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RICHARD EDER

Family Feud

THE SANDGLASS.\o7 By Romesh Gunesekera (The New Press: 278 pp., $21.95)\f7

November 01, 1998|RICHARD EDER

"Great hatred, little room" comes to mind in contemplating the bloody conflict (more than 17,000 dead) between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority that has alternately erupted and simmered in Sri Lanka over the last 40 years. Except that Yeats' lament for the Irish seems maladroit for this other island a quarter-turn of the globe away and with a history and culture so richly different.

"The Sandglass" by Romesh Gunesekera, author of "The Reef," is not a counterpart lament, at least not directly. The fatal three-generation crushing of one Sri Lankan dynasty by another does not involve the Sinhalese-Tamil split; if anything, it is a clan feud.

Yet Gunesekera, cloudy and indirect, the outlines and fierce colors of his story blurred as in a heat haze and suggesting far more than he states, has conjured up a sense of tragedy and fate, an endemic evil that speaks to us of something larger than the conscious enmity of two families. It is as if the earth, the air, the heat, the perfumes and the spilled blood of a distant history were at work impelling--as in a civil war--the Vatunas family to take arms against the Ducals.

It began in the 1940s with the vindictive anger of Esra Vatunas, his family's patriarch and a rapacious and successful multiplier of an inherited fortune. Jason Ducal, beginning to make his own more modest way, had purchased Arcadia, a mansion whose land jutted into the huge Vatunas estate. For Jason, of relatively modest background, Arcadia was a symbol of success and feverishly prized. For his wife, Pearl, a woman with a tragic sense of reality, it symbolized a dangerous madness. For Esra, it was an intolerable insult to his solipsist mania for empire.

The insult was compounded when Esra's plan to market an upscale version of arrack--in shrewd anticipation of a time when nationalism and a stretched economy would make imported liquor unavailable--was anticipated by Jason. Jason had been working obsessively, even deliriously, to convince the management of his own company, where he was a rising star, to do the same thing. Esra finances a scurrilous press campaign to block Jason's scheme. It is followed by the mysterious double killing of Jason and his boss.

The story is told--suggested, rather, in fragments out of order and sometimes missing--through the double scrim of a distant time and place. The narrator, Chip, lives in Britain. He belongs to neither family though he has become close friends with the Ducals, who had left Sri Lanka 35 years earlier, after Jason's death. Pearl, the widow, whose own death at 80 opens the book, had taken her children to London as if to avert a menace that is never quite declared.

Two of these children are dead; Anoja in childbirth and Ravi by suicide. Both had tried, as adults, to turn their backs on the past and live normal British lives; for both it was as if their will to live at all had flagged. At no point is any link made to the Vatunases; yet Gunesekera, who at his most successful gets the reader to imagine on the author's behalf, infuses us with the causal notion of a feud: not quite as curse but as a sapping harm.

The weakness of "The Sandglass" is that Gunesekera's infusions often fail to steep. Suggestion comes at the expense of narrative. The house is haunted convincingly; it is the house's own fabric that is in some doubt. Chip himself never quite comes into focus, and the story he tells and the characters he describes waver in both drama and definition.

Pearl, for example, is well-presented up to a point. As a young wife, she wields a grounded skepticism in the face of her husband's manic activity. Shocking him and speaking a truth he cannot dismiss, she observes that such activity is the mark of someone with no real talent for business. In her long widowhood in London, she cooks rich meals for her children while concealing the family secrets from herself as well as from them. These secrets dangle a line of suspense throughout the book, yet when the journal that contains them is discovered, they are only vaguely alluded to.

Characters make an appearance that promises to be significant only to peter out. Esra's son, Tivoli, a languid artist, decides to throw off his amiable indolence and follow his father's tycoon example. A turning point is being reached, it seems, but nothing turns. Tivoli relapses into drink; it is his son, Dino, who will take on Esra's raptor role and, it is suggested, his murderousness.

Dino's sister, Lola, an artist like her father, makes her appearance at first as a fiercely unconventional rebel against the Vatunas legacy. Her character is not developed; she declines into one more victim of that legacy, along with another brother, mysteriously done to death after denouncing his own family.

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