The Enigma of Exile

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Colman's Column3


The exile’s new world, logically enough, is unnatural, and its unreality resembles fiction. Edward Said.

George Eliot, in her novel Daniel Deronda, wrote:

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.”


Where would I be rooted? I was born on the outskirts of the ancient cathedral city of Gloucester. I used to walk the same fields and hills as the poet and composer Ivor Gurney. Gurney died in 1937 in a mental hospital,  longing for the familiar fields of Gloucestershire. Helen Thomas, the widow of the poet Edward Thomas, who had been killed in the First World War, visited him. She took Edward’s maps of Gloucestershire and they traced their fingers over the routes Edward had walked. “He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity.”

Even that long ago, Gurney lamented the loss of the Gloucestershire he loved. Today, I have no longing to re-root myself in the place of my birth. There are no humans there now that I know, and the landscape is unrecognisable. In The Enigma of Arrival V.S. Naipaul wrote of “a movement between all the continents”. It could no longer be confined to a single paradigm (post-colonialism, internationalism, globalism, world literature). Naipaul’s long-suffering wife was educated at Denmark Road High School for Girls in Gloucester. I have many fond memories of Denmark Road girls. Naipaul was living in Gloucester when he wrote the book. He hated the place.


In A Prayer for my Daughter, Yeats wrote:


“O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.”


Philip Larkin demythologises the romantic idea of a rooted sense of place:


“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”.


I lived for many years in Manchester and then in London. I had many happy times in both great cities, enjoying the wide diversity of cultural amenities they offered. Life in London became too expensive, as it was government policy to restrict inward migration of poor people and to encourage kleptocratic Russian exiles to increase house prices beyond the reach of ordinary people. I moved to Ireland and took Irish citizenship. I felt a sense of returning home and I still have family in the birthplace of my father. However, the cliché of Irish welcome did not always manifest itself in reality. My wife felt a pull towards the land of her birth.


Sri Lankan editors have often encouraged me to write about Sri Lanka from a foreigner’s perspective. I recognise that this can be fraught with danger. The problem is that if I respond to requests to make wry and humorous observations about Sri Lankan life and mores some might, however sensitive and cautious I might be, find what I write condescending or arrogant.


The first article I published in this country elicited this e-mail: “You crazed Irish monkey, you deserve to be in an asylum or a zoo. No wonder the Tigers are strong in your area if it is home to an IRA fugitive like you. I am reporting you to the authorities”.

On Groundviews, some said I had no  right to be commenting on Sri Lanka because I am not a citizen of Sri Lanka. Those questioning my right to write fall into two camps. Some  see me as anti-government. One accused me of “regurgitating terrorist propaganda” when I discussed Tamil grievances. One commenter (who now describes my work as excellent) repeatedly asserted that I had been sent to Sri Lanka by sinister forces to undermine the nation. Most critics describe me as a government stooge or lackey. Emil van der Poorten even went so far as to call for me to be “silenced”. Some say that I cannot write about Sri Lanka because I live here. Only people living abroad could have the necessary detachment and absence of fear of the government.

It is usually unwise for a stranger to intervene in a fight between husband and wife. Similarly, the exile should avoid taking a partisan stance in the domestic politics of his host country. I do not write about Sri Lankan politics very often. I have avoided publishing anything at all about the recent Geneva resolution.


This is the dilemma of the exile. As a guest in Sri Lanka, I do not want to attack or defend the government. I certainly do not think I have a responsibility to attack the government. On the other hand, I want to write about the country because it is where I live. Everybody has to live somewhere. Mr van der Poorten exiled himself to Canada for many years and even went into politics in that country. He has returned to his homeland and has no compunction about finding fault with it. No-one silenced him in either country.


Exiles was James Joyce’s only play.  WB Yeats rejected it for production by the Abbey Theatre. The play was given its first production in 1919 in Munich, on the commendation of the novelist  Stefan Zweig. Its first major London performance was in 1970, when Harold Pinter directed it at the Mermaid Theatre. When Exiles was revived at the London National Theatre in 2005, Edna O’Brien wrote that it was “a work freighted with jealousy and the ogre of betrayal. He had many enemies, but chief among them were his former drinking cronies, Oliver St John Gogarty and Vincent Cosgrave. Both bore him malice because he had left Ireland”. There is a whiff of betrayal about being an exile. Joyce declared his aim of forging the conscience of his race using the tools of “silence, exile and cunning”. I am not so ambitious but try in a modest way to make a difference in my local community.

Dylan Thomas wrote of his time in the seaside town of Laugharne (model for Lareggub in Under Milk Wood): “though very much still a foreigner, I am hardly ever stoned in the streets anymore, and can claim to be able to call several of the inhabitants, and a few of the herons, by their Christian names.” I did experience some hostile glances when I first came to this village but now, after nine years, my roots are firm and I get smiles everywhere I go.


In his essay Reflections on Exile Edward Said wrote: “It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. … The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”


Many Sri Lankans have two homes, spending part of the year in Sri Lanka and part of the year abroad. Some of them remind me of Baudelaire’s prose poem N’Importe ou hors du monde. “Life is a hospital where each person is trying to change beds. One of them would like to suffer near the heater; another thinks he could get better near the window”.  When they are in Sri Lanka, they wish they were abroad. When they are abroad, they wish they were in Sri Lanka.


A Sri Lankan once asked me what I missed about my former life. I missed live jazz at the Band on the Wall in Manchester, but I can listen to jazz at home. I missed seasons of classic movies at the National Film Theatre. I can arrange my own movie seasons with DVDs from Majestic City. I miss the long summer evenings of County Cork and the Murphy’s stout, but I can enjoy a Lion Lager watching the fire flies. I miss McVitie’s plain chocolate digestives. I miss walnut oil. I once got a bit tearful listening to John Spillane singing The Land You Love the Best. None of this is life-threatening.


Bob Dylan sang, “Pity the poor immigrant/ Who wishes he would have stayed home”.  Don’t pity me, Bob. Whatever about my unhealable outsider-dom (I will never be a fan of contemporary cricket, I will never be fluent in Sinhala or Tamil) my lights are on and I am at home. Bless me, it is nearly eight years since I last left Sri Lanka. England and Ireland are unreal to me now. I have no desire to go anywhere.