“Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm.” From the very first sentence of Anuk Arudpragasam’s astonishing debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, the reader is made fiercely aware of the body on the page, and what it’s like when bodies are stretched to their extreme limits. Focusing on a single day in a Sri Lankan refugee camp near the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Arudpragasam follows a young man in his twenties, Dinesh, and teenage Ganga, his new wife. They barely know each other but marry to satisfy her father’s wish. It’s a bittersweet arranged marriage during a moment of extreme duress.
The Story of a Brief Marriage is a claustrophobic tale that is deeply uncomfortable to read, but it’s also one of the most extraordinary novels of the year. We follow Dinesh as he bathes and defecates, during his most intimate routines in a place where individualism and humanity are a distant memory.
An astonishing number of civilians were killed toward the end of the twenty-six-year war between the Sinhalese rulers and Tamil rebels seeking self-determination: approximately 40,000. Anuk Arudpragasam grew up as a Tamil in Colombo, the capital city, but was sheltered from the war because he came from a privileged family. He was an undergraduate studying philosophy at Stanford, comfortable in his academic life, when grainy cell phone photos and videos of dismembered, bloody bodies began to emerge on the Internet.
“I wrote this book out of violence to myself,” Arudpragasam said recently in the backyard of a Cobble Hill bakery. It was a bright, sunny day, one of the last lazy summer afternoons. Our pleasant surroundings — the lush greens of the plants — stood out as a vivid contrast to our intense conversation. “I wrote this out of a desire to mock myself for living a life in ignorance of these things . . . and so I guess the reader is [also] being mocked in so far as the reader is like me.”
The self-taught writer never even took a literature class. He wasn’t allowed to leave the house by himself until he was sixteen, so he spent a lot of time on his roof, reading books like The Republic by Plato and Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy.
When he was twenty, a friend turned him on to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. It was then that he realized he wanted to write his own books. After he graduated from Stanford, he lived in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu for a year and spent eight hours a day rewriting stories that he liked by famous authors, such as James Joyce, and setting them in Sri Lanka.
When he returned to the United States, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Columbia. It was there, in the fall of 2011, that he started writing The Story of a Brief Marriage and focusing on the startling images from his home country.
“There was just a sense of ‘Where was I when this happened?’ ” Arudpragasam said. “What was I thinking? I don’t know what I was doing, whether I was laughing or joking or reading or obsessed with whatever I was obsessed with and this was all happening and I didn’t know.” His fiction emerged partly “in response to the sense of guilt that comes from [the fact that] I speak the same language; we share a history; we share a culture.”
So why did the author choose to focus on the corporeal in such a devastating scenario, where land and language and relationships have been taken away from people? “The only thing I could think of that I had in common with them was my body or a body,” Arudpragasam says. “It was my mode of access.”
This idea for the first scene he wrote – in which Dinesh is given the opportunity for a long-awaited bath — came from a photo the author saw of an actual refugee camp boy holding a bucket over his head as water cascaded over his body. In the novel, this moment gives way to a sudden reflection on everything the boy has lost: “He could no longer remember the faces of his mother, father, or brother, could no longer remember anything of the routine of their lives or the mood in which they had lived, and anything he said about that time would have been devoid of substance, like black-and-white outlines in a children’s coloring book,” Arudpragasam writes.
For such a bleak topic — writing about people who may very well not survive — the author focuses on “a gratitude that comes from saying goodbye.” There’s a particularly devastating moment when Dinesh talks about a doorknob he found, one of the very few objects he possessed, and “out of a slowly mounting fear that he would lose or be forced to abandon his companion, he decided at last to preempt the possibility by saying goodbye to it once and for all.” So he buries this object in the earth.
The marriage, conducted quickly by Ganga’s father, is a last attempt at perhaps protecting his daughter. But it’s also an eye-opener for Dinesh; he possesses his memories once again, and he’s confronted with the severity of his situation. “There’s all this stuff about saying goodbye,” Arudpragasam says. “Feeling sad at having to depart from your body, from your arms and legs and hairs and your eyebrows. And this gratitude to [his body] for having worked for him all his life.”
One writer Arudpragasam credits as an inspiration is Peter Nádas, the Hungarian author of The Book of Memories. “He focuses a lot on gaze, on gesture, on gait, on body language, on sex, on shitting, on urinating, on mood,” Arudpragasam says. “And in a really meticulous way. There will be four or five pages on two people, like one person lifting their gaze up to make eye contact with another and then moving away. There’s a scene in which — maybe five to ten pages, two boys are in the snow in their childhood. The main character’s remembering it. And he looks up and he looks down, and the whole ten pages is structured around it. It’s really meticulous with the body.”
And so, too, is Arudpragasam. The Story of a Brief Marriage is a profound meditation on bodies in turmoil. It’s a book that lives in the body long after you finish it.