Assessing Martin Wickramasinghe’s literary path | Sunday Observer

Assessing Martin Wickramasinghe’s literary path

30 July, 2022

Martin Wickramasinghe is the pioneer of modern Sinhala literature. The author of more than 80 books, his first realistic novel in Sinhala, ‘Gamperaliya’ (Uprooted) in 1944, as well as the first formal literary criticism in Sinhala, ‘Sinhala Sahityaye Negima’ (Landmarks of Sinhalese Literature) in 1946. Along with ‘Gamperaliya’ and two others its extensions - ‘Kali Yugaya’ (Age of Kali) and ‘Yugantaya’ (End of Era) – he also brought about the first trilogy in Sinhala. His literary spans from fiction to poetry, criticism to autobiography, science to mysticism, religion to rationalism, nationalism to socialism, archaeology to anthropology, and journalism to philosophy. Still his new manuscripts are being printed by the Martin Wickramasinghe Trust.

This literary genius’ 46th death anniversary fell on July 23, and the Sunday Observer spoke to Prof. Kulathilaka Kumarasinghe to discuss his immense service to the Sinhala literature. Kulathilaka Kumarasinghe is a Senior Professor and Dean of Faculty of Humanities, University of Kelaniya, and a critic and translator in his own right.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: How do you value Martin Wickramasinghe’s literary service to Sinhala literature?

A: Right from the outset, Wickramasinghe was a complete writer. His first novel was ‘Leela’ published in 1909. Then, appeared a number of novels in quick succession: ‘Seetha’, ‘Soma’, ‘Irangani’, and so on. Though these are shallow and simple stories, he tried to express his erudition on various subjects creatively through them. For instance, he had researched on subjects such as history, anthropology, socialism and humanism, and he expressed his thoughts on them through those novels.

Wickramasinghe is a writer who always researched before writing. He did not write immediately after experiencing something. He took time to publish a book. His newspaper articles are also like that, there is vast knowledge behind them. These are exemplary qualities for budding writers as we do not see them in present day writers.

Q: Wickramasinghe hadn’t any personal agenda in writing?

A: Yes, he hadn’t any intention of getting through an examination or taking a university degree when writing them. He, in fact, had an intellectual curiosity to find hidden truths of the world and life which was also why he read books.

As I said his earlier novels are representation of his quest for knowledge, but it should be noted that the latter novels such as ‘Miringuwa’, ‘Gamperaliya’, ‘Kali Yugaya’, ‘Yuganthaya’ and ‘Viragaya’ are artistic representation of life. I am quite right if I say his earlier works are representation of somewhat propaganda literature while his latter works are creative output of his literary effort.

Q: He was in favour of the village life and its values. Is that correct?

A: Yes, it is true. He rejected degraded westernised life style in the city, so he despised the mores and assessments of urban society. In comparison with that, he appreciated social values in village life. As a villager himself he knew admirable social mores in the village more than anyone else in the city. And he had a feeling that village has an answer for some extent to some of the problems that we plague. He also highly valued the Sinhala Buddhist culture in our society. So it is not surprising that he prefered village to the city.

Q: One can say Martin Wickramasinghe was a rationalist which is not a good qualification for a fiction writer.

A: He believed in rationalism and always tried to assess things on the reason. At the same time he was never a slave in rationalism which was why he could create great literary works.

Q: If somebody is a rationalist, he won’t be a person with culture-consciousness in general. But surprisingly, Wickramasinghe was a person with great culture-consciousness while being a rationalist.

A: Definitely, he was a culture-conscious writer. Because of that he was not a slave in any ideology. He was open to every ideology but assessed things as an independent intellectual. When studying his books we see him following liberal anthropological criticism. Prof. Sarachchandra also followed that criticism. But the difference in him is that his liberal anthropological criticism was flourished in Buddhist anthropology or Buddhist humanism, not in Western philosophical concepts.

In other words, he used liberal anthropological criticism in his own way. That’s why he harshly criticised novels such as ‘Hevanella’ (Shadow) by Siri Gunasinghe, ‘Malagiya Aththo’ (People deceased) by Sarachchandra and ‘Hevaneli Ada Minissu’ (People whose shadows are broken) by Sunanda Mahendra. He, in fact, tried to develop Sinhala literary criticism through Buddhist humanistic concepts. Though this was not appreciated by many, it was an important task as it directs our attention towards humane values.

Q: We see a clear development as a writer in his books, especially in his fiction.

A: He was not satisfied with his writing, so he tried to experiment with every book. That’s how he could create literary landmarks like ‘Gamperaliya’ and ‘Viragaya.’ There are two things that helped him do that. First, his vast reading, second, his talent.

He, in fact, started with some sort of naturalistic style, but ends with realism in high note. ‘Viragaya’ is a great example for this. If it was translated into English some 50 years ago, it might even have received the Nobel Prize for literature, according to me. Every time you read ‘Viragaya’, you would realise it in a different way. The wisdom it gives you is varried from the time you read it. This is evident in the different readings of it by critics time to time. In fact, present critics read it totally different way. It is a unique, original and exceptional book rooted in Sinhala Buddhist culture.

Q: Some critics charge that ‘Viragaya’ is an imitation of 19th century Russian novel ‘Oblomov’ by Ivan Goncharov?

A: While rejecting that charge, I personally believe Martin Wickramasinghe might have read that book before venturing into writing ‘Viragaya.’ He would have been influenced by that book, but surely he never imitated it. The reason is, however carefully he studied Western classics, he used those studies to produce his own work. As I said, his vision was based on Buddhist humanism, if he had imitated, the book he brought about would have been a copy of that Western style which is not the case with Wickramasinghe.

Here I remember late professor Miniwan P. Thilakarathne. He is the one who first revealed Martin Wickramasinghe might have read ‘Oblamov.’ He showed it in his book ‘Rusianu Sahityaya ha Warthamana Sinhala Navakathava ha Ketikatava’ (Russian Literature and Modern Sinhala novel and short story). This is, in fact, called intersexuality which means one book affects another book. Though it was not established as a literary concept at the time, it is an essential and major part in fiction writing, especially literary criticism. Unfortunately, Wickramasinghe was reluctant to accept it. He thought if he admitted that he read those books before writing his own book, he would be looked down upon by others.

Q: Most critics point out that Martin Wickramasinghe is a very disciplined writer. Do you agree with it?

A: Of course, he was a thoroughly disciplined writer. He never had any haste to publish books, he had great patience in that. He considered writing a serious task, so he did a research before writing a book. In his autobiography, ‘Upan Daa Sita’ (Ever since I was born), he reveals how he came into write ‘Viragaya’ which shows to what extent a writer should research for a fiction.

He read so many books and studied vast areas in literature. Even so, he never became a slave in any ideology. Normally, writers with great reading attach to a certain ideology more than others. But Wickramasinghe never took one ideology and wrote books to prove it. Although he highly regarded socialism, he didn’t write books to show the validity of that political conviction as others with such ideology did. He had an intention before writing, yet it never disturbed the story he wrote. His intention in literature was developed by Buddhist humanism. As it was his intrinsic part, it didn’t hamper his creativity.

Q: If I suppose his fiction writer was at high level than his critic, do you agree?

A: Yes, I agree. For instance, he wrote a book called ‘Sinhala Navakathawa saha Japan Kama Katha Sevanella’ (Sinhala Novel and the shadow of Japanese erotic literature). There his intention was to attack Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Siri Gunasinghe and other modern writers who appreciated Peradeniya school of literature. We now know that any of those writers never imitated Japanese erotic books, but were influenced by writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Andre Jide, Albert Camu and so on. It is a total misunderstanding by him.

But it is true that he was a writer of great insight. His assessment of Sinhalese traditional literature, ‘Sinhala Sahityaye Negeema,’ is a classic example for this. It was even translated into English by Sarachchandra as ‘Landmarks of Sinhalese Literature’. ‘Sinhala Vichara Maga’ (Path of Sinhala Criticism) is another book which presents the right path for Sinhalese critics. Even so, when assessing some literary works he was unreasonable and in an extreme position.

Q: Wickramasinghe was a prolific author. He wrote more than 20 books on literary criticism alone

A: He wrote many books on literary criticism. But on the other hand, he wrote the same thing again and again. For instance, we see same facts in books such as ‘Sahityodaya Katha’, ‘Bana Katha Sahityaya’, ‘Jathaka Katha Vimasuma’ and ‘Sinhala Sahityaye Negeema.’

Q: He explored not only literature, but also society.

A: We see a large number of social commentaries in his literary canon. And also, in his later period he deeply studied Buddhism. Some of the books he wrote on religion include ‘Nivan Muhunuwara ha Bamunu Dittiya’ (The nature of Nirvana and eliticism), ‘Bauddha Darshanaya ha Margaya’ (Buddhist philosophy and its path), ‘Budu Samaya ha Samaja Darshanaya’ (Buddhism and social philosophy) and ‘Bawa Karma Vikashaya’ (Evolution of Bawa Karma). There isn’t any other Sinhala writer who touched such a vast area like him.

Q: He could also produce a large number of technical words in Sinhala which is not often highlighted

A: Absolutely correct. He is the pioneer in producing terminology in Sinhala. At the time of his active period, the Sinhala language was somewhat limited. Especially, there were not proper Sinhala words for some expressions in English. With the advent of Western science, its knowledge and literary criticism, it was essential to fill those vacuums. So Wickramasinghe invariably created new words. It was because without them he couldn’t write on them.

Q: On what level do you place Sarachchandra and Martin Wickramasinghe?

A: I place Wickramasinghe in a higher position than Sarachchandra. We know Sarachchandra’s ‘Kalpana Lokaya’ (Imaginary World) and ‘Sahitya Vidyawa’ (Science of literaure) are pioneering works, but in comparison with Wickramasinghe’s insight they are at a lower level. His reading on traditional Sinhala literature is extraordinary. You know how he wonderfully compares Ven. Dharmasena, the author of ‘Saddharma Rathnavaliya’, and Vidya Chakravarthi, the author of ‘Buth Sarana’, in ‘Bana Katha Sahityaya.’ When he assessed a literary work, he imagined how it was written and how its author entered into the writing. That’s why he described the characteristics of Ven. Dharmasena and Vidya Chakravarthi.

Q: Wickramasinghe explored some archaeological sites as well

A: You can see how he visited and explored archaeological sites in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and such historical sites in India in pictures. Although Prof. Senarath Paranavithana had already revealed vast knowledge about those sites, Wickramasinghe was not satisfied with them. He needed more knowledge on them, so he himself went to those places. I feel he wanted to know the things as a writer. In other words, he had a desire to see things in an imaginary world; see the past in live pictures. Because of this, readers tend to believe his writings on them than accepted archaeologists’ comments. In that sense, he is a genius.

Q: The science books he wrote is another aspect that is underestimated. Those books include ‘Satva Santhathiya’ (Animal world), ‘Grameeya Vidya Praveshaya’ (Introduction to local science) and ‘Kurumini Saththu’ (Insects). He produced them after launching extensive experiments by himself. They are, in fact, new findings which deserve to be published in an international science journal

A: He was not a conventional science writer who read books and introduced the knowledge to readers. First, he was an explorer, you can say he is a scientist as well. In ‘Viragaya’ also, we encounter such a scientist who is Aravinda, the protagonist - he experiments with various minerals to extract gold. This is one aspect of Martin Wickramasinghe. So, his science books are results of his own experiments with the natural environment. Instead of reading books and produce knowledge, he himself found new knowledge through new experiments like a scientist. So it is not surprising that his books look original.

Q: How do you see his Marxism?

A: He had a likeness towards Marxism. Not really Marxism, but rather socialism. You know he had a socialistic viewpoint developed from Buddhist humanism. So it wasn’t difficult to adopt scoialist values for him though he hadn’t any interest towards theoretical facts in Marxism.

Q: In your view, what sort of things that should be done by university students when studying Martin Wickramasinghe?

A: I think, firstly, students ought to study his books independently and present new insights. Then, they themselves should create original works like Wickramasinghe did. This is very important at the moment because we now see a fast and imprudent generation who pursue Western literary trends without thinking about them sensibly. When hearing their talk, I sometimes feel whether there are really such postmodern concepts in Western literature. This is totally opposed to Martin Wickramasinghe’s pathway. So assessing once more his literary path and creative life is paramount right now. If not, a nasty writing might have emerged in the name of literature through this generation.