Reading this book is an act of witness so intimate, I find it hard to write about. Shortly after I finished reading The Story of a Brief Marriage, I saw an article about Syrian refugees. I confess I had been flipping past it in an attempt to avoid an overload of pain about which I feel powerless. Having been raised in a tradition of protest and activism, I feel morally implicated in almost everything. As Carolyn Forche puts it in a poem: “It is/ not your right to feel powerless. Better/ people than you were powerless./ You have not returned to your country,/ but to a life you never left.” Still, or perhaps, therefore, my first impulse was to turn the page, turn away.
The book, though, changed me. The Story of a Brief Marriage is set in Sri Lanka during the decades-long, devastating civil war, and focuses on Tamil minority evacuees fleeing destruction and violence. More to the point, it focuses intently on two Tamil evacuees, a man named Dinesh—the point-of-view character—and the woman, Ganga, to whom he is briefly married. Reading about the moment-by-moment unfolding of Dinesh’s life over a day and a night, including the detailed parsing of his thoughts and feelings, enabled me to picture—in excruciating detail—the kinds of atrocities referred to in sweeping statistics and efficient news briefings. That ability to picture—a person, a couple—made the article about Syrian refugees both more and less bearable. In either case, it made it graspable.
Because the life described in the book is so different from mine, and so extreme in its terms, I found myself flipping back to study the author photo and brief bio:
Anuk Arudpragasam is from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is currently completing a dissertation in philosophy at Columbia University. He writes in Tamil and English. The Story of a Brief Marriage is his first novel.
He stands, handsome, young, in vital health, arms folded behind his back. Did he live through all of this? It’s a question I know we’re supposed to be too sophisticated to ask. In certain circles, such questions will be met with the derisive twitch of a hidden eye roll. It points to a misunderstanding of fiction that I myself, a writer of fiction, know better than to embrace.
Two questions are implicit in this curiosity about the author: How can anyone who has not experienced it truly imagine what it’s like to live through the death of everyone you know and love, the near-certainty of your own death, the unrelenting presence of fear and pain so close to the skin? And how can anyone who survives these experiences turn them into story? Nestled in here is the kernel of what fiction can do, with its beat-by-beat unrolling of experience, the hypnotic recreation of the dream (or nightmare) that puts the reader inside the character, that neither news reporting nor friendship nor earnest politicking can accomplish.
Arudpragasam writes with intimacy about the minutiae of this life—from the challenging act of taking a shit on an open beach when you’re nearly starved and you might be attacked, to an encounter with a dying crow that calls out from the bowels of the jungle, seeming to seek “the attention of another living creature,” “its body glisten[ing] with a yellow-white substance, most likely shit.” The prose, like poetry, is thick, concentrated. It takes two-and-a-half pages for Dinesh to clip his nails. Arudpragasam masterfully gives us the details of each experience. Here, Dinesh lies under an overturned rowboat waiting out the bombings:
He would sit there for what seemed like hours staring at the ground before him, the wood creaking with each new explosion, gusts of hot air rushing in and then receding through the gaps between boat and ground, slackening his body instead of tightening it so he could feel himself tremble as the earth shook.
The book forces us into the present moment. It’s long, drawn-out, and a little excruciating. There is so much that Dinesh does not remember: “He could no longer remember where the blue-and-green-checked sarong had come from, how long he’d had it or whether it had been bought or gifted.” The past—memory—is a luxury that only slowly glints through the heavy veil of the present. Dinesh doesn’t even realize that he cannot remember until after the inciting incident of the story—the proposal by Ganga’s father that he marry a young woman he does not know:
It was only because of the proposal that morning and the marriage in the afternoon, after all, that he’s begun to dwell on what had happened in the last months at all, to recollect to some degree everything that had happened since they had evacuated their home.
The emergence of Dinesh’s memory is part of his arc as a character. Perhaps visits to the past require some hope of a future. As he attempts to revive his own humanity in order to be in a relationship, he ponders the gap between ordinary life as he’d lived it before and the stark conditions of the camp:
People in the camp neither talked nor did anything else in their free time, it was true, but people in general did do things with their time, Dinesh knew, they spent their days doing things both by themselves and with others… In ordinary life, people were always carrying things, it seemed. It hadn’t seemed unusual or surprising to him as a child, he’d taken it for granted and as a result had never stopped to reflect on it, but thinking back on it now it was hard to know what exactly people had always been so busy carrying.
In impossible circumstances, we see the character change in subtle and deep ways, and the arc is not smooth, but twists by force at the end. These dramatic and unpredictable changes, along with several “ticking time bombs” (a phrase used in discussions of plot), allow for the narrative to slow to a glacial pace without losing the attention of the reader.
The first time bomb is set by Dinesh’s sense of certainty that he is dying of starvation while everyone around him is dying from deprivations, daily bombings, and the injuries they cause when they don’t cause immediate death. Second, there is the literal bomb—the kind that drops daily. And finally, there is the title: for one reason or another, this is not a marriage that will last, though we must survive the harrowing and mundane minutes that fill the book in order to find out why. The ticking time bombs, literal and otherwise, mean that the complex act of shitting, for example, is not just its own drama, but “his final shit.”
The Story of a Brief Marriage is a delicate, detailed examination of the old boy-meets-girl story, told in the context of a refugee camp in the midst of a civil war. Imminent death and constant loss raise the stakes of this tentative connection between strangers who might save each other. The structure hits all the traditional notes—inciting incident, act one decision, crisis, and climax—but in the close-up world of one person in one place. It’s the kind of tale that, due to its apparent simplicity, might be called a fable. But it’s more textured than a fable. Small, simple events are freighted with detail and nuanced with meaning. This is not the simplicity of broad strokes, but a pointillism whose interior swirls infinitely, demanding an eye that will not turn away.
As it happens, Arudpragasam did not live the experiences he records in such grueling, vivid moment-to-moment detail. This is an act of research and imagination, an extension of human experience, via empathy and dark fantasy, into experiences commonly referred to as “unimaginable.” This willingness to inquire is exactly what I reject when I flip past upsetting news articles. The immersive imagination of the novel, as distinct from the news, provides an illumination, the precision and the perspective of a single, specific human being, that offers entry into this story, that pulls me through rather than past it.
In the end, the book itself addresses the distance I grapple with: “There were things, after all, that could happen to human beings, after which their thoughts and feelings become unknowable.” The distance between cultures is like the distance between people, even between lovers. Trying to know someone across that distance is what turns life from an act of survival into an act of love.