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Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje might be the country's most famous author, but there are plenty of other writers worth of a read before your trip to the former Ceylon. (And if you do go, I recommend traveling with a Buddhist monk.)
While the author is far more famous for his novel The English Patient (which won the Booker Prize), his subsequent novel takes place in his homeland of Sri Lanka during the country’s civil war. After fifteen years abroad Anil, a Sri Lankan forensic pathologist, returns as part of a United Nations human rights investigation. While researching an ancient burial ground with an archaeologist, the two discover a body that they believe to be the result of a government murder and cover-up. After moving to England and then Canada, Ondaatje received the Officer of the Order of Canada, recognizing him as one of Canada’s most renowned living authors.
Playing Pillow Politics at MGK
Through the eyes of the narrator, a wheelchair-bound boy who pours his heart out to the lone CFL light bulb in his humble home, we meet the squatters of Maha Geeni Kanda, each holding secrets from the other. The author’s debut novel took home the 2012 Gratiaen Prize.
The Road From Elephant Pass
Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-long civil war provides the backdrop for the two protagonists, both from opposite sides of the conflict, who must travel through the war-torn country on a mission. The book won the 2003 Gratiaen Prize, an award bestowed annually to the best work of literary writing in English by a Sri Lanka resident.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
Karunatilaka’s magical realist novel takes place in the 1980s, at the height of the Sri Lankan civil war. (The book has been published in various incarnations under titles such as Chats With the Dead and Devil Dance.) The New European characterized the 2022 Booker Prize winner as “part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire.” The author’s debut novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, also raked in the prizes and has been called the “second greatest cricket book ever written.” You can’t go wrong with either book.
Village Folk-Tales of Ceylon
Compiled by a British engineer stationed in Ceylon (the former name of Sri Lanka) during the Victorian era, the book is one of the few to contain such a large sampling of the country’s folklore. The author developed an appreciation for the ancient Sinhalese who built the country’s reservoirs, which in turn led him to research the local tales and legends, of which he eventually became an authority. (If anyone knows of a more comprehensive or recent publication, please let me know.)
The Village in the Jungle
Based on the author’s experiences as a colonial civil servant in then Ceylon, the novel was notable for being one of the first in Western literature to be written from the point of view of a native rather than a colonist. Since its release in 1913, it has become a minor classic and an influential work of Sri Lankan literature. The story follows an impoverished family and their struggle to survive the challenges presented by poverty, disease, superstition, the unsympathetic colonial system, and the jungle itself.
The Winds of Sinhala
In the second century BC, the island nation of Ceylon is divided into three kingdoms and ruled by the Chola invaders from India. From the perspective of the fictional Prince Rodana, the novel follows the sweeping history of the nation now known as Sri Lanka. Most of the main characters in De Silva’s epic novel are based on giants of Sri Lanka history, including the lion of them all, Prince Gamini. The book’s success prompted the author to create three more books in the series, although the others are now difficult to find.
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