Wednesday, December 10, 2014

We Are Reading Gunesekera's "Reef"

This is the last week of classes for this semester here at St Olaf College. We are reading, in my South Asian Literature course, Romesh Gunesekera's Reef, a novel I had taught before. We are a little more than half way through it, going at a comfortable pace. Everybody is tired at this time of the semester, and I have told my students that I do not believe the reading of any work of literature should be rushed or done under pressure.

Rereading Reef, I am enjoying the discovery of aspects of it that I might have missed the first time around. For example, I am gaining a better understanding of Mister Salgado, one of the main characters. I have shared with my students my sense that he is eccentric, what with his obsession with lists, for example, which the narrator, his servant, describes thus:

Early on I learned the value of making lists from watching Mister Salgado. He was a great one for lists. He would listen to The Mikado and write page after page of lists: shopping lists, laundry lists, book lists, betting lists, things-to-do lists, diary lists, repair lists, packing lists, record lists, larder lists, letter's to write lists (p. 33)

No less peculiar is his habit of using the same tooth brush, never replacing it, according to the narrator, "until there was practically nothing left but the plastic handle. I would watch the bristles get shorter and more squashed day after day, until sometimes I myself would go and buy him a new one and place it in his mug" (p. 19-20)

In class today, I waxed profusely about Gunesekera's narrative skill. To illustrate this, I read the following passage, which invites much comment on account of its use of language and figures of speech:

We drove for hours; whistling over a ribbon of tarmac measuring the perpetual embrace of the shore and he sea, bounded by a fretwork of undulating coconut trees, pure unadorned forms framing the seascape into a kaleidoscope of bluish jewels. Above us a tracery of green and yellow leaves arrowed to a vanishing-point we could never reach. At times the road curved as though it were the edge of a wave itself rushing in and then retreating into the ocean. We skittered over these moving surfaces at a speed I had never experienced before. Through the back window I watched the road pour out from under us and settle into a silvery picture of serene timelessness. We overtook the occasional bus belching smoke or a lorry lisping with billowing hay; we blasted through bustling towns and torpid villages. We passed churches and temples, crosses and statues, grey shacks and lattice-work mansions.

This description of the Sri Lankan countryside, I find not only vivid, but very pleasant to read, and I shared my thoughts about it with the class.

There is, of course, much to say about Reef, as is the case with any work of literature worth the name. There is no way we can grasp and express the plethora of meanings it can generate. A literary text signifies ceaselessly, as Roland Barthes would say. Someday, hopefully, I will write more about this remarkable novel.

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