One critic thinks of Ganeshananthan’s novel as a novel of “distance.” But if this is true, it can only be because it is first a novel of “movement.” The Sri Lankan Civil War sits at the center of Ganeshananthan’s novel like a spinning mass, sending everything that is not physically committed to it spiraling off into the distance. So, one finds movement everywhere in the novel – the escape; the flight; the diaspora; the unsettled; acts of interpretation; the embrace of the unknown. For those who defy the logic of the war in this way, the result is a shifting ground that weakens the claims of “certainty.” However, as the figure of Yalini makes clear, such uncertainty is vital to the future of the Sri Lankan Tamil community for it is the key to unlocking the way to reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Ganeshananthan shows that the future depends in no small measure upon the presence of uncertainty. Think of it like this: if all is certain, all is known. If all is known, the future becomes a stale and impotent non-event. In fact, it’s no kind of future at all; it is rather an “eternal present.” Uncertainty, the unknown, is the cypher by which we talk of possibilities – limitless possibilities. And, it is such possibilities that invoke the future as we know it. This is the perception of the world inherited by those who have renounced the civil war – those who took flight from the conflict and ended up dispersed across the territories of the world. To live an uncertain life is to live a life of infinite possibility; and that is to live a life in which the future is reinvigorated.
Such a life (Yalini’s life) makes the birth of the idealist impossible, and that is to be rejoiced since it is only the idealist – he who must be certain of a “just cause,” or a “pure cause,” or a “noble cause” – who wages war.
Yet, the idealist does exist in this novel (and in more than one guise). In fact, it is a rather good description of Yalini’s uncle, Kumaran. He is the Tamil Tiger who fought for a “just and noble cause.” So when Yalini realizes that she must take a position on the morality of the civil war, her question seems to center on whether she can forgive Kumaran for the violence he meted out in the name of fighting an appalling injustice. However, her real question is whether one can forgive an idealist. Can we forgive those who are unwilling or unable to see a different picture of life, a different way of life?
Yalini understands that the answer is “yes” only if we are willing to follow Nietzsche and jettison the conceptual terrain or “right” and “wrong.” These terms of judgment rest on the certainty of life – that something is “right,” and that something is “wrong.” This is not at all an abandonment of responsibility. Yalini does away with such judgment but draws on other ways, other styles of thought, in order to think reconciliation.
At one point Yalini imagines herself in another life, one where she was born into the trouble in Sri Lanka rather than into her comfortable life in America. Here, she recognizes that she too could have committed the same deeds as her uncle. As such, thinking about the possibility of another life opens up a new way of thinking about the war. Rather than attempting to assume some kind of objective distance from the conflict, Yalini invests herself into the possibility of another life lived. In this way, she reverses the very direction of judgment. The result is that the distance between Yalini and Kumaran is collapsed. She literally becomes “the other,” “the enemy” – Yalini, Tamil Tiger.
Not only does this expose the futility of all war – that it is only and always the self eating the self – but regarding the self as other dethrones your own. That is to say, it makes it merely one life amongst others. In this environment, we are made to bear witness to the fact that we are in a world that is populated by the desires and dreams of others. For this reason, there will always be a certain dissonance in the world; it will never be perfect. While the idealist will always rage against this, like Kumaran, trying to assert order, trying to make the world bend to the way in which it “ought to be,” the world will never conform. Yalini’s triumph is that she understands the world is like this. But, between “the fierce discord” of life, as D.H. Lawrence writes, there will be intermittent moments of harmony; between a “wilderness of thorns and bushes” there will be perfect moments.