The Reader XIV II - Funny Boy

Funny Boy

By Shyam Selvadurai
316 pages, $17.99
Reviewed by Clare Appavoo

Violence has once again erupted in Sri Lanka. The head of the opposition party has been murdered on the eve of an election. The political instability of Sri Lanka remains despite the number of Tamils who fled to other countries less than a decade ago. Shyam Selvadurai, in his novel Funny Boy, skillfully articulates the political tensions of the early 80s through the voice of Arjie, a Tamil youth raised in a middle class family in Colombo. Selvadurai presents us with a character who manages to overhear just enough adult conversations to give the reader a moving and personal sense of the rising tension in a country torn by racial violence.

Funny Boy consists of a series of short stories all narrated by the young boy Arjie. Each story has its own focus but all serve the central narrative, that of a boy discovering his sexuality in the context of a country on the verge of implosion. The fears of Arji's parents about his tendency towards effeminate behaviour are just as evasively expressed as their fears about the growing racial tension in the country. As each story progresses, the narrator ages, becoming increasingly aware of the adult world and its boundaries. At the same time the adults become increasingly aware of the growing political tension and the boundaries imposed by that upheaval.

Selvadurai captures the voice of the seven-year-old, the youthful innocence combined with childish ingenuity, and never loses the integrity of that voice. The first story "Pigs Can't Fly," relates Arjie's fascination with all things female and his first encounter with adult concerns over his homosexuality. Selvadurai depicts that sense of childhood confusion over the adults' seemingly random interest in children's play. He also captures that slightly cruel streak that children seem to have, especially in groups.

"Radha Aunty" introduces the awareness of the rising political tensions first to Arjie as he uncovers some of his family history, and to the rest of the family as they are forced to face the violence taking place in their country. Selvadurai captures the stong sense of family so essential to Tamil culture. The growing racial violence is brought to Arjie's awareness through an attack on Radha Aunty. Arjie is able to make the childish connection beween this attack and Radha's abandonment of her friendship with Anil, a Sinhalese boy.

In "Small Choices" the Tamil community refuses to acknowledge the severity of the situation and continues to hope for a peaceful end to the tensions. Arjie's father is unwilling to abandon his business, his home and his country for the safety of Canada. Instead he walks a thin line of expediency hoping to appease radicals with his apparent willingness to cooperate. Unfortunately, in the eyes of his son, he has given up some of his integrity in the process. The fact that the behaviour does not alleviate the tension only serves to remind the reader of the current state of affairs in several countries in which internal tension and struggle are the norm.

The final story "Riot Journal: An Epilogue," written in the form of journal entries during the riots, is powerful and moving. The fear, and will-to-survive in the face of the approaching mob, are brought out in Arjie's journal. The story is one that I have heard myself from some of my own relatives who managed to escape with only their passports and their lives. The reality for those who are in mixed Tamil and Sinhalese marriages is only hinted at.

Selvadurai does not offer the false illusion that all will be easy and well in the new country. Instead, he leaves that journey open. The journey of boy to man is in a sense complete. The protected innocence of childhood has been left behind, just as the false sense of security of a minority group in a politically volatile situation is left behind. Arjie accepts his own sexuality and the reality of Tamil/Sinhala relations. Life does not end but it is and will be radically different. In spite of the violence and disruption Shyam Selvadurai seems optimistic about humanity.

Clare Appavoo is a Vancouver bookseller

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