What makes a novel different from a documentary? The Story Of A Brief Marriage, a short, intense story set in the last days of the Sri Lankan civil war, opens with a scene out of the rawest kind of eyewitness journalism, and goes on to acquaint its readers more intimately with the sensual assault of war than many news reports on the subject.
Readers must know this upfront because many of us tend to hold novels to different standards when we consider them to be in the public interest. However, this work of fiction, seriously and purposefully harrowing as it is, is playing the long game with its subject, as we soon discover: It wants to do more than simply bring alive the horrors of a holocaust, or even to bring some universal pathos to the specifics of Sri Lankan Tamil suffering.
The work of philosopher-in-training Anuk Arudpragasam, The Story Of A Brief Marriage is fundamentally about what life is like for a man who knows he is going to die. The young Dinesh, a high school student in a previous life, has been fleeing the approaching Sri Lankan army for untold days when we meet him. He is an orphan, living a life of little sleep, less food and daily violence; around him is a group of refugees trying to avoid being shelled by the army in its advance over Tamil-held territory, as well as the ravages of a wounded and desperate LTTE ground force.
The events of the novel unfold over a day in which he agrees to marry a fellow refugee at her father’s behest. The great obstacle to leaving life is, of course, other people; and the emotional drama of The Story Of A Brief Marriage derives from the difference a few short hours with another human being can make to a person’s reckoning with death.
There are writers who hate having to depend on the novel for what they want to say, resentful of the imperfections of the technology available to convey meaning. Arudpragasam’s language is so austere, and the life he recreates in them so unmitigatedly terrible, that it can be difficult to immediately grasp why he chose to explore this moral and political devastation in fiction. But Arudpragasam is taking advantage of the fact that the novel can do justice both to journalism and to psychological realism, and needs very few words to achieve it. A vast part of the action in this story takes place internally. Dinesh spends long stretches of the narrative in intense thought, contemplating memory and sensation with exacting focus. This near-meditative state of storytelling simultaneously dwells on the horrors of Dinesh’s circumstances—the blood, the hunger, the inability to so much as defecate in peace—and the wellspring of his human innocence and frailty.
The novel is short and visually vivid, but also spare and narratively deliberate. Arudpragasam has a couple of literary tricks that show up to great effect, including very effective transitions out of Dinesh’s mind to the edges of his awareness, and the slow revelation of some catastrophe in his surroundings.
The novel is worth reading for all this and more. Yet, something about it has the aftertaste of melodrama, which wouldn’t be a criticism if one didn’t have the feeling that the novel was going to great lengths to avoid it. Perhaps this feeling derives from the most serious issue with The Story Of A Brief Marriage, which is the utilitarian function of the characters who surround Dinesh, most crucially his bride Ganga. Arudpragasam’s close third-person narrative doesn’t admit the pervasion of another consciousness in the story. Those suffering around Dinesh, almost always fatally, flicker in and out like ghosts on a newsreel.
Ganga arrives with the force of a second protagonist, the only living woman we see in the story. But the nature of the narrative only ever allows us to know her as she affects Dinesh. For all his thoughtfulness and kindness—because Dinesh is a kind man—he has neither the time nor the language to know her as anything but the object of his hesitant, almost invisible emotional transformation. As a consequence, neither do we.
In spite of this, The Story Of A Brief Marriage is worth reading and worth thinking about. It reprises the Sri Lankan nightmare and invests it with fresh terror. It also brings us new perspective on loneliness and death, and what it might mean for the millions of refugees with whom we share our lands and seas today. And in Arudpragasam, it reveals a muscular, ambitious artist of the novel form, who is likely to do something even better with his next.
Supriya Nair is an editor with Brown Paper Bag.