16 February 2023

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

We have always been told not to judge a book by its cover, and yet it’s the ‘cover’ that is most often purchased. After all, even if you’ve read all the reviews written on the particular book, you still have to read it before you can come to a conclusion about its literary worth. 

Obviously ‘book’ and ‘cover’ are metaphors here. The problem is, few things in this world come naked as morning, as first love or a baby’s smile. There’s wrapping paper, ribbons and even enticing payoff lines. The judgement comes later.  

And yet, we flip through the pages. We browse. We try to get some inkling of the flavour within. A few glances won’t give us enough to make a determination.

All this is known. I try not to be overly moved by appearance, but I am as fallible as the next person. Time fixes this problem of course. We get to read or we have it all read to us. Eventually we come to some assessment of the book and have something to say about the cover that we might not have said when first we saw it.

What got me going about covers and what’s between them is a book of short stories written by Rangana Ariyadasa, ‘Me kaalaye kisivekuth kehel  leli mathin lissaa vetenne natha (These days, no one on plantain peels slips and falls).’ It’s a strange and enticing design idea, with the first half of the title on the back cover. The first word appearing on the front cover is clipped, forcing the reader to flip the book to see how it beings. That’s just the text. The image is as intriguing. There’s a human figure standing on the ‘layanna (the Sinhala equivalent of the letter ‘L’)’ with an arm outstretched. Imminent slippage is indicated and yet, in print, at no risk whatsoever.

Yes, it’s a long title, but there have been longer ones. For example, ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda,’ Philip Gourevitch’s account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 1,000,000 Tutsis and Hutus are estimated to have been killed. There’s also ‘This way to the gas chambers, ladies and gentlemen,’ a collection of short stories by Tadeusz Borowski, based on his experience in concentration camps.

Rangana is an old friend. I had translated one of his earlier short stories (included in this collection). So the book was a gift. Rangana has an extraordinary imagination. He can conjure metaphors at will, it seems. He can extract an entire political economy, separate it into different colours and lay it out on anything which, at the particular moment, captures his attention.

‘Samarapala wondered why the corpse of the boy did not weigh more than this. It should, it must weigh more than it felt. What was even more perplexing is the fact that he would at times think that it was as light as a ball of cotton wool. Therefore, instead of carrying the corpse, he held on to it firmly as he walked, fearing that he might lose his grip and it would rise up and float away.’

‘What a wonderful first paragraph!’ This was my wife, essentially, putting into words exactly what I had felt when I read those lines. I haven’t had the opportunity to continue reading so, as per the ‘early warning’ above, I will reserve my judgment.

I am aware that many believe that the best first paragraph is the one with which Charles Dickens started ‘A tale of two cities’: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’

Seems easy. After all it’s about tossing in a bunch of words, each with its antonymic. Something like the ata lo dahama: laabha-alaabha, nindaa-prashansaa, duka-sepa, yasa-ayasa. But then, no one ever thought of it before!

Rangana’s first paragraph is an amazingly detailed painting. He’s describing that which is seen and dips into the unseen as well, the latter bing the more challenging exercise. Even if I was not captured by the cover (and I am), this paragraph most put the issue beyond doubt: I am imprisoned and it is in this state of incarceration that I will have to read and, if called upon to do so, pronounce judgment.  

And I am thinking, right now, at 1.29 am on a Thursday with a deadline still more than 10 hours away, ‘It is the best of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the epoch of belief, it is the season of light, and it is the spring of hope. Some ethereal light has entered my quarters. It floats around, flitting from table to chair, to bookcase, to book, and from one fingertip to the next and the next and so on, tracing an indelible legend: ‘some stories are written on the cover itself.’   

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road