The Timely and Timeless Dramas On Sal Mal Lane

On a relatively quiet street in suburban Sri Lanka children play, parents brood, and old folks reminisce while the storms of an inevitable civil war seem to gather on a different planet. But those dark clouds will eventually cover everything, and the children’s haven will be forever shattered, and soon peace only reachable in their imaginations.

The context of Ru Freeman’s heartbreakingly beautiful, intimate, and real 2013 novel On Sal Mal Lane is the Sri Lankan civil war that exploded in the early 1980’s. The threat was visible and violent, human madness gone viral. The threat we are facing today in 2020 is invisible and viral, but the emotions, the fear, the sense of impending doom, the desire to see a light at the end of the tunnel, a generation of innocence loss…this could speak to our moment now in the midst of global pandemic or to the people who lived through WWII just as much as Freeman’s novel speaks for those in Sri Lanka almost 40 years ago.

I started reading On Sal Mal Lane right before the world went on lockdown. My wife mentioned it to me many times before over the years, stating she thought I would really enjoy it as Sri Lanka always fascinated me. For whatever reason I kept shrugging it off, until just a few months ago. Like many of my favorite novels, this was the right book at the right time. The character arcs mirrored the arcs of our own lives, the civil war in the novel encroaching on the children’s domestic bliss just as the pandemic began invading ours.

Freeman’s “first-hand” but omniscient narrative insights into the worlds of children, as well as intimate knowledge of social mores and religious, racial, and political differences, make the reader feel as if they are a resident of Sal Mal Lane. Ceremonies, cricket matches, local fauna, the touch of certain fabrics, the taste of certain sweets, the smell of burning things…the details of the children’s lives are wholly immersive. As equally vivid as the details of the outside world are the details of the inner thoughts and emotions of the children. How she depicts certain arcs such as an evolving love and talent for music, or a brief affair with wanting to be a cricket start give shades and color to the children in ways rarely captured in art.

Regardless of the personal context I brought to my reading, it’s fair to say On Sal Mal Lane would’ve moved me to tears on any given day in any given year of my adult life. But the feelings felt now in the moment for the characters Freeman created couldn’t have been deeper. I will never forget the scene when the children’s schools were suddenly closed as riots began in the streets of Colombo and everyone was left to wander home through the chaos, or the excruciating choice one troubled teenage boy makes while caught up in the melee of the marauding mob that seals the fates of all down the lane.

On Sal Mal Lane is a timely and timeless masterpiece. It’s the type of art that provides solace and reminds us that we were, we are, never alone. We can connect with other people and characters from different times and in different places, in good times and bad, and in all the shades and colors of life. I’m so glad I met the residents of Sal Mal Lane when I did.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

For another view into the beauty of Sri Lanka through the horrors of its civil war, I highly recommend another masterpiece, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost.

For an equally immersive and poignant look at ordinary people caught up in the storms of war and trying to survive, I highly recommend another masterpiece, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, famously written “in the moment” of the German invasion of France during WWII.

What I’m Reading: #Covid-19 #StayAtHome Edition

On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel by [Freeman, Ru]

Don’t expect anything escapist and fun here (well, maybe something slipped in). But do expect to find common themes of tragedy, human fraility, resiliency, and survival.

Current Reads:

  • On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman – I’m about half-way through this wonderful, Dickensian look at normal people trying to navigate social mores, keep up appearances, and lead their day-to-day lives on the cusp of the Sri Lankan civil war. Told mostly from the point of view of the neighborhood children, this is shaping up like an all-time classic.
  • The End of Echoes by Dawn Hosmer – I’m oh-so-close to finishing this emotionally exhausting read (and I mean that in a mostly good way) about emotionally exhausted families going through extreme trauma and change. Some of the tribulations are repetative, but they speak keenly to cycles of abuse and behavior. Not surprisingly, the author is a former social worker.

In My Queue:

Past Reads that Seem Fitting For Our Time:

  • When It’s Over by Barbara Ridley – I read this just last year, and it’s a powerful and engrossing look at refugees living through the blitzkriegs over England during WWII.
  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky – It’s been many years since I read this, but the author’s “in the moment” depiction of Nazi-occupied France is still one of my all-time favorite novels.
  • Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje – Want to know more about the Sri Lankan civil war? Ondaatje’s devastating and haunting masterpiece will fuel your dreams.
  • The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen – a timely read about a small town under quarantine during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

I would be remiss not to plug my own works:

  • Then Came Darkness – a novel about a family struggling through the Great Depression while trying to keep a murderous man hellbent on revenge at bay.
  • And Then We Vanish – my new collection of short stories (lit fiction with a twist) due to be released April 7th, 2020.

What’s in your reading pile this spring of extreme social distancing?

The Hook Brings Them Back

The calm between the storms: And just where do they plan on fitting another foot of snow?

They sure do like to rush the sequels these days.  Just barely 72 hours after Snowmageddon dumped 20 inches or more over most of the Mid Atlantic, the sequel was rushed into production and now we have Snowmageddon 2:  The Sleetpocalypse, arriving mid-week no less and snowing-in the same area (and then some) once again.   As Dickens would say…it was the best of times, it was the worst of times

But it seemed the perfect cabin-fever brew to stir up some inspired work on that novel…you know…the one I’ve been babbling about since — For the Love of Pete — April of 2008!  Though I have much of the outlining and research completed and even drafted a very rough first chapter, one thing I have been wrestling with is crafting that perfect, killer opening line.  They say you have to grab a reader’s attention instantly, and if you don’t hook them with the opening, then they are less likely to come back.   I decided to test that theory and thought what better way to procrastinate than to hit my bookshelves and crack open some of my favorite novels and current reads to see how the masters of their craft hooked readers with that opening line.  

I invite my readers and fellow bloggers to do the same and leave some of you favorite (or worst) opening lines to novels (or screenplays) in the comment form! 

Here are some of my findings: Continue reading

Do Not Make Me Stop This Bus

From the low-brow satire of Sacha Baron Cohen to the high-brow satire of Irene Nemirovsky…from an obscene film preaching tolerance to a museum depicting the obscene cost of intolerance…it was an interesting, albeit low-key and contemplative visit to New York City this weekend.

Here’s the rundown:

Saturday Morning:  I hopped on the bus and endured sitting behind a trio of non-stop nattering nitwits.  Luckily I had my Best American Short Stories  book with me, and I especially enjoyed reading Johnathan Lethem’s hilariously pretentious “The King of Sentences” in the context of sitting behind my unfortunately histrionic and vapidly loquacious travel companions.  If only I could come up with a perfect sentence to describe the situation that would make the King proud! Continue reading

The Greatest Novels of All Time

Halloween always brings to mind that classic of gothic literature, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Dracula1st.jpeg

This is a novel that has so enamored me over the years I once took a class dedicated solely to the study of it line by line.  The mythology it created is still alive and well today (witness the recent box office champ 30 Days of Night), and there have been a myriad of stage, film, and television adaptations that always seem unfaithful.  Over the years Count Dracula has been romanticized and made an object of sympathy, whereas in the novel he was always kept at arm’s length as a monster, and we learned of his story through a series of diary entries, letters, and notes from those in and around his inner circle of victims.  The book’s perversion of Victorian Era social mores and its inversion of the Christian sacraments made it an instant and subversive classic.  Its subtexts concerning child sexual abuse and modern man’s irrational fears of women’s liberation make it a point of controversy to this day.  Its lasting influence on future generations of writers and mythmakers will be bleeding and frightfully alive for years to come.  Does this make it one of the greatest novels of all time?

It made me wonder is it even possible (or practical) to make a list of the greatest novels of all time?  Continue reading

A Review of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Fire in the Blood”

Fire in the Blood

 

 

A Flicker of Talent

By  David H. Schleicher  – See all my reviews

“Fire in the Blood” is the second work to be published posthumously from Irene Nemirovsky, whose masterpiece “Suite Francaise” became a well deserved international sensation in 2006 and 2007. Once again Sandra Smith composes the English translation from the original French and does a splendid job of capturing the spirit of Nemirovsky’s prose, though this work lacks some of the cunningly evocative wordplay that had some sections of “Suite Francaise” seem so poetic and fluidly verbose.

Focusing on the romantic follies and unintentionally murderous affairs of the residents of a small village in the French countryside, “Fire in the Blood” is an entertaining slice-of-life style soap opera told uniquely from the point of view of travel-worn aging bachelor who has returned reluctantly to his quiet hometown. Focusing more of the memories of love and youth than on the actual encounters, Nemirovsky avoids the typical trappings of the run-of-the-mill romance novel. There’s an often cold, bitter, outsider’s sense of detachment to the follies of the characters in the book that give it a sharp observer’s edge and turns it into more of anthropological study than a melodrama. Many nuances of rural life and the social mores of the pre-WWII French are delivered spot-on by the Ukrainian born writer. Nemirovsky seduces the reader in the end, as secrets are revealed, and we get a brief flicker of the passion and the fire that had been elusive in the rest of the novel (hidden in gossip and observations after the fact) in the closing pages and haunting final lines. For Nemirovsky, true love dances across the whitewashed walls of our memories like shadows before the flame is snuffed out and we go to sleep for the rest of our lives in utter darkness.

One can only assume that this brief work would’ve been fleshed out and revised a few more times had Nemirovsky been given the chance. It lacks the epic scope and immediacy of her other lost masterpiece. While superficially it may seem like a frivolous afterthought in the wake of “Suite Francaise”, Nemirovsky makes it clear with “Fire in the Blood” that even at their basest levels matters of the heart are no small affair.

_____________________________________________________________________

See below for my review of Suite Francaise:

https://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/05/07/a-review-of-irene-nemirovskys-suite-francaise/

A Review of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise”

Suite Française

  A Mirror of a Nation at its Darkest Hour

Reviewer: David H. Schleicher –  See all my reviews

In her depiction of a society unraveling at a time of war, Irene Nemirovsky, in ways both lyrical and cynical, shows the human condition made up not only of great suffering, but also moments of lucid and concise joy. Her Suite Francaise, showcasing the early days of the German invasion and occupation of France during WWII, is one of the greatest novels I have ever had the pleasure to read.

In the first half, “Storm in June,” her depiction of Parisian refugees forging their way through bombed-out hamlets, abandoned villages, and small towns bulging at the seems with the broken-hearted, wounded, and lost, her vivid descriptions of the French countryside…the sites, the smells, the sounds, the plants and animals…are intoxicating, meditative, and transcendent. There’s planes flying overhead, blood splattered on cobble-stone walkways, children orphaned, women widowed, and death all around…yet there’s moments of striking beauty in small intimate interludes (like the section told from the point-of-view of a refugee cat from a wealthy family sneaking out for the night before a morning air-raid) where Nemirovsky haunts us with her prose and imagery.

The second half, “Dolce,” doesn’t have the immediacy of “Storm”, but still works shockingly well on many levels. Here she depicts the inhabitants of one small rural French village and how they react to their German occupiers. Nemirovsky displays an acute sense to detail and social interaction by giving us a harrowing view of the different class structures at work and how they react differently to each other and to their oppressors and how a fatalistic sentimental sense of national pride often leads to rash decisions and unlikely unifications. She again reaches some transcendence in her soft yet never sappy look at the burgeoning relationship between a lonely young wife of a missing POW and the charming German officer quartering in her mother-in-law’s house.

Knowing the back-story to Nemirovsky’s tragic life certainly adds some emotional heft to the reading but isn’t necessary to recognize the genius or enjoy this beautiful English translation from the original French. Waxing poetically about what could’ve been had she lived to turn this into the epic five-part novel she originally planned boggles the mind. The presentation of notes, outlines, and personal letters servicing that fact make for a heartbreaking bookend. Let there be no doubt, however, the two parts that remain are nothing short of a literary masterpiece, and the legacy they will leave in the canon of classic novels about WWII boldly display Nemirovsky’s triumph over death through the power of her words. Nemirovsky proves to be a master of shifting points-of-view and intertwining stories in episodic fashion while wickedly mixing comedy and tragedy, and the lofty ideals of war and peace with the banality and small joys and pains of everyday life. As two parts of a larger unfinished whole, Suite Francaise will leave you breathless.

_________________________________________________________

See below for my review of Fire in the Blood:

https://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/10/02/a-review-of-irene-nemirovskys-fire-in-the-blood/