BOOK REVIEW : Passage to Sri Lanka Puts Cultures at Odds : MONKFISH MOON by Romesh Gunesekera ; New Press $16.95; 138 pages


In "Captives," the longest and most interesting tale in this slim collection of stories, a Mr. Udaweera impatiently awaits the arrival of the first guests to occupy the hotel he manages in central Sri Lanka. When the Hornimans, a British couple apparently on their honeymoon, finally appear, Udaweera gives them the Blue Suite, which suitably impresses the wife: "My goodness, this is the real thing," she says, taking note of the room's four-poster bed and lace canopy. Udaweera is pleased, but can't resist icing the cake, as he sees it, by turning on the taps at the sink and exclaiming, "Look Madam, hot water!"

The scene is slight, and taken alone seems shop-worn, reminiscent of moviedom's backward native marveling at amenities the Westerner takes for granted. In context, though, the scene reads very differently, for two reasons: because "Captives" is narrated by Udaweera himself, and because a major theme of "Monkfish Moon" is the identity conflicts created in native cultures by colonial and neo-colonial influences.

The theme is now commonplace in modern literature--it's everywhere in Salman Rushdie's work, for example, and in that of many South American writers--but Romesh Gunesekera, who grew up in Sri Lanka and the Philippines and now lives in London, approaches it with remarkable subtlety and unmannered melancholy. Drawn to cultures of divergent sensibilities, Gunesekera knows well the internal dissension caused by split allegiance.

"Captives" is of particular resonance, at least for those who know modern Western literature, because it bears an unmistakable debt to E. M. Forster's "A Passage to India." The Hornimans have come to Udaweera's hotel mainly to see the frescoed mountain fortress Sigiriya, and the manager insists on personally escorting them to the site. Once there he finds himself alone with Mrs. Horniman--Mr. Horniman having pressed on to the mountain's summit--much as Forster's Dr. Aziz lingered with Adela Quested in the Marabar Caves.

Udaweera brings the cultural tensions to the fore when he tells the reader "I wanted Mrs. Horniman to understand that I was not a base or vulgar man," but Gunesekera is not simply giving Forster's story an Asian perspective. Udaweera, unlike Aziz, is allowed to have real sensual feelings, although nothing happens between the manager and Mrs. Horniman, just as nothing happens between Aziz and Adela: as soon as Udaweera realizes the Hornimans are not in fact married he imagines himself touching the Western woman, inviting her to a pool at the hotel that was never built.

There's another unbuilt structure in "A House in the Country," a cottage that a repatriated Sri Lankan, Ray, would like to erect with a young builder in his employ, Siri. Ray has recently returned to the island's capital, Colombo, from London, and it's clear he wants to provide the unassuming Siri with the sort of privileges and aspirations that Ray himself has enjoyed. But the house in the country will never come into being--one again hears echoes of "A Passage to India"--for Sri Lanka is itself a house divided, the guerrilla war launched by the nation's minority Tamils having become endemic. When the rebels burn Ray's local newspaper stand to the ground, with the owner inside, Siri decides to leave Colombo, the latest violence having come on the heels of his brother's lynching. Ray hopes to persuade Siri to remain in the capital by saying "the veranda can wait," but immediately recognizes the inadequacy of his response: Ray knows better than Siri that no building, no country, no home anywhere is safe from civic strife.

There's a strand in Western writing that portrays unfamiliar and very different cultures as primitive Edens, often in the process of being despoiled by their "discovery." That sort of romanticism, fortunately, has for the most part disappeared, replaced by the much more complex, much more interesting portraits of colonization written by those who have actually experienced its effects, not all of which are negative. The stories in "Monkfish Moon" don't sketch the end of an idyll but the problems inherent in dual heritage, in being forced to choose between two equally inviting beliefs. Gunesekera, a young writer, shows great maturity and modesty in refusing to make that choice look easy.

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