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'The Story Of A Brief Marriage' Provides Intimate Look At Sri Lanka's Civil War


"The Story Of A Brief Marriage" is a small book, fewer than 200 pages. And it's intimate, taking place over the course of a single day at a displaced persons camp during Sri Lanka's civil war. Despite the horrors of that war, the writing in this book feels poetic. In this passage, the author describes flies swarming over patients at a makeshift clinic.

ANUK ARUDPRAGASAM: (Reading) They would fold back their wings so respectfully when they landed, bending their four back legs, lowering their bodies and bowing down their heads. Raising their two front legs up in front of their faces, they would wrap their little hands together silently as if in fervent prayer, and only after several seconds of prostrating like this would they put their lips down reverently to the skin.

SHAPIRO: That's the author Anuk Arudpragasam. He grew up with a life of privilege in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital. But he kept wanting to learn more about the people who were directly affected by the civil war. He started with videos and testimonials on the internet from Sri Lankan displaced persons camps. Then he went in person.

ARUDPRAGASAM: And then finally I found myself in the northeast for the first time in the part of the country where the war occurred, walking on the same earth on which, you know, so many people had died and coming into contact with people who had survived.

You know, and I would never actually ask somebody what happened to them because, you know, it's such a traumatic experience obviously. But if somebody made it seem like they wanted to talk about it, then I would talk about it, and I would listen to what they had to say.

SHAPIRO: Writing a nonfiction account of the war felt too invasive, like he would be ripping off a shroud of privacy or trying to own other people's stories. So he turned these real stories into fiction.

ARUDPRAGASAM: And the prevailing sense I had was of, you know, how far these humans who share my language and share my history - how far they had moved away from ordinary life or how much distance was now there between us. And when I wrote this novel, part of what I wanted to do was to bring myself closer to them or to bring them closer to me, to understand that distance.

SHAPIRO: I have to tell you. The first five or so pages of this book are as difficult to get through as the opening of just about any book I have ever read. Will you just read the very first sentence?

ARUDPRAGASAM: The very first sentence - yes, I will read that to you. (Reading) Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms, but this little 6-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg - the right one from the lower thigh down - and was now about to lose his right arm.

SHAPIRO: And then you go on to describe in great detail this amputation for this 6-year-old child with no anesthetic.

ARUDPRAGASAM: That actually is taken from a real event. I mean towards the last months of the war, there were very few doctors still in this area. Most of them had fled to the government-controlled territory. And the doctors who were remaining didn't have adequate equipment. They didn't have operating theaters. They didn't have surgical instruments. They didn't have anesthetic. So a lot of amputations were performed in this kind of way - you know, haphazardly.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about the decision to make that the opening scene of the novel.

ARUDPRAGASAM: Well, so usually when there's - when an amputation occurs, when there is surgery, there is some kind of anesthetic. And in this case, there was no anesthetic obviously. But I think a large part of this kind of trauma does involve some kind of anesthetized relationship to the world around you - not necessarily to a particular part of your body or to some specific physical location but in general to the world around you.

And I want - and I think it was that parallel that I wanted to explore in the beginning of the novel to suggest that the sense in which to the doctor and to this boy who is being amputated upon - that there was this kind of numbed relationship between the mind and the world, this kind of distorted, unfeeling, anesthetized relationship.

SHAPIRO: Another thing about this book that struck me - the author never dwells on the setting in Sri Lanka. Most of it sounds like something you could imagine in Syria or Somalia. Arudpragasam told me he made a conscious decision not to include history or politics.

ARUDPRAGASAM: I mean my project was to really understand what it was like to be in such a situation, what it was like to be confronted with such violence on a day-to-day basis, and I feel that politically contextualizing the situation allows both myself as a writer but also the reader to kind of escape the immediacy of the situation.

SHAPIRO: You mean it's easier to say, oh, well, that's the Tamils, or that's the Shiites, or that's the whatever the particular group is that happens to be subjected to or causing the violence.

ARUDPRAGASAM: Right. That's right. I mean you - I mean if you're presented with the suffering of a group of people far away from you in space and time and it's difficult to be in the presence of and you feel an urge to act or to do something so immediately you try to diagnose the situation, you ask yourself, who did that? When did it happen? Who was responsible? How can we punish them? And...

SHAPIRO: And you don't give us those answers in this book.

ARUDPRAGASAM: No, I don't. And I mean I think those are important questions, and those are important answers to find. But I think asking those questions and answering them is also in a way a way of removing yourself from the discomfort or the anxiety you feel when you're confronted by this kind of suffering. And the project of the novel really was to put myself as a writer in the presence of it, so I did want to allow this kind of contextualization to happen.

SHAPIRO: Anuk Arudpragasam, thank you so much for joining us.

ARUDPRAGASAM: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Anuk Arudpragasam is the author of the new novel "The Story Of A Brief Marriage." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.