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Yasmine Gooneratne: The Pleasures of Conquest

Gooneratne writes a witty, wry, post-colonial novel, chastising colonialists (both the British and the post-colonial economic and cultural imperialist Americans) and men. She tells four separate stories, which are linked both because they revolve around the super-luxurious New Imperial Hotel and because characters that appear in one of the stories pop up in others. The stories are all located in the fictitious country of Amnesia (giving rise to a few obvious jokes), which is very clearly Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

The first story hits it hard to the Americans. Stella Mallinson is a popular writer, interested in the environment and things Asian. She travels (in great luxury) to Amnesia and stays at the New Imperial. Her intention, while wallowing in luxury and sex (she takes a young Amnesian lover, Rohan), is to get a group of Amnesian writers together and have them each contribute a chapter to a book which she will sell in the United States and give them the publicity they cannot currently get. Of course, they will write the book the way she wants. None of these old-fashioned myths and legends. Gooneratne pokes fun at all the trappings of rich and fame, all the phobias of the Americans and, of course, their cultural imperialism, culminating in Stella adopting Rohan (against his will) at the end, the ultimate colonialism.

The second story sticks it to the Brits and the Americans. Philip Destry is an academic who has written many books, including one about the British Sir John D’Esterey, one of the early colonialists in Ceylon (clearly based on Sir John D’Oyly, about whom Gooneratne and her husband wrote a biography). Destry feels he is a spiritual heir to Destry (but is not a biological descendant of his). He was helped in writing the biography by Leila Tan, who has since gone on to become a successful professor and writer. His musings on writing the book are prompted by seeing Tan on a plane. While writing the book, Destry is naturally sympathetic to D’Esterey, while Tan is very critical of his colonialism. Gooneratne gleefully pokes fun at both D’Esterey and Destry and clearly identifies with Tan, though I wonder whether her giving Destry a hand job on the plane has any factual basis.

The third story is the least critical and follows the story of Angela Forbes. She is returning to Amnesia for a holiday. She had lived there with her husband, Peter, but they had to leave when Peter was involved in an abortive coup. We also follow the story of Edith Crocker, who had owned the boarding house where the couple had both stayed before their marriage and who had died shortly before Angela’s return to Amnesia. Gooneratne seems more focused on the two lover stories than the colonialism here, though does not forget to criticise both British and Dutch colonialism, tourist colonialism and Western colonial slumming.

The fourth story is more critical of her own people, more particularly the men who keep the women repressed. We have already seen the president mocked in the previous story and here Gooneratne turns the screw, damning his male chauvinism. However, the main story is about Mallika, an Amnesian woman, who was denied an education when young (her father said that not only was it not necessary, it could be harmful to allow a woman an education) and cannot read. She had struggled to help her family under difficult economic circumstances but, now that she is old, her husband, who has retired, has become even more difficult. When she gets the opportunity to go and live with an Amnesian family and help them bring up their child, she willingly agrees. She soon establishes an excellent rapport with the family. The mother helps her puts her stories and poems down on paper, translates them and has them published. She soon becomes an indispensable part of the family. Gooneratne manages to stick in a brief story about an Amnesian guru (whose main disciple is Stella Mallinson’s ex-husband) but her main target in this story is men and their denying women a voice.

Gooneratne’s intention is clearly to make the British, the Americans, the Dutch, men and other colonial and post-colonial imperialists squirm. In this, she partly succeeds. Her novel is certainly amusing and the irony of many of the statements and actions of her target would be lost on only the most blind of imperialists (though there are doubtless many of those). The other irony, of course, is that she herself comes from a privileged class in Sri Lanka and is no longer a resident of the country. But she tells a good and amusing story and it is a pity that the book is no longer readily available.

Publishing history

First published in English 1996 by Vintage, Australia