Book Talk

Sasanka Perera, Violence and the Burden of Memory: Remembrance and Erasure in Sinhala Consciousness, 2016, pp. 322. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan. ISBN 978-81-250-6051-2.

~ Ranmalie Jayawardana, Queen’s University Belfast

Perera opens Violence and the Burden of Memory with personal recollections of a childhood friend who found success in the army, and ultimately died in battle. As Perera walks the reader through memories of his old friend, pondering how he is remembered today and through whom his story is kept alive, the key issue of this book is presented: how the Sinhala memory of violence is manifested both publically and privately, and how these representations affect and are affected by the government’s dominant narrative, and the passing of time. Perera outlines the contradictions between how peers remember the life of his friend and how he is officially remembered by the state. Significantly, the author notes how his own recollections have faded with time, commenting that memory eventually turns to erasure.

Perera contextualises his work within two violent geographies of Sri Lanka’s civil war: the confrontation between state forces and the JVP (People’s Liberation Front) in the south of the county during the late 1980s, and the prolonged violence between military forces and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in the northeast from the early 1980s to May 2009. In his opening chapter, The Burden of Memory, Perera establishes his theoretical perspective within post 1980s scholarly work on memory. Perera sets his intention for this book to explore how memory works in three ways: First, in the building of memorials by individuals and collectives in public and private settings. Second, in the work created by visual artists. And third, in the private ritualisation of memory by individuals and collectives, and how these activities occasionally permeate into public spaces.

In his second chapter, Celebrating Heroism and Glorifying Death, Perera explores memory through the perception of memorials as venerations of heroism and death, as well as incorporating the larger socio-political discourses that surround them. Through his evaluation of pre-, post- and colonial monuments, Perera foreshadows the declining popularity of more recent memorials he discusses in later chapters. Perera delves more deeply into this examination of memory and erasure in his concluding chapter, but for now, the author discusses how, through their primary contact with these structures, the creators of monuments – military and police forces – become the main performers of remembrance.

In his third chapter, Remembering Death and Mourning the Loss of Innocence, Perera focuses on the only two monuments in Sri Lanka (of which the author is aware) that memorialise the violent deaths of civilians and contemplate innocence: The Shrine of Innocents and the Monuments of the Disappeared. Perera questions if it is ever possible to detach contemporary political rhetoric from memorials and whether this link may be the hamartia of these monuments; whilst they are built to commemorate the hegemony of the time, Sri Lanka’s politically unstable climate means the lifespan of these hegemonies are limited, which is reflected in the ultimate dismantling of memorials.

The chapter Domains of Private Memory explores how violence and loss are negotiated by individuals away from public arenas. Perera examines how memorialisation by families extends beyond the home and can manifest as private remembrance in public environments. In what is the most ethnographically insightful and nuanced chapter of this book, Perera’s own authoritative analysis steps back to allow the voices of the bereaved and descriptions of their memorials to take lead. Tactically avoiding sentimentalisation or voyeurism, we are guided around war-affected homes and navigated through the ritualised mourning of families, allowing theoretical frameworks of memory to be presented as they appear in the real world: dusted, sun-bleached, embellished or forgotten.

The chapter Visual Artists Remember; Visual Artists Narrate lists the various ways visual artists have meditated the notion of memory and its narration. Perera profiles twelve artists, two projects and one exhibition using painting, sculpture and installation to explore remembrance.

In his final chapter, Towards a Conclusion, Perera explores how memory can evolve into erasure. In a thoughtful reflection, Perera (2016:265) notes that Sri Lanka’s lack of reconciliation process is both correlational and causational of how the victors of the war “perform the past in the present, without contradiction in a linear manner and as mega narratives”. Perera (ibid) sees the country as on a road to the total erasure of its violent past except for those “sanctioned monuments constructed by the victorious state”.

This, however, is where Perera’s curation of monuments stumbles slightly. Despite discussing how the symbolism of a Sinhala nation continues to be used in post-conflict Sri Lanka to symbolise the entire country without contradiction, Perera fails to illustrate the choice of the government to memorialise and maintain structures demolished by the LTTE whilst rebuilding structures destroyed by Sinhala individuals or collectives. Despite coming tantalisingly close to this conversation (Gamini Kularatne Monument (2016:182); Jaffna Public Library (2016:266)), Perera misses the opportunity to discuss the re-presentation of structures destroyed by the LTTE, such as the Kilinochchi water tank. Whilst not commemorating death, the choice by the government not to rebuild the water tank memorialises the violence of its defeated adversary, and reminds its audience (via a board erected in front of the collapsed structure) to ‘Say no to destruction, never again!’

Perera returns to the story of his childhood friend-turned-soldier in his concluding chapter, lending the narrative arch of this book a perspicacious and sensitive trajectory. The calm tone of the author’s analysis throughout is at odds with the violence the memorials of which he writes commemorate; yet the quiet and understated nature of the discussion – which is both accessible and well-structured – puts the reader in situ, walking in front of these small tributes and grand structures alongside the author.

(This review was initially published in Society and Culture in South Asia, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (January 2017). It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the consent of the Editorial Board, Society and Culture in South Asia)

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