Monday, September 23, 2013

The Rajapaksa Stories

The Rajapaksa Stories by Koom Kankesan (Lyricalmyrical Books, 2013) 179 pages

One cannot help liking the beleaguered fictional Mahinda Rajapaksa (a character based in name, if not reality, on the real life President of Sri Lanka, scion of a prominent political Sri Lankan family, multi-term President, de-facto Bond villain to his people, and eventually, the somewhat reluctant friend to our very own mayor Rob Ford whom he encounters on a bizarre thrill ride through downtown Toronto. 

Quirky, sexist, decadent, sex-obsessed, self-regarding, self-flagellating, the author still cleverly manages to garner great sympathy for our hapless hero Rajapaksa. 

Obsessed by cinematic gangsters and images of troubled boxers (Mahinda adores both the characters of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, the character of Jake LaMotta as portrayed by Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull and James Bond); failed film actor prone to nocturnal emissions turned politician; wrestler of decrepit tigers; persecutor of yet another type of tiger - the indefatigable Tamil Tigers - and inadvertent cyber-lover of his own brother Dudley (yes, you read that correctly). Rajapaksa wears many masks and lurches from one disaster to the next in this comic novel. 

Perhaps he is saved in our estimation by his guilty conscience, his seeming innocence and the frequency with which he is humiliated by desired (and unrequited) objects of his lust, his incompetent and corrupt brothers whom he employs or by his rivals. Early on he reveals to the reader that he is plagued by dreams of four vicious tongued aunties – each more philistine and opinionated than the last. Is there anything more formidable in South Asian culture than a disapproving auntie? In a dream, one auntie recalls with horror a visit to London, England to visit her daughter where she witnesses a lunatic screaming about Jane Austen, of all things, on the street. The sight disturbs (and baffles) her.

 Canadian readers will be most interested in Rajapaksa’s encounters with Rob Ford in the last third of the novel. Kankesan’s seemingly prophetic powers truly astound depicting a pot-smoking, cyclist abusing, chick-cruising Ford in a full out carnival ride of frat boy hijinks with Rajapaksa playing Robin to his demented Batman.

Rajapaksa had been trying to elude a pack of karate-chopping eight year old Tamil "terrorists" when he escapes into Ford's SUV at a stoplight (just part of a little plan to co-opt of portion of Scarborough where many Tamils live). It is worth the price of the ticket merely to watch the fictional Rob Ford carve his and Rajapaksa's name into a tree like the BFFs they come to be or to witness them break into the fictional city councilor Adam Vaughan’s office (the Mayor’s supposed nemesis in the book) and steal his typewriter for absolutely no reason at all – except in a sly homage to one of the writer’s favourite films The 400 Blows. 

But the satiric humour is not alienating; feelings of compassion for our troubled Mayor (and for Rajapaksa) oddly persist in the reader. Kankesan’s writing generates both laughter and a grudging compassion, a treasured combination of talents. 

Interspersed with the stories are mouthwatering recipes of Sri Lankan dishes, conveniently described by Rajapaksa’s dead mother (a phenomenon never really explained but no matter) and, inexplicably, a cadre of Tamil Tigers. 

If I had any criticisms, it would be that the average (and largely ignorant) Westerner is unaware of the importance of the Tamils’ struggle in Sri Lanka, the distinction between Sinhalese and Tamil, the Tamils' history within Sri Lanka. A brief historical note interwoven into the text likely would suffice in explaining the role they have played in Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa family’s struggle to remove them. 

Originally published on on August 6, 2013  

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