What makes good fiction? Well rounded characters, a gripping storyline, a vibrant imagination, finesse, economy and control in the use of language – these are all characteristics we look for in a good text. There is also the willing suspension of disbelief, as Wordsworth put it – to be able to be caught up in, empathise with and experience the lives of characters and what they go through, forgotten for a moment, that we are vicariously enjoying something that is purely fictional. We are voyeurs of love, co-conspirators in secret plans. The text becomes our own as we progress, reading into it meanings beyond that which the author intended or could imagine, projecting our lives and memories into the fiction.
Bad fiction, on the other hand, is tedious and unwieldy – the author’s essential insecurity manifesting itself in turgid prose that never quite takes off from bathos into the sublime. The text becomes a vehicle for evangelism of a cause, the characters projections of a limited personal experience with the range of human complexity and emotions. The cause is drilled, repeatedly, with paragraphs that resemble all the finesse and delicate turn of phrase of Margaret Thatcher was renowned for. Not. We are made to wonder why we purchased the tome, what levels of far more pleasurable inebriation could have been afforded by the sum of money spent for it, and to which unsavoury colleague, acquaintance or relation we can gift it to, in the secret hope that the stilted fiction is indicative of the degree of our affection for them. In sum, we are made cruel by that which we’ve had to endure for a couple of hundred pages.
The Ginirella Conspiracy by Nihal De Silva lies somewhere in between. It rarely transcends mediocrity, even by the author’s standards, and as was my case, served as a poor introduction to the author’s literary prowess.
The novel ostensibly centres around five journals of a character called Sujatha Mallika, a young female who we first see as a village girl entering University. For around 350 pages, we follow the life of Sujatha as she evolves from a shy and fearful character to a strong and determined individual championing social justice from every sinew of her body. In the interim, she goes through many trials – from the inhumanity and psychologically scarring of ragging in her first year, to the first pangs of love, encounters with lifts and lace bras and her eventual graduation into a life of a journalist that leads her to unearth the mother of all conspiracies – Ginirella – or the tsunami of fire.
The fictional Jaypura University is rendered with unerring detail over 200 pages, most of it devoted to student ragging and the travails of a tertiary education in a highly politicized free education system. Sujatha’s travails are described from her first day onwards. The brutal rituals of induction, the humiliation and the psychological suffering of those in their first year, along with the utterly senseless violence inflicted by the Seniors, are a sombre reminder of what is very real and very wrong in Sri Lanka’s Universities today. Sujatha and her colleagues’ ragging in The Ginirella Conspiracy are features that colour the appreciation of not just Jaypura University within the text, but bear more serious reflection in light of the plight of the University system in Sri Lanka in the real world and its inability to deliver a system of education based on free thought, free expression and political association sans violent parochialism.
The author’s measured prose, for the most part written through the eyes of Sujatha, form the best passages in this book. There is something feisty in Sujatha even in those early days in University – a spirit that prepares us for what lies later in the text. Sujatha’s traumatic past is revealed gradually – the demons within juxtaposed with those who surround her in University. We are witness to her urbanisation – from village girl to social debutante, from being scared to go in a lift to leading an expedition in search of the heart of the Ginirella Conspiracy. As a character, the 350 odd pages almost entirely devoted to her evolution guarantee a rounded personality, though the same cannot be said of some of the others who are diluted in the face of Sujatha’s obvious self-importance in her journals.
Reading through the novel, the parallels with real-world rhetoric and political parties is fairly obvious, esp. to a Sri Lankan audience. There is a certain inevitability to the events that govern Sujatha’s life – perhaps in part because we are told as much in the introduction to the text by the author. However, the novel’s preface is Pyrrhic – the poor and marginalized of Sri Lanka may well be doomed to remain poor and marginalized if this is the extent of fiction that is able to highlight their plight. A failed revolution in mediocre fiction isn’t ennobling or cathartic. There is no hope in the denouement to believe that the poor would have in any way benefited from the putative revolution. However, what I disliked most is the author’s preface was to ask the the reader to believe that names in the text have been changed in the interests of self-preservation – “One cannot, these days, be too careful”. If a preface is at all necessary, the author would have been better of telling us that The Ginirella Conspiracy is what it is – a work of fiction, nothing more, nothing less. What the author instead tries to achieve, by the equivalent of a cheap parlour trick, is to write a preface that asks us to treat the novel with a critical eye circumscribed in its gaze by the fact that these events may have well occurred in real life. This is highly suspect – as it necessarily seeks to prevent us from criticising the author for mediocre writing.
I also found the denouement to be wretchedly mawkish – as if the author’s imagination had suddenly run dry after reading Sujatha’s journal’s for so long.
‘No. The poor,’ I say slowly. ‘Alone, I can’t do much but… I must do what I can. Perhaps there will be others. If there are enough others we might make an impact.’
This dialogue alone, at the fag end of the novel, risks demoting The Ginirella Conspiracy from the levels of a serious fiction to juvenile delirium. The last pages of the text are replete with puerile conversations that grab the attention of the reader only on account of their vacuous din. It’s almost as if sans the guidance of Sujatha’s journals, the author lost his way, struggling to bring a meaningful end to an unfinished life story.
One notes that this dialogue is markedly different from that which precedes it in the novel. Early dialogues of the protagonist, her friends and characters from the various student unions in the Jaypura University accurately reflect the particular timbre of Sinhala political and conversational speech in English – a remarkable feat that isn’t easy to achieve. Sujatha’s internal monologues are also rendered in this realistic conversational prose, which serve to heighten the authenticity of the text.
In a larger context, The Ginirella Conspiracy follows a rich tradition of English literature on social revolutions and insurrections in Sri Lanka, such as Waiting for Surabiel by Raja Proctor (1981) or even Only Man Is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka by William McGowan (1994). We also recall parallels between Sujatha and Kumari, the chief protagonist of Punyakanta Wijenaike’s The Rebel.
However, the author’s valiant effort to give life to a femme fatale of sorts is unsuccessful. Vacillating between parable, myth, biography and stream-of-consciousness, this is at best middling fiction and a far cry from texts such as Suvimalee Karunaratne’s Vesak 1971:
Did it take
And tongues in guns
To strafe out minds awake?
The visceral reality given form by a sheer economy of words in Vesak 1971 is wholly absent from The Ginirella Conspiracy. Meandering to an enervated and largely predictable denouement, this novel is largely forgettable. This is unfortunate, since the reader deserves better, if only on account of the expectation of a certain standard of writing by a Gratiaen award winning author. We hope that Mr. de Silva is able to rekindle his early genius to write fiction more worthy of a Sri Lankan author of repute.