Gabby cabby in the nerve centre of terror: Noon Tide Toll
Review: Romesh Gunesekera’s post-war Sri Lankan taxi driver is mouthy but likeable in a book that will draw a new generation of readers to this most sympathetic of writers
Romesh Gunesekera, above, is “graced with a poet’s vision and an abiding sense of justice”. Photograph: Getty Images
Noon Tide Toll
Many people spend a great deal of time lamenting their lack of peace; far fewer do something about it. But Vasantha, the middle-aged narrator of Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera’s new volume of interlinked stories, has made a personal stand. By taking early retirement, he has chosen freedom over routine. Still, he is too canny to merely sit around doing nothing. Instead he has acquired an old van: “It is a minibus, not a sports car, but it makes me feel young.”
Driving is his passion and he earns a living by taxiing a diverse range of visitors, from tourists to honeymooners, to uptight officials involved in developing tourism, to others engaged in serious missions such as exploring the past, across a rapidly changing, post-war Sri Lanka anxious to create a new, commercial identity.
It is a conventional formula: contrasting impressions filtered through a single perspective which the reader can trust. Vasantha not only drives the van, he moves the narrative along, recalling his various encounters and conversations with optimists and pessimists, as well as adding his astute impressions and observations.
As expected, he is a chatty, intelligent individual; words come easily to him, and Gunesekera has a relaxed, conversational style. Noon Tide Toll, only his second volume of stories in a career which began with Monkfish Moon in 1992, may appear to be little more than the musings of the happy van driver, but although the stories – they are more like sequences – are often quite random, far more polemic and opinion are expressed than in many a more deliberate work.
When Vasantha announces in the opening sentence of Scrap: “I want to learn Chinese. If you are going to live in this country, I think it would be a good idea to learn Chinese . . . I had four Chinese executives in my van the other day . . .” Before long he is asking them who built the road upon which they are travelling: “Did the Tigers /[meaning the Tamils/] build this, or is it a British road?”
Mouthy but likeable
Good old Vasantha, mouthy but likeable, is never one to miss making a point and duly reports the horrified expression which greets his question. War and checkpoints are never all that far away, even in peace time. Having noticed that the paddy fields on either side of the road are “the brightest green he has ever seen” he then reports that within minutes he was aware of having “slipped into a war-movie set: the trees cleared and we saw fields packed with broken bicycles. There must have been tens of thousands of bicycles in a block half a mile long and 20 feet high. A scrap heap of bicycles. I don’t think even in Mao’s China there would have been so many piled together like this.”