‘Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka’ by John Gimlette

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The ancient name for Sri Lanka was Serendip (or Serendib), and finding this book was indeed serendipitous. I’d just finished reading a book about the Sri Lankan civil war and, not being happy unless I have half a shelf full of books waiting for my attention, I needed to get something else. So I was happy to wander into Waterstone’s and find Mr Gimlette’s latest book in paperback. I admit to being a fan of his other travel books, which have taken me places (in my head at least) that I wouldn’t necessarily have had on my travel list before. As well as being very good at describing the places he visits, local flora and fauna, the journeys he makes, the people he meets, the food he eats, his thoughts and emotions, the author really brings the country alive through his explanations of the history of the island, both ancient and more recent. And Sri Lanka has a lot of history.

The book is unsurprisingly dark in places, although balanced, taking nobody’s word at face value. Mr Gimlette does not shy away from asking some uncomfortable questions, for instance while talking to the former second-in-command of the Tamil Tigers, who changed sides and now holds a position in the government. This was surely quite an ideological jump to make. The saddest parts are those that make you picture the life for people caught up in the war, neither Tigers nor government soldiers, who just wanted to get on with living their lives. One of the last chapters, about the so-called ‘No Fire Zones’ is particularly good at this, and upset and angered me in equal measure. The writing is so clear that it’s easy to picture the people and the situations, sometimes against your wishes.

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One impressive aspect is the amount of groundwork the author obviously did before going out to Sri Lanka. He meets many people and develops contacts. He visits his local temple at home in London and drinks tea with worshippers. While travelling round the country he has access to members of the most prominent families, but is also happy chatting away with random people he meets. I particularly enjoyed (though I don’t think he did!) his interactions with one of his drivers, Sanath. In the end their mutual incompatibility means they go their separate ways.

Despite part of me feeling as if I’ve been to Sri Lanka after reading ‘Elephant Complex’ as soon as I’d read about half the book I went back to the bookshop and bought the latest Lonely Planet guide. ‘Elephant Complex’ has made Sri Lanka top of my travel list and I’m looking forward to visiting some of the same places as Mr Gimlette did and comparing my experiences with his.

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Poetic prose from a master craftsman. 5 stars – highly recommended.

All photos courtesy of John Gimlette.
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