Love in Wartime

The Story of a Brief Marriage: A Novel Anuk Arudpragasam. Flatiron Books. Hardcover, 208 pages. $24

In a time of insurgency or civil war, the literary text has a way of seeking out shadow and unease to protect itself from political rhetoric or easy drama, as though avoiding gunfire or shrapnel. In Ireland, for example, in the period between the 1916 Easter Rebellion and the end of the civil war, W. B. Yeats wrote poems filled with inwardness, with self-questioning and ambiguous tones. The violence made him wonder (“Was it needless death after all?”). And made him unwilling to celebrate the heroism or the sacrifice (“Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart”).

In fiction that deals with the same period—in works such as Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Molly Keane’s Two Days in Aragon, Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation,” Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer—the struggle for national independence is presented as a time when malice and destruction prevailed, when the acts of violence themselves, done in the name of liberation, seemed more likely to darken and stain the soul than to represent hard-won freedom or examples of bravery.

The civil war in Sri Lanka that took place between 1983 and 2009 was based on a dispute about power and hegemony between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. The war claimed the lives of close to a hundred thousand people and included many atrocities committed by both sides. More than a million people were displaced. Despite efforts in the early years of the twenty-first century to broker a cease-fire, the war escalated in 2006 and 2007 as the Sri Lankan government, representing the majority, launched an intense and brutal military offensive against the rebels, hemming them in and killing many civilians.

Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, is set near the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, as the Tamil minority, under constant shelling, is pushed by the army toward the coast. Echoing one of the most harrowing moments in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, the novel opens with a scene in which doctors must work in primitive conditions. A boy has his right arm amputated. Dinesh, the young man who narrates the book, assists the doctor. The prose is matter of fact, the tone carefully modulated and controlled, suggesting that this is a normal part of life and does not have great shock value for those involved. There have been too many other shocks.

Arudpragasam does not stop to offer us a history lesson or give us the political background to the conflict. (For those seeking more information on what happened in Sri Lanka, there are a large number of nonfiction books, most notablySamanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Life, Death, and the Sri Lankan War and Gordon Weiss’s The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers.) Rather, the author is interested in the consciousness of Dinesh and in the dramatization of slow time. Having lost his family and his home, Dinesh lives in a makeshift camp. His mind registers what has occurred only in the present and the immediate past. He lives in the moment, as though too traumatized and subdued to contemplate what has happened or why, and too frightened to think much about the future.

Dinesh’s way of noticing is captured with minute care. There is a refinement about him; he seems like someone on whom the reader can depend to convey feeling and experience with a sort of intimate grace. He is also someone on whom others can depend. And this is spotted by a man who wishes to find a husband for his daughter. Thus, as Dinesh is dutifully digging a grave, he is approached by this man, who asks him if he will, since danger is coming closer, marry his daughter and look after her in the time that is left to them. The novel takes place over the next day and a half, as Dinesh and his new wife inhabit a war zone, waiting for the worst. Dinesh knows that these are probably the last days of his life.

The novel is written with subtlety and delicacy: Each thought or action, each sight or sound is rendered with exquisite care and judgment. The prose is clear and calm, but there is a tense undercurrent, conveying that, as the shelling and killing go on and the mass displacement of people continues, Dinesh can take nothing for granted. He observes his own actions with supreme care and attention because they are unlikely to occur again, and studies the world around him with a penetrating gaze because it is closing in on him.

Dinesh relays his observations with remarkable sensuousness. He lives like someone swimming in slow-moving water, relishing its feel on the skin. If a thought occurs to him, or if he has a feeling, or if he needs to perform an action, then he will ponder all the implications involved with a mixture of worry and wonder, in cadences that are painstaking, unhurried, and convincing.

To capture the atmosphere of the camp, Arudpragasam pays more attention to rhythm and texture than he does to mere facts, or to the need to bear witness to atrocity. The tone is closer to lyric poetry or the language of philosophy than to reportage. There is no excitement in the writing, just an even, measured tone. This means that the horror of the shelling is conveyed as much in the anticipation as in the event itself: “There was, always, before the shelling, for the slenderest moment before the earth began shaking, a faraway whispering, as of air hurtling at high speed through a thin tube, a whooshing, which turned, indiscernibly, into a whistling.” And then, the aftermath: “The world became mute, like a silent film, and as a result the bombing often brought about in Dinesh a sense of calm. He wouldn’t jump up or rush to shelter but would first stand still and take a deep breath, look around with amazement and also slight confusion, as though the thread that had guided his movements in the quiet before the shelling had suddenly been cut.”

The horror is all around. There are the groans of the injured and the dying; there are unburied dead bodies. This is treated with seriousness; no one is nonchalantly stepped over or cast aside. It becomes part of the fabric of the book, nourishing the great sense of loss and decay that hovers over every moment, every image. But this is not a war novel. It has none of the jagged phrases, and none of the atmosphere suggesting horrors that cannot be spoken, found in most fictional dispatches from war zones from Hemingway onward. There is no sense that this terrible time is a rite of passage for those involved, or that what is being described needs to be known by the world at large so that the sheer ghastliness of war will never be forgotten.

The Story of a Brief Marriage, instead, lives in the modest and melancholy knowledge that all this—this short encounter between a boy and a girl in a war—will indeed be forgotten. The very brevity of the marriage will underscore the notion that these people and events will simply disappear and matter to no one. The novel does not attempt to normalize fear or violence. Rather, it demands that we pay this war and these people what they are owed—our careful attention, some subtle noticing. In the process, we see that those who are most afflicted often speak the least. Arudpragasam once more uses the image of thread that has been cut to suggest the actual quality of this silence: “The diaphanous threads which in ordinary life had been so easily spun had been dissolved now, leaving nothing left to unspool, and each and every person in the camp had to sit silently alone, lost inside themselves, unable, in any way, to connect.”

Once he is married and alone with his wife, Dinesh is shy and uneasy, even more introspective than before, though desperate to connect with his bride. Even though his heart has not turned to stone, neither does he put his emotions on display. Yet the reticence between husband and wife, while filled with tension and drama, also contains sweetness and even glimmers of something approaching hope. In the short time they have been allotted, their physical closeness and their awkwardness with each other are created in elaborate detail, so that this tension—captured in tiny movements and gradations of feeling—becomes a haven from the enemy fire they expect to come.

Although it has the aura of a small, timeless masterpiece, and despite its lushness and its hypnotic textures, The Story of a Brief Marriage is not an apolitical book or a novel that sanitizes savagery. Arudpragasam shows us how, under the pressure of war, minute and ambiguous sensations within the mind rise and fall or merge with one another, making their way into more elaborate thoughts or more exquisite feeling, including love and longing, including desperation.

Arudpragasam often dramatizes Dinesh’s mind by concentrating, via a myriad of exquisite brushstrokes, on what is happening to his body. Dinesh’s hungers and his desires are handled with tact and with effortless striving for accuracy. The scenes in which he washes himself or takes a rare solitary shit are brilliant in themselves, perfectly written, but they are also important for the complex light they throw on Dinesh’s personality and his predicament. They let us know that he is quietly in love with the world and would do anything to remain within its realm.

Dinesh has not slept for a long time, and his sleeplessness results in a profound alertness; he is like someone traumatized into sensing each thing with a mixture of raw immediacy, dark nervousness, and, on occasion, luminous wonder. His experience as a husband is not offered to us with any sense of easy optimism. Instead, the day and a half of the novel are described in sentences that are astonishing for their tenderness and poise, and also remarkable for the way they convey fatefulness and doom. Time is running out for these people, as lethal violence moves closer and closer.

Colm Tóibín’s most recent novel is House of Names (Scribner, 2017).