Novel is the expression of conscience | Sunday Observer

Novel is the expression of conscience

10 May, 2021

Prof. Sunanda Mahendra’s new novel Nirmohanaya (Disillusion) was launched recently by Dayawansa Jayakody book publishers.

The protagonist of the novel is a lecturer which we could identify with his own character. So the Sunday Observer spoke to him to discuss his novel along with his art of fiction.

Prof. Sunanda Mahendra was formerly a professional broadcaster at home as well as the BBC World Service based in London, where he also read for his doctorate.

He presently holds the emeritus professorship at the University of Kelaniya. He has published more than hundred books in Sinhala and English, including the award winning novels such as Sevaneli Ada Minissu, Niruwath Deviwaru and Niralambanaya, and also poetry books such as Ogha Taranaya which won the State Literary Prize.


Q: The protagonist of this novel Nirmohanaya (Disillusion) is a teacher whom we remind your own character. How do you introduce it?

A: The novel was written by certain notes, left behind by my good friend who died recently in England. All I wanted to say in the book was not my story, but his story. This is a very strange story which I don’t think nobody will understand fully. And I have done a long experiment for it too.

Q: The book consists of short chapters?

A: The protagonist is a teacher as you said, but he is also a psychoanalyst. While teaching he reminds himself his own love story.

It is something like Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The narrative passes from past to present, and from present to tragedies at home.

There are various comical characters in the book too. However, the entire novel is written with dialogues, monologues, soliloquies, and extracts from various texts.

As the author, I had to collect things from case studies, research methodologies, explanations in the classroom. Here the reader ought to understand that the most important thing in the book is not the upper thing, but the subtext.

The protagonist is a celebrity who wrote random notes in his own diary, published several books, and associated several learned people.

His wife is a nurse, but failed to diagnose the sicknesses of him. In my view, the book may not be a very attractive for the conventional reader.

Q: Why do you say it may not be very attractive?

A: The people who met me said, “You are a learned writer, but here we don’t see any conventional type of narrative.”

I was not disappointed by their remarks, so I replied to them, “I don’t write normal, conventional, traditional novels like you expect. I never wrote so. For instance, my very first novel Hevaneli Ada Minissu is not a conventional novel though I don’t want to republish it.”

Q: Why don’t you republish it?

A: I feel like rewriting certain passages in it if I republish it. However, Dr. Sarachchandra praised it saying it is not necessary to be rewritten. The thing is some people still reject it as a novel which includes defeated characters.

They were entirely misled by their petty vision. They couldn’t understand the central narrator’s wisdom as they have a conventional type of conscience. The problem with this type of conscience is that it doesn’t help in the better understanding of the narrative.

Some of the readers who reject it are university lecturers. We have no any narratology teachers in our university system, so it is not is not a surprise to receive such response from them. Unfortunately, English departments of the universities are also thorough failures in contrast to previous days - they teach English, how to write conversational English, or how to write academic English.

They never focus on cross cultural communication studies, comparative literary studies, translation methods, new techniques and findings in narratology.

Q: How do you define a novel?

A: Novel is a narrative, and it expresses deepest experiences left behind in the conscience. This is actually my own definition. If I want to write a novel, I don’t want a story or plot. I just need experience. For instance, one that I am writing now is about a killer. It is not a detective story.

The killer is my own uncle, my paternal uncle. He was freed by my father by spiritualism. Father taught him how to meditate, how to use his body and mind for a purpose. Everything with regard to the killer was narrated by my mother. As I go on writing, I have to make use of diaries, diary entries, dialogues, parables, anecdotes, poetic vision, legacies, religious explanations, and so on. All these things come to me unconventionally and unconsciously. But mainly I express my deepest experiences left behind in my conscience while writing.

Q: Do you have mentors or inspirations for your writing?

A: I have two, three gurus. First is French author Andre Jide. I sometimes try to think how Andre Jide thought when he was writing. My next guru is Ven. Dharmasena or Dharmasena hamuduruwo who wrote Saddharma Rathnavaliya. His book Saddharma Rathnavaliya is a wonderful collection of stories. Nobody has ever explained how it was written. When I read Jide, I found that to express yourself you don’t need stories, you just need experiences, deeply felt experiences. So I discovered that Dharmasena hamuduruwo also wrote experiences which finally shaped as stories.

Q: Then, you embarked on the novel Nirmohanaya (Disillusion) with deeply felt experiences, not with a plot or story?

A: Yes, definitely. As the protagonist is also a psychoanalyst, it wasn’t hard to unravel my inner conscience. When I am writing, I create, but I create a dedicated heart, there I never write a story. That’s why I am so against the conventional type of expression.

Now I have many writer friends in Sri Lanka. But I discovered that they write stories. Stories may be useful, but stories can be found anywhere.

Art of the novel is not merely crafting, it is much more than crafting. It’s a supra mundane expression. This supra mundane expression can only be made available by a prophet. To me, D.H. Lawrence is to be a prophet. He said, “I consider myself superior to a saint, superior to a sociologist, superior to a religious teacher, because novel is one pride book of life.” Categorically, D.H. Lawrence and Dostoevsky are Saints.

They are supreme, wonderful narrators. Most of the American novelists found that D.H. Lawrence and Dostoevsky as spiritual mentors.

Q: But every novelist is considered to be a prophet?

A: Yes, but I don’t see prophets in Sinhala literature, because we don’t have any influence thoroughly felt from their novel. If we want to develop our literature, we should also have the brain to get into our own materials. If you read Saddharma Ratnavaliya by Dharmasena hamuduruwo proprerly, you see some of our Buddhist tales suchas Preta Vastu in which there is a discussion with Preta who is an unseen. Dharmasena hamuduruwo expresses certain degree of humanistic frame into the living condition through Preta Vastu. There you will find Preta Vastu, Satthi koota Preta vastu and Kaka Preta in it.

These are fairy tales retold in narrative form. We got to examine them. In my department in the Kelaniya University I taught these narrative forms under the subject of Creative Communication Methods. Some people in our University seem to believe I teach literature under the Communication subject. Yes, I taught literature under the creative communication, but can communication be divorced from literature?

Q: As you are a university lecturer like the protagonist of this novel, Nirmohanaya (Disillusion) entails your story too?

A: Yes, that’s correct. When I write, I express myself. I cannot move away from my heart to heart feelings. That’s why I say I can’t really write in the concocted fables. I can’t write made up stories. I have to be true to myself. So far I have never write a story in chronological order. I wrote a novel titled Rajadrohiyakuge Katawa (Story of an Anti-government Person). Prof. Ashley Halpe translated 18 or 20 pages from it into English for a UNESCO book. I asked him, “what made you translated these 18 or 20 pages?” He said, “Sunanda, this nothing but an exercise in narratology.”

When I was writing it, I had to be honest to myself. We use techniques, when we are writing, but we cannot divorce from the reality or ourselves while writing. In that sense, we have still not the texts like Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels which depict reality profoundly though it is overwhelming.

Q: You say that you are writing in realistic form?

A: Well, I don’t know. We actually don’t know what realism is, because we guided by illusion when writing. If I ask you what is realism, you can’t answer it. In the same manner I can ask you what is naturalism, but can you answer it? No, you can only say things happen. But some things happen in visible way while some happens in invisible way. If you take great writers, their fictions happen in entirely unrealistic way. Say, Hamlet by Shakespear. It exists in an entirely unrealistic context.

When a writer writes, the experiences are lifted up automatically. Therein, experiences become unrealistic in certain ways. They seem to be signs of visible realism. I tell you one example: I never kill an animal and never eat flesh, because I realize killing is bad. But when I am at a get-together or party with my friends, I don’t follow my ideals. I am not realistic enough to get away from eating flesh.

You must have read Russian literature. Do you believe in that Dostoevsky wrote in realism? Is The White Nights by him written in realism? No, it’s a fantasy. I was simply mesmerised by that book. I don’t think narratology can be defined in terms of mere realism. Realism has its layers such as Ultra Realism, Supra Realism, Magical Realism, Fantastic Realism. Realism is shadowlike. When the sun goes down, the shadow disappears.

Q: To the definition of novel, you said it is the expression of the deepest experiences left behind in the conscience. But the experiences are not necessarily to be real experiences?

A: Novel is the expression of the conscience with a certain self experience. When I am writing I express my conscience. The term expression sometimes is misunderstood. If I go to write about me, I have to write about the Second World War, my maternal ancestral house, my grandmother and my mother, my father and villagers. I have to discuss all these things, but in what manner I discuss them? I discuss those things by keeping them in my mind. I have to unravel my conscience.

Q: A novelist cannot premeditate anything when writing?

A: Yes, premeditation is the excellent term you used. Premeditation means you go on meditating on it. You go on meditating to the point that your pen is pushed on the paper. That is what happens to me when writing. I write dialogues, monologues, soliloquies, and make use of the technique of stream of consciousness or විඥානධාරා රීතිය (Vgnanadhara Reethiya) - Dr. Sarachchandra named this as ශ්‍රෝතසය (Shrotasaya). Only the conscience matters in the writing, not the plots or real life experiences. When you are writing, you go on thinking, thinking and thinking until you find something. But that something may be good for you, though useless for another.

Q: Before this book, you published a volume of poetry in English. Did you work on any poetry after that?

A: Yes, very soon you will see my new poetry book which is titled as Bhawanathmaka Athma Bhashanaya (Meditative Soliloquy). It is a translated narrative poetry written in Sinhala. I have stolen the title of it from Robert Frost.

Q: How do you see the present Sri Lankan literature? Do you think it has been declined?

A: Yes of course. I didn’t see any emerging university don with the credentials of creative skills. It is a major drawback. Now people are not reading enough, especially foreign literature.

If I ask you, how many people have read Tony Morrison? How many readers we have for Orhan Pamuk? Even in translations they do not read. Without reading you cannot be a good writer or critic. However, recently I read two good novels, one is Wes Gath Kathawak by Parakrama Kodithuwakku, other is Saho by Ariyarathne Athugala. The reason behind the success of them is that the authors present us just stories.

Q: But mere stories are not been a positive sign for the success of a fiction. In my view, Parakrama’s novel Wes Gath Kathawak is a moralistic one?

A: I don’t mean to say they are good novels, but good novels. If we can get-together and discuss these books, then there will be healthy for literature.

Q: You spoke about your gurus, how do you think about Dr. Sarachchandra?

A: He is one of the excellent gurus I had ever met. Though he had not taught me in a classroom as a student, he taught me immensely in day to day life. He is the one who said to me that “Don’t be a traditionalist, try to be modern.” I have written about him extensively in my two books Sarachchandra Res Walalla and Mudu Diya Dahara. He was happened to be a travelling teacher or Sancharaka Gurunnanse to me.

It means whenever he met, either he abused me or praised me, he asked me “What are you doing these days?” If I replied him, “Nothing Sir”, he would tell me, “Oh, that’s good, but try to write something.” Absence of Sarachchandra may go to say that absence of Amarasekara. If Sarachchandra did not speak about Amarasekara, Amarasekara would have been a nonentity. Sarachchandra is a Saint, undoubtedly a Saint.