It is tempting to see Anuk Arudpragasam’s new novel A Passage North, set in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war, as having political intent. It undoubtedly does: it is set around the dutiful visit of Krishan, a Tamil living in Colombo, to Sri Lanka’s war-scarred Northern Province for the funeral of Rani, his grandmother’s erstwhile care-taker, herself damaged by the war that took her two sons.
But that would be underselling the novel, and possibly missing the point entirely, for A Passage North comes across as very much an exercise in style.
The story itself is laid out in the first few pages. Krishan, who had received an unexpected and somewhat mysterious email from an old flame earlier in the day, returns home from work, dispenses with the necessary pleasantries with his grandmother, only to receive a call informing him of Rani’s death.
Rani had left to attend a few months earlier to attend to the five-year anniversary of her younger son’s death, killed by shrapnel, and never returned. Krishan decides to attend the funeral, hence the passage north. Any “passage”, it is clear from the opening words of the novel, will be philosophical as much as physical:
The present, we assume, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted. It overwhelms us in the painful first moments of entry into the world, when it is still too new to be managed or negotiated, remains by our side during childhood and adolescence, in those years before the weight of memory and expectation, and so it is sad and a little unsettling to see that we become, as we grow older, much less capable of touching, grazing, or even glimpsing it, that the closest we seem to get to the present are those brief moments we stop to consider the spaces our bodies are occupying, the intimate warmth of the sheets in which we wake, the scratched surface of the window on a train taking us somewhere else, as if the only way we can hold time still is by trying physically to prevent the objects around us from moving.
Krishan, whether going out for a smoke, walking on the Colombo seafront or on the train up north, has lots of time to think. Anjum comes to us through extended flashbacks; Krishan had met her in Delhi where he was doing a PhD and had been besotted, spiritually even more than physically. But Anjum had gone off to Jharkhand to join a group of social activists and somewhat in reaction, Krishan returns to Sri Lanka and to work for a small NGO in Jaffna. This journey is also as much mental as geographical:
Thinking of his first months working in the north-east after his return to the island, Krishan could still remember the distinct sense he’d had of physically entering a place he’d imagined into existence, the feeling he was moving not so much across solid earth as across some region in the outskirts of his mind.
Krishan can come across as being rather self-absorbed, even a bit precious, as we get extended multi-page recountings of Tamil poems and television documentaries.
What might feel affected or even tedious in the hands of a lesser writer becomes atmospheric in Arudpragasam’s extraordinary prose. Arudpragasam’s writing seems strikingly old-fashioned, something from yesteryear, not in tone so much as in craft: A Passage North, with its long, thoughtful sentences and deliberate construction, its emphasis on sentiment and philosophy over plot, its delicate and detailed characterizations, is the literary equivalent of a pair of handmade shoes.
This sort of thing may not be to everyone’s taste. Very little happens, nothing is resolved. If Krishan could have turned his mind off, A Passage North would have made a fine short story. But the words flow and flow, pushed and pulled, like water off the edge of an infinity pool.
There are a few false notes: in long passages, Krishan dwells on a very real Tamil leader, Kuttimani, and some very real documentaries. These can feel like overlays, and none end up seeming quite as real as the fictional constructs of Anjum, Rani and Krishan’s grandmother.
But there are bumps in every road. A Passage North is an immersive experience: the words carry the reader along.