The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
Review by Munib Khan
James Baldwin’s short story “Going to Meet the Man” chronicles a lynching but begins and ends with a white cop trying to make love to his wife. So many stories about victimhood wrestle with the problem of a narrative sequence where only awful things can happen to the characters because they inhabit a bleak place, due to war, poverty, or fate. In Baldwin’s story the reader is not denied the sight of the charred black body or how a group of humans defile it. But the bedroom scene tempers and refines the impact. Eventually, the cop initially frustrated by impotence is able to make love to his wife after he recalls the lynching he witnessed during his childhood. Often in great fiction, the day-to-day concerns of characters supply a sheen for the grotesque.
This debut novel escapes the problems of victimhood by sidestepping plot concerns to some extent. Taking place in the course of one day and one night in the life of Dinesh, the protagonist, this fiction is unrelenting in its explorations of Dinesh’s interiority. The title itself makes no attempt to hide the fate of his marriage: that it will be brief, dear reader, you are warned. Having settled on these realities—a brief marriage, a war, an absent family, an environment of suffering—Arudpragasam proceeds to peel layer after layer of Dinesh until the reader can peer into his soul. The close-third-person frame ensures that the landscape is witnessed through Dinesh, through those particular parts of him it has dislodged or oriented. The reader is not witness to some general suffering of a distant people but the particular moment-to-moment anguish and grace of Dinesh in the face of war, loneliness, and death.
Arudpragasam has that rare ability to find those spaces within suffering that allow us to breathe while still staring at a moment of genuine pain. In one of the first scenes of the novel, Dinesh holds a boy in a clinic as the doctor performs an amputation. Dinesh notes that there are no surgical instruments in the clinic, “no anesthetics, neither general nor local, no painkillers or antibiotics, but from the look on the doctor’s face it was clear that there was no choice but to go on.” The doctor performs the amputation with a kitchen knife, in a scene reminiscent of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” where Nick’s father performs a caesarean with a jackknife. Dinesh has time to note the doctor’s procedural coldness as well as his general luminosity, as the doctor has “chosen to stay behind in the territory of his own volition, to help those trapped inside instead of moving to the safety of government-held areas.” By the end of the scene, the reader is filled not with shock or dread but with great tenderness for these characters. After the procedure, the doctor lifts the child in his arms “in search for a quiet place for him to rest,” leaving Dinesh with the problem of disposing the amputated limb. How would Dinesh do it? What kind of limbs has he already disposed? Such are often the preoccupations of this book:
He could bury it perhaps, or burn it, but he was apprehensive of touching it. Not because of the blood, for the child’s blood had already stained his sarong and his hands, but because he didn’t want to feel the softness of freshly amputated flesh between his fingers, the warmth of a limb just recently alive. He would much rather just wait till the blood had drained and the flesh had hardened, when picking the severed arm up would be more like picking up a stick or small branch, not much more perhaps but more so all the same.
When Ganga, another young survivor, is proposed in marriage to Dinesh, we find him considering his own mortality, as someone living in the growing shade of war. Like King Lear, Dinesh is hyper-aware of a realistic possibility of death at any moment, which makes his consciousness and his choices during this day rife with nuance. His humanity is bursting out of him. Suffering and victimhood haven’t made him into a caricature but elevated him like the great heroes of literature. In this slim book about war, family, love, death, and marriage, time passes slowly, and yet one reads at a relentless pace. Every line here is filled with a complicated sorrow and breathtaking lyricism, with echoes of the great masters. Arudpragasam has written one of those debut novels that showcase not a nascent writer finding his voice but a virtuoso performing at the height of his craft.