Personal Perspectives – Richard’s Mother

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Over a decade ago I wrote the following in a series that appeared in over a couple of years in the Island Newspaper. I had forgotten it until it was sent me by those seeking to revive the memory of Manorani Saravanamuttu, Richard de Zoysa’s mother. At a time when ‘Ceylon Today’ is reproducing ‘The Terrorist Trilogy’ which was written with Richard and about him, I thought it fitting to republish this piece

Chanted loudly, chanted lowly
Till her blood was frozen slowly

(Tennyson)

unnamedI was out of the country when Manorani died, just as I had been when her son Richard de Zoysa was abducted and killed, 11 years previously. And it was before I came back that Victor Ivan published in the ‘Ravaya’ an article that led to a very forceful critique of Richard in the ‘Island’. Those raise issues that I suspect will have to be addressed shortly. However, for the moment it is time, as Evelyn Waugh put it about another woman of extraordinary beauty, to speak of Manorani.
The last time I saw her was in the intensive care unit in January, which was a terrible experience. She was unconscious, and under heavy medication. Yet there had also been reason for regret on previous occasions I saw her, for her memory had faded. On the last of those, her 71st birthday I think it was, one tried to take comfort in the fact that she was no longer tormented by thoughts of Richard and his death. But her contentment was that of a child, so that, that too was upsetting, for the two qualities one remembered most strongly in her were both lacking – her tremendous dignity and her passion. These are qualities one does not often associate, but Manorani had them both in abundance.

I had got to know her well, as all Richard’s friends did, for their lives were shared in a very deep sense. This was inevitable in that, after she and her husband parted, she embarked on a new life and career in Africa, but gave them up to come back to Richard. He in turn recognized what she had given up for him and felt equally committed. They both, only half jokingly, felt they had been together in previous lives – I still have a copy of a poem he sent her shortly before his death, a poem about commitment in various incarnations. His comment was that they were not the only two in a time warp.

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The colours will still revolve in the sky

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Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

At the launch of The Terrorist’s Daughter

By Thisuri Wanniarachchi

At the Taj Samudra Hotel, August 14th 2014

The Terrorist's daughter

It is a pleasure to speak at the launch of Thisuri Wanniarachchi’s second novel, The Terrorist’s Daughter. But I must confess that I wondered initially what had prompted a young lady I did not know to ask me to do this. Though I spent many years promoting Sri Lankan writing in English, at a time when the academic establishments of the day tended to look down on this, that was a very long time ago.

Yet having read through the novel, I began to understand. One of my criticisms of the literary establishment at the time was its celebration of what I termed the ‘village well’ syndrome. So Punyakante Wijenaike’s brilliant and very sophisticated novel Giraya was torn to pieces, but there was adulation by a Colombo academic of the wife in This Waiting Earth, as representing the real village woman. The sharp social criticism of a village elite in the later novel was not highlighted, nor was James Goonewardene’s The Awakening of Dr Kirthi, still perhaps the best analysis of what had destroyed the administration of this country.

I have long felt that works dealing with these higher levels of society are also important, because after  this is where decisions that affect larger groups of humanity are made. My own writings, uniquely at the time, dealt with the very highest echelons of power, in that my first novel was based on the ethnic violence of 1983 and I indicated there that that violence had received the blessings of the highest level of decision making. So the entire Terrorist Trilogy dealt direct as it were with the events of 1983 and 1987 and 1989-90. My next novel, Servants, was in a different vein, but its subject matter was similar, since it too, if more obliquely, addressed social and political developments during that long drawn out period of crisis.

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Poets and their visions 30 – W H Auden

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AudenVanVechten1939The last, chronologically speaking, of the poets I shall discuss – and the only one I actually met – is W H Auden. His was the generation that grew up just after the First World War, so they were without the intensity of subject matter that Wilfred Owen and his contemporaries displayed. But they had to deal with a new world order, and their poetry is replete with efforts to develop a system of values to help face the changing political and social circumstances.

In the end this involved, in the case of Auden and one of the contemporaries closely associated with him, the novelist Christopher Isherwood, a rejection of the world they grew up in, and both escaped to America during the Second World War. The third of the group, Stephen Spender, stayed on in England, though as a conscientious objector.

Auden’s attitude to the different world that was emerging can be seen in one of his more light-hearted poems, the letter to Lord Byron that he wrote from Iceland. The objects of his satire and the preposterous juxtapositions he engages in are multifarious: Carnegie one of the first rags to riches millionaires who devoted the latter part of his life to philanthropy; the highly conservative Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, listening to jazz; Oswald Mosley, who led the Black Shirts, the British political grouping that supported Hitler (the Teutonic Fuhrer-Prinzip), persuading Lord Byron to lead his storm troopers; the Pope joining the Moral Rearmament group; and what he thinks incredible, Lord Nuffield who built up the Morris motor business being poor, or anyone thinking British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to be honest. Continue reading

Poets and their visions 29 – John Betjeman

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Sir_John_Betjeman_(1906-1984)Almost the last poet of the 20th century whom I shall discuss may seem a most unusual choice. He certainly would not qualify as a genius, but he was not only a most entertaining writer, he also had a delightful sense of nostalgia. This I think serves to make his vision of the process of age and change well worth recording.

His subject matter was essentially England, and he was easily the most popular Poet Laureate in that country since Tennyson. His evocation of long lost country pastimes, if not quite as preposterous as that of P G Wodehouse, is unreal but compelling. There is no way, having read of her, that one can forget Joan Hunter Dunn of A Subaltern’s Love Song

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Poets and their visions 28 – D H Lawrence

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Lawrence is much better known as a novelist, but his poetry is also certainly worth reading. Though I do not think he deserves the adulation that the Leavis school of criticism, so dominant for so long in Sri Lanka, bestowed on him in the middle of the last century, the neglect from which he suffers, in the world if not here where old habits die hard, is also unfair.

His fame rested for a long time on the sexual aspect of his work, both the openness which sometimes came close to pornography and so appealed much to the young, and also his passionate belief in sexual relations as providing spiritual satisfaction in a bleak and restrictive world. Bloom, though he believes Lawrence needs to be read more, has a rather upsetting take on the matter, since he categorically claims that salvation for Lawrence lay in heterosexual buggery, which seems to me an extreme position.

I would hesitate to challenge so eminent a critic, but this seems to me like those teachers in Sri Lanka who cannot teach one of Lawrence’s best poems, Snake, without stressing phallic symbolism. I am sure that element is in the poem, but it also conveys a more general message too, about the need to accept the world as it is, instead of fighting against natural phenomena.

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Poets and their visions 27 – Wilfred Owen

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Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)The First World War inspired a lot of writing in England, understandably so, for it was the first war in which the elite was actively involved. Conscription, and also the patriotic fervor that was whipped up in the first war to be fought as much by the media as the military, led to a number of literary figures being actively involved.

English fiction however is not as memorable as that of other countries, with the writer of war stories who has lasted longest being John Buchan with his Boy’s Own Adventure type of tale. The poetry however was remarkable, and a range of writers taken together express the angst of a generation led to what in retrospect seems unnecessary slaughter.

I will look in this series however at only a single writer, who was far and away the best. Though many such as Rupert Brooke and Raymond Asquith (son of the Prime Minister, killed in battle, a phenomenon that we have not seen repeated since in wars we know of) and Julian Grenfell wrote individual poems that are moving and memorable, it is only Wilfred Owen who presented a wider perspective as to the whole ghastly business.

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Poets and their visions 26 – Hilaire Belloc

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Belloc_sideI think the poet I am least confident about including here, in a series about great writers, is Hilaire Belloc. Though an eminently serious writer in prose, his poems were largely playful. And they are not playful in the unusually creative manner of Carroll or Lear, but are designed for simple amusement.

He is best known for his cautionary tales, about Jack who disobeyed his nurse and was eaten by a lion, and Georgie who ate string, but on looking through them I thought they did not really merit quotation. They were clearly written for children, and there is not much subtle or thought provoking about them, entertaining as they are.

Much more fun I think are his excursions into the adult world, when he engaged in sly satire that resonates even today. His poem about the great hope of the government who wept in Parliament can be an object lesson for aspiring politicians even today – Continue reading

Poets and their visions 25 – Yeats

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Yeats_BoughtonAs with Tennyson and Browning, Eliot and Yeats were long considered a pair of poets who best represented their age. As with Browning, Yeats now is considered far less important than his more enduring contemporary. This judgment is largely true, but nevertheless Yeats like Browning was a considerable writer and well deserves to be read even now.

Though more orthodox than Eliot in style and subject matter, Yeats too had a wide range. Yet many of his best poems deal with the subject of age and transition. The beautiful Wild Swans at Coole exemplifies the manner in which he transits from scenic description to cognizance of the years passing.

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

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Poets and their visions 24 – T S Eliot

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Thomas_Stearns_Eliot_by_Lady_Ottoline_Morrell_(1934)The other great example of American poetic genius, and indeed the most important and influential English language poet of the 20th century, was T S Eliot. Bloom is not quite as enthusiastic about him as I am, but he grants that this is also a personal judgment relating to what he sees as Eliot’s anti-Semitism. I am not so sure that it is fair to dismiss Eliot as anti-Semitic, since he seems rather to have reflected the prevalent view in Western society about Jews, before their undoubted economc power provided invaluable assistance to the Allies in the First World War, and they became respectable.

To ascribe moral inadequacy to those who were contemptuous of the Jews before that is as silly as it would be to find reprehensible those who were contemptuous during colonial times of people whose colour was darker than their own. One can certainly find admirable those who resisted the common prejudices of their times, but Jews tend to be ultra-sensitive, and can afford to be, in a manner that is not open to those who do not exercise similar economic and political power.

Asian and African critics cannot then ascribe racism to great writers reflecting the common perspectives of their times, and assert that this takes away from their genius. Fortunately, despite Bloom’s moral fervor, he does grant Eliot’s genius, and provides useful insights into some of his poetry.

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Poets and their visions 23 – Robert Frost

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460px-Robert_Frost_NYWTSRobert Frost is for me the most appealing of American writers, always excepting the two who got away, as it were, Henry James and T S Eliot. I should note though, in fairness to the Americans, or perhaps to avoid any charges of prejudice, that I find their modern dramatists, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as good as any British playwrights of the same period.

Frost however stands out, for the range of his poetry, for a simplicity of language that conveys extremely subtle and complex ideas, for deep understanding of some key human relationships, and for a plethora of memorable phrases that expand our understanding of the world in which we live. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ and ‘Home is where, when you have nowhere else to go, they have to take you in’ are a couple that will serve to introduce two very different but equally striking poems.

The first line is taken from Mending Wall, which describes a supposedly common New England habit, the rebuilding of fences between properties after the depradations caused by winter. But the narrator thinks there are other reasons for walls being broken down, perhaps because nature abhors barriers between people. His neighbor however comes out with the blunt aphorism I cited, and often this is taken to indicate that Frost himself subscribes to this orthodoxy.

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