Thursday, July 06, 2017

Book Review: Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

by Richard Grooms, Librarian, Fiction Department, Central Library

Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka
John Gimlette

It’s a pleasure to read a travel writer who’s firing on all thrusters. Travel is one of my favorite genres. I’ve read close to 200 titles. After a while, you get jaded, lower your expectations. Along comes Gimlette to restore your faith, let you see why you fell in love with the category in the first place. He’s at the top of his field. Part of his strength is his preparation. He spent three months in Sri Lanka but spent two years preparing for it. So by the time he got there he seems like an old hand. But he still retains a newcomer’s sense of awe and adventure.

Sri Lanka is an island nation just below the southern tip of India. About the size of Ireland, it’s been inhabited for over 18,000 years. 2,000 years ago a mysterious people built magnificent structures there, one so large and sophisticated it rivalled some of the great pyramids of Egypt. This was the Ruwanweliseya Dagoba, one of many dagobas (no, not Yoda’s planet, but probably the inspiration for it) found throughout the jungles of Sri Lanka. They are bell-shaped and house sacred Buddhist relics. To Gimlette, they rise out of the jungle “fresh from outer space.” Like the dagobas, the country is full of the unexpected, such as the moment when the author, exploring another jungle ruin, finds himself under “enormous eaves with several thousand fruit bats, who give a collective squeal of disgust.” Or when he’s poking around the caves of the ancient royal heir Kasyapa. Kasyapa swore a vow of chastity and asceticism, but nevertheless commissioned artists to fill the caves with portraits of half-naked celestial nymphs.

That’s the jungle. But Sri Lanka also has Colombo, the capitol and biggest city. It’s a city that defies anticipation. What you’d expect to find in the center, such as forts and government buildings, are on the rim. And what you’d imagine would be on the rim-a giant lake-is in the center. Elephants are driven around in trucks. Men chop logs in the middle of the street. “Anti-aircraft guns wear little quilted jackets.” A gypsy’s monkey wears the clothes of an Englishman. It’s a city, says Gimlette, that Carroll’s Alice would’ve loved.

As magical as Sri Lanka can be, it is still recovering from the civil war, the longest in Asian history, which lasted from 1983-2009. It seems like everywhere Gimlette looks there are bullet holes. The author well explains the causes of the war-the hatred between the two biggest groups, the Tamils and the Sinhalese-but I still can only half understand how that much hatred ever took root and expressed itself in what was one of the most stupefyingly vicious wars in human history. To be fair, most Sri Lankans can’t much grasp it either. The accounts of the war in the book are thoroughly shocking, to say the absolute least. As if it wasn’t enough, Sri Lanka was hit by tsunami waves in 2004. It was a day of extremes. “The planet itself vibrated by a centimetre.” Witnesses reported seeing the ocean empty as a desert, empty because all the water had been bulked up into a giant wave. By the end of it, about 55,000 had died. Sri Lanka is still reeling from that, too.

But Sri Lanka isn’t just a collection of tragedies. By and large, it does still really seem to live up to now-deceased resident Arthur C. Clarke’s statement that it contains more than anyplace on earth the most attractive ruins, beaches and landscapes. And the most charming people. Tell me, where else in the world do so many people live in treehouses? Gimlette visits a rural area where most everyone goes to the trees every night. Why? To avoid the elephants, of course. That’s when they like to trample through their pathways, and some villages, like the one the author visits, lie right in a pathway. As an added precaution, a local sings “elephant-scaring songs” to keep the pachyderms away. The songs inspire other tree-dwellers to join the singing, and soon “the whole paddy was singing along.” You could see little fires up in the trees where tree-dwellers were living. The songs seem to work, too.

Elephant Complex is full of marvelous events like this. You need them to offset the accounts of the civil war. The elephant pathways that crisscross the interior of the country are little understood and are believed to be ancient. Elephants will not use them for years, and then mysteriously start down them again. To Gimlette they are a metaphor for the complex folkways of Sri Lankans that can never be fully known, not even to Sri Lankans. And yet, despite the war, the mistrust and the plethora of social ills, to Gimlette, Sri Lanka is today “an educated, democratic and essentially humane society.” I could go on highlighting the contradictions unearthed in this book, the marvels and the arresting beauty. But I wouldn’t want to tell too much for fear that you might read this review and feel you can skip the book. You really wouldn’t want to fail to read it. I’ve only given a glimpse of this stunning country. I now want to go there some day. That’s one for Gimlette. Until then, this will make an excellent substitute. That’s another.

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