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.”
The Chinese officials speak among themselves in English long enough for him to hear one of the older ones explain: “Confiscated enemy vehicles. Tigers used them all over the North . . .” before the conversation resumes in Chinese.
Later in the same story, Vasantha makes one of many apparently casual yet invariably pointed comments about how war has affected his country. “We passed a row of container trucks with buckled carriages. It seemed as though the transport of a nation had been gathered here and turned to scrap. I have heard that there are places in America and England and Germany where you have mountains of obsolete cars and refrigerators and machines of all kinds, but I can’t imagine they are as eerie as this. In our country, if a machine doesn’t work, someone hangs on to it and fixes it . . .
“They are always in the limbo of a repair shed. My friend has a car where every component has been salvaged from a different vehicle . . . But I am afraid war seems to have changed the attitudes of the younger generation. They have become more used to the idea of a disposable society.”
The landscape through which Vasantha drives his Chinese party is badly scarred by lingering traces of war. Gunesekera, who often echoes the great RK Narayan (1906-2001), has no difficulty in allowing his narrator to speak freely, yet is also generous in evoking vivid images, particularly of the wreckage of war littering the landscape. For all the free discussion of the new tourism, history provides a haunting backdrop.
In another of the stories, Renewals, Vasantha, in one of his more poignant asides, concedes: “But for all the driving I do, I never seem to break out. I am always in the van. And wherever I go in the van, I reach the edge and have to turn back like an ant on a floating leaf. I go everywhere in this country [Sri Lanka], but nowhere in my mind. Maybe you can never really leave the past behind. It is in your head and outside your control.”
By far the strongest, stand-alone story in the book is Roadskill. It is set in Kilinochchi, formerly the capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and where they had held their press conferences. “Most of us living in the south had come to think of this town as the nerve centre of terror.” Only two years after the final showdown during which the Sri Lankan army had marched into a scene already razed by the Tamils, Vasantha is struck by the irony of delivering a couple, including a very pregnant wife, to a brand new hotel, the Spice Garden Inn.
The dinner is disappointing although as Vasantha notes: “But after the war and the wall-to-wall fighting in the town, it was hardly surprising that even the rice would turn to rubble.” The waiter serving them is doing his job sufficiently well, yet a young woman appears and takes over. Dressed – rather pointedly – in a grey trouser suit, she is further indication of how change has supplanted tradition.
Her welcome is terse. “She parted her lips in a smile, but barely a muscle moved beyond her mouth.” Introducing herself as the assistant manager, she is brittle and tense, and is seems Gunesekera, whose impressive comic flair was evident in his much neglected The Match (2006), may be playing for laughs when Vasantha reports her saying: “My job is to make this hotel very welcoming . . .”
Her “tightly strung” militaristic approach becomes further evident when on spotting a rat she grasps the narrator’s beer bottle and kills the hapless rodent with one deft movement. The scar on her neck and her callused trigger finger suggest she had previously been a soldier.
Although not the best of the versatile Gunesekera, this minor work is an interesting collection, marked by several illuminating narrative asides. It also coincides with the 20th anniversary of the publication of his beautiful coming-of-age debut novel, Reef, which was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker prize and continues to stand equal with The Sandglass (1998) as his finest work to date.
Noon Tide Toll will inch up on readers, it has its moments. The very human Vasantha is sufficiently philosophical to transcend the technical constraints of the formulaic use of picaresque and the often flat characterisation. Best of all though, the book will draw a new generation of readers to this most sympathetic of writers, graced with a poet’s vision as well as an abiding sense of justice.