, and the Great Road and the highlands. Then he stays in Kandy, and later with "Little England" planters amid the tea terraces. The south-east with both the much-reduced indigenous tribes and the post-war Tamil Tigers populate a remote region. The spirits of "Trinco" from another war, the world one seven decades ago, haunt that area.
The last chapters revolve around the island's conflict and the physical and emotional impacts it left on the nation's peoples. Gimlette, a skilled veteran, keeps the pace steady and his gaze alert. He does not delve into sentiment, but he sympathizes with the damage, and he directs us to follow his itinerary with alertness. He ends by knowing when his welcome is over, and when he passes away from the end of a troubled era here. (Amazon US 12-31-15)