I'm just a very ordinary man who wrote a book and they called me a novelist after that.said award-winning Sri Lankan author Elmo Jayawardena very modestly at the MPH Breakfast club last Saturday.
I finished Elmo's first novel, Sam's Story a couple of day's back and very much enjoyed it. The story is narrated by a young man called Sam, who is mentally slow and illiterate, and who finds employ as a domestic servant with a family at "the river house". Alternating chapters unravel the story of Sam's growing up in a village in the rural Kalutera district where the poverty is absolute, and the only jobs to be had are tapping rubber or digging sand ... and for the young men, joining the Sri Lankan army to fight the on-going civil war.
The novel is largely based on real life. There actually is a Sam and he still works for Elmo (who "drives areobblanes" for a living) and his family, and many of the incidents described in the book with such humour and affection really did happen. (Elmo took out his family photos to show me Sam and the house by the river before the event began.)
The background about Sam's family and childhood which real Sam was unable to tell him, he filled in from his own experiences of growing up dirt poor, often going without food, and from his charity work with the poor.
There is reality in the real sense of it ... when a person is poor they don't have hope.In the book, Sam's voice is convincingly realised and his quirky way of seeing the world acquires it's own logic. (Why have a statue in the garden of a boy pissing into the fish pond when he can do it just as well? Why pack away the Christmas tree when it will only need to be brought out again next year? Why isn't the dog his when he loves it most?)
He's aware of the ironies too. The family dog gets the best medical treatment and a stream of visitors when he gets food poisoning. Sam's mother has to walk miles and wait hours for medical treatment, and is prescribed medicine and an improved diet which they can't afford. His master's family have two children who are educated overseas and who barely think about the civil war. Sam's brothers are conscripted, and one killed while the other becomes a deserter.
The war enters the household in the form of conversations between the master and his friends over drinks - everyone expounds on what should be done, but no-one really has answers. Meanwhile in the kitchen, there is enmity between Sam and the two servants Janet and Leandro. Sam doesn't know what the war is about but he knows that the Tamils are supposed to be the enemy of the Sinhalese.
But as the Masters wife (hey, this is my friend Dil!) says, sadly shaking her head each soldier in the conflict is some mother's son and really it is as simple as that.
As Elmo said at MPH :
We hate because we do not know them, and we will not know them because we hate.I find it really interesting that Elmo the author is so easily able to slip inside another skin, and see himself too through that person's eyes. (He isn't always complimentary about Elmo the character!) The ending of the novel, thank goodness, is fiction.
The real Sam is unable to comprehend that he has become the hero of a book and that a lot of people travel to meet him, but in the pages of this book he becomes the perfect vehicle to explore the effects of poverty and war on the the ordinary Sri Lankan citizen.