In Anuk Arudpragasam’s elegantly discursive second novel, memory, trauma and collective action determine the arc of lives.
A Passage North begins in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where a young man named Krishan is mulling over an email from his cryptic ex-girlfriend, an activist named Anjum, whom he dated years ago in Delhi, India. Moments later, Krishan learns his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has mysteriously fallen down a well and died.
These two events set the wheels in motion for Krishan’s journey to the center of himself. He boards a train to northern Sri Lanka to attend Rani’s funeral, but his journey exists more in mind than body. He meditates on his brief but engulfing love affair with Anjum and is haunted by the government-sanctioned persecution of the Tamil people.
For readers unfamiliar with the Sri Lankan Civil War, A Passage North offers perspective on the Sinhalese-dominated government’s conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The insurrectionist Tamil Tigers fought to form an independent state so their ethno-linguistic minority group could escape subjugation, rape and killing. Arudpragasam raises questions about unfettered devotion to higher causes as Krishan struggles to find his own true purpose, the way Anjum seemed to find hers by forming a politically active commune away from Delhi—and away from their life together.
Arudpragasam expertly captures the ambiguity of romance between two young people who feel the call of the broader world even as they cling to each other. Krishan recalls meeting Anjum through the queer scene in Delhi, where he was enraptured by her easy confidence, her knowledge of poetry and languages, and the way she stared back at men who ogled her, forcing them to confront their own gaze. While Arudpragasam’s writing remains observational throughout, this love story adds heat and intrigue to an otherwise philosophical novel.
In A Passage North, past and present bleed together. Flipping through the novel’s pages, the reader will notice an absence of white space and section breaks outside of chapter demarcations. There is no direct dialogue either. In this way, the novel is reminiscent of José Saramago’s work. But Arudpragasam’s writing is exceptionally graceful, which allows the text to flow despite its density. The lack of action may frustrate some readers, but this structure creates an otherwise impossible narrative reverie. Ultimately, A Passage North is an elegant story whose discursive nature pays off.