‘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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What I’m reading: ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’ Haruki Murakami

I am an avid fan of military history (I am fascinated by Napoleon but at least I don’t think I AM him…) but as I haven’t read any fiction for a while I decided to treat myself to the most recent Murakami novel. I am a big fan of his writing (both the fiction and also his book about the sarin attack, ‘Underground’) but I was disappointed by the last, pedestrian novel (IQ84) so I’ve been eagerly awaiting Tsukuru Tazaki. I started reading it on Wednesday night and got two-thirds of the way through – going to work the next day was not easy because I just wanted to stay at home with a lot of cups of tea and finish it. It’s not ‘Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, which has got to be one of his best novels (in my opinion, the best), but it’s entertaining. The book has the usual cast of odd characters, with strange events (and, of course, beautifully shaped ears…), weird sexual encounters, music and cooking. Tsukuru and his five friends were super close until he left to go to university in Tokyo. When he returned home during the holidays they collectively ignored him; after many phone calls, one of them finally told him to leave them alone. He spends the rest of the book finding out why, in part so that he can lay the past to rest and reassure his new girlfriend that he is no longer haunted by it. It certainly does keep you turning the pages. I know some people have been disappointed by the denouement; the loose ends aren’t all tied up neatly, but I personally think that’s a good thing. All in all it was a good read and I enjoyed it.