There are moments when this book, the author’s second, seems to have been written in response to an Oulipo challenge. Anuk Arudpragasam allows himself no quoted dialogue. The reader must brace himself for paragraph-length sentences and chapter-length paragraphs. The plot, such as it is, is slight, the merest scaffolding for something that hovers between – there is no unpretentious word for it – psychogeography and phenomenology. It ought not to work.
It does work. A Passage North is a singular novel by a singular writer and richly deserves its place on the Booker longlist. The words of another Sri Lankan-born writer, Michael Ondaatje, come to mind: "The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human." It could be the first sentence of this book, which asks for, and works hard to deserve, the reader’s patience.
The book cleaves to a single consciousness, that of Krishan, a young, privileged Sri Lankan Tamil living in Colombo in the years after the country’s civil war. The separatist Tigers have been crushed, leaving behind a traumatised Tamil minority mourning sons dead or "disappeared", coping (or not coping) with the daily tribulations of life after a genocide. Krishan has put aside his academic ambitions from his time as a graduate student in India to be a social worker in the island’s Tamil-majority north-east. So much is background.
In the foreground is an account of a few days in Krishan’s life, as he makes a train journey to the island’s north to attend the funeral of Rani, his grandmother’s carer and whose death may have been a suicide. The journey provides the through-line unifying his excursions into Rani’s past, to the slow decline in his grandmother’s faculties, to his relationship with Anjum, a charismatic radical activist for whom politics takes precedence over any lover.
The consistent use of reported speech instead of dialogue serves Arudpragasam well as a way to convey the bilingual reality of Krishan’s existence without the awkwardness of rendering Tamil dialogue in English.
Other people and their pasts are relayed not as flashback but as a part of Krishan’s present consciousness.
The unobtrusiveness with which Arudpragasam effects these shifts from sensation to introspection to memory is one of the signs that we have here not an inept writer unable to "do" plot or dialogue, but a highly self-conscious one with different priorities. In this, he belongs to an entirely respectable tradition in modern literature (Robert Musil, Albert Camus, WG Sebald), curious about how the novel might reveal the human mind not in action but in thought, not in conversation but in a pensive solitude.
Here is Krishan wondering if the bus drivers he sees with arms tense on their steering wheels dream "of broad, empty, smoothly tarred roads... that stretched out into the horizon and down which they could accelerate into infinity, endlessly and without obstacles, as long as they pleased". This is him on a lover he is yet to speak to: "a lot could be learned about a person even on first glance, from the composition of the face... so that one could learn, if one was perceptive enough, to tell whether a person spent most of their time in a state of attentiveness or indifference, melancholy or exuberance, skepticism or hopelessness or earnestness".
If Arudpragasam were any less vigilant a stylist, this sort of thing could fall very flat. But he is alert to cliche and to the merely vacuous, giving his long sentences an energy and onward movement one associates with Hemingway. His prose manages that paradoxical feat of feeling urgent without seeming in a hurry.
The Daily Telegraph