A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday September 5 2010.
I wonder how many of you out there, including journalists, get as irritated as I do when films and novels, often written by journalists taking up the trade of fiction, glamorise the exploits of journalists.
I got myself into a rather acrimonious exchange with an editor (of a western publication) with whom, only a few days previously I had been having a friendly e-mail correspondence. I will name no names in order to protect the guilty, but this is the gist of what happened.
I was asked for my opinion about an article on Sri Lanka by a western journalist. I am not a subscriber to the view of some Sri Lankan commentators that the crimes and hypocrisy of the west bar any westerner, politician or writer, from criticising Sri Lanka. I do however, expect some cognisance of the complexity of what is happening here. I do expect an avoidance of generalisation and stereotypes. There were many quite ludicrous factual howlers in the article. My view that the article in question provided a distorted picture of the ground reality today in Sri Lanka caused offence to the editor and the author, who was quite abusive.
The writer had visited Sri Lanka, dropped in at the IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps (one of the charges against the Government of Sri Lanka was that they were keeping journalists away from the camps, but never mind) and talked to a number of people. Then he flew home and wrote his article. He had written about Sri Lanka before so his publishers may think of him as an expert on the subject. He had also written about Chile, the Tuaregs, the Kurds, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, Nepal, India, Iran, Spain, Indonesia, Afghanistan. Jacques of all trades?
Although the western editor accused me of personal point-scoring, I have no objection to this particular writer trying to make a crust writing about Sri Lanka and many other topics. What I have more concern about is the infantilising nature of delusion in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”.
I am often disappointed when I spend my hard-earned money after reading a delusional book review. Here is my own review of a book about which The Guardian misled me. Martin Lewin said: “Peter Grimsdale can tell a convincing story with writing that is cliché-free and utterly enthralling”. I like thrillers (although I often afterwards have to clean my brain of bad writing by reading the cold heartless prose of the likes of John Banville or Samuel Beckett). The idea of a thriller based in Sri Lanka was (mildly) thrilling. When I was pottering about in Barefoot, the estimable Laurence handed me the book and recommended it.
The author, Peter Grimsdale, worked for the BBC as a documentary producer and visited Sri Lanka in 1984. His first novel Perfect Night, published in 2008, was based on that experience. He later worked for Channel 4, with whose works Sri Lankans will be familiar, “where I was head of History, Religion and Features and indulged my passion for cars in several programme commissions”. He admits responsibility for being “in charge of Big Brother 3, the one that gave the world Jade Goody”. I don’t know whether that came under history or religion.
Concatenation of Cliché
Before moving on to the wider implications of this kind of work let us examine Matthew Lewin’s claim that Grimsdale’s writing is “cliché-free”. The brilliantly strange Irish writer Flann O’Brien produced a “Catechism of Cliché”. “A unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print.”
Orwell wrote that a writer could shirk responsibility by throwing the “mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. “
After a while I got somewhat bored with noting the clichés in Perfect Night but here are a few from the beginning of the book. Here is a dollop of stale language from page one itself. “It was like the tide coming in…I was engulfed”. “I was more of a risk-taker then.” “The opportunity I had been desperate for.” “Laid up with a stomach bug.” “Thick cloud pressed down on Colombo.” “I felt my mouth go dry.”
It is possible to be a successful author without being a very good writer. WB Yeats was very bad speller. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe both relied heavily on the editing skills of Maxwell Perkins. Raymond Carver would have been a very different writer if Gordon Lish had not lived.
As is customary with contemporary authors, Grimsdale thanks a large number of people for their help. Judging from some of his writing without the help of friends Grimsdale is not a natural. On his website he committed solecisms like: “more than my fare share of happiness” “whatever I did next would be total emersion”.
Some of the purple prose is worthy of Barbara Cartland. “I had barely touched a man before. I had so many tears stored up and once they’d started, that was it…everything was different”. “I didn’t care about Greer and Malik anymore. All that mattered was in my arms.” “I tightened my grip on Anita and whispered, ‘I love you’. It was something I should have said a long time ago. “
I am surprised that Grimsdale did not win a prize in The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. The rationale of the Award is “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”. Grimsdale writes: ”The feel of her body under the thin fabric was thrilling. Her breast brushed my side. I held her close and she covered my hand with hers. The first cool breeze in days lifted her hair and it wafted against my cheek. I stopped and she turned. Her face glowed. I pressed her towards me. “I ‘need to kiss you.’ She touched my mouth with her fingertips. ‘Not here’.
There is a good deal more of this sort of thing when they get indoors. “She took my hands and pressed them against her breasts…The smell of her was all around me.”
Pass the sick bucket. Do those reviewers really think that is good writing? Are they just friends of the author?
Egregious Faux Sri Lanka
I understand that HRF Keating wrote most of his Inspector Ghote books, with the aid of a Bombay street map and telephone directories, without actually visiting India. I do not doubt that Grimsdale did visit Sri Lanka but it does not seem like the Sri Lanka I know. He might have benefited had he consulted a street map and a telephone directory.
I always sense that a writer is hovering between ignorance and condescension about the land of Johnny Foreigner when I read references to “tuk-tuks” and “the locals”. In his acknowledgements, Grimsdale thanks Chantal Krishnadasan and Shirani Sabaratnam for vetting “all the Sri Lankan and Tamil material”. They must have fallen asleep on the job.
Some examples of faux Sri Lanka:
- Greer and Nick are having dinner and wine at a hotel populated by cliché annoying European tourists (you know, not adventurous types like our characters). A small girl appears at the table selling pens. I have never encountered this in a Colombo hotel catering to Europeans. “A throng of children crowding round, hands outstretched, unsmiling faces engaged in the serious business of extracting cash from new arrivals too polite to shoo them away”. What hotel management would allow this?
- There are references to the “British Consulate” in Colombo. Was it not called the High Commission in 1995? It was when my father-in-law was working there alongside Anton Balasingham in the 60s.
- A boatman charges 50 rupees to take our intrepid journos out to a cruiser “almost in open sea”. Nick was “in too much of a hurry to haggle”. Some foreigners are notoriously stingy in their transactions with “the locals” but in 1995, 50 rupees was worth less than half of a British pound.
- Film is processed at “Witjerwarra Chemist. 310 Galle Road Colombo 7.” According to Arjuna’s Street Guide the postal address for Galle Road is Colombo 3. I have never heard the name “Witjerwarra” in Sri Lanka before and a Google search throws up nothing.
- There is a reference to the “Northern Territory”. Isn’t that in Australia?
- Dr Sivalingam smokes a “bindi”. In Indian restaurants bindi is “lady’s finger” or okra. An odd choice of smoking material but I have seen people trying to get high smoking bananas!
- Greer has what seems to be meant as harrowing journey from the hill country to Colombo because her “driver was detained at a roadblock near Kandy”. Would that have been harrowing even in 1995?
There’s more of this kind of stuff but I don’t want to bore you. The general effect is the familiar one of dilettantes exploiting our country for local colour for their own fantasies.
Journalist Hero Irritated by Facts
The narrator Nick Roker first arrives in Sri Lanka to be met by the beautiful Tamil, Anita Jeyarajah. Her job is to educate him about the country but this irritates him. In this he could be the epitome of many western journalists. His excuse about just wanting to rest after his flight is not convincing. “Over the next two days she delivered a continuous monologue on the marvels of the island and her faith in the peace process as we criss-crossed Colombo by tuk-tuk. After the sixth meeting I called a halt. I grabbed her clipboard and drew a line through all the other appointmenrts. ‘No more old farts. I can’t make a film about peacemakers if I can’t see the war’ “.
Do you see how representative this is? Like many western journalists he is not interested in the positive aspects of Sri Lanka that enthuse a Sri Lankan. He wants the glamour of war, not boring peace. Incidentally, Roker’s previous experience was making holiday programmes. This nicely underlines the link between the fantasy world of tourism and the delusions of “serious” journalism.
The reporter Roker is working with, Greer Harmon, is a cliché – enigmatic, charismatic, (so we are told). A glamour-journo that one might expect to see in a “major motion picture”. She is a writer but dresses like a warrior. Here is some more from the cliché cabinet: ”Her combats were caught at the waist with a wide belt, tightly fastened. A bleached shirt with epaulettes completed the dressed-for-action look. Her hair, a dusty golden blonde, cascaded over her shoulders. She took off her sunglasses. Her eyes were a shade of grey-green that I didn’t think eyes came in”.
Years later Roker asks Edgington, the producer, why he had sent Harmon to Sri Lanka. “She travelled a lot. I let her. She was good at finding stories. Greer said she wanted to do something about the peace process with the Tamils. I couldn’t see it myself.” Note that this is not peace talks with the Tamil Tigers but with “the Tamils”.
Identifying with your Hero
Thriller writers sometimes use their heroes to project a more exciting version of themselves. Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta books started off well but deteriorated badly as she projected onto Scarpetta and every thing in the entire universe seemed to relate to her. Kathy Reichs became even worse with the TV version of her books.
Nick’s second visit to Sri Lanka comes a decade after the first one. In those few days of the first visit he made a big impression on Anita and also, seemingly, on the course of Sri Lankan, and, indeed, world history. The sinister Tanager(that would have been a good role for the late lamented Ian Richardson) tells Nick: “No government would want you loose on the streets”. Anita drools about him making a difference and “sighed. ‘Your energy. Your determination. That’s what I loved in you.’”
Does Grimsdale see himself in Nick Roker, who blushes when Greer says she imagines he could have his pick of pretty girls. Harmon is noted for not taking an interest in men but, inevitably, she hits the sack with Nick.
Perfect Night is not actually about Sri Lanka. I will not spoil the plot for you (actually I have read the book twice and can’t explain the story). It seems to be about international terrorism, Palestinians, Mossad, CIA, government cover-ups involving multiple murders. Tamil terrorism is not seriously addressed. It is just a sideshow. People are dropping like flies (pardon the cliché) all around Nick but neither the Tigers nor the GOSL seem to be to blame – I can’t tell you why they are dying.
Perfect Night is just fiction, just entertainment. I have no objection to a writer trying to make a few bob writing about Sri Lanka. I am concerned about the infantilising nature of delusion generally in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”. It gives me a queasy feeling when real and tragic events are served up as entertainment and little effort is made to get beyond simplistic stereotypes or to bother with accuracy.