As I plunged into this book, they began flowing around me, but soon they came faster, and finally they whooshed past me like bright fish in a rapids, darting and weaving: my impressions of Sri Lanka, garnered a decade ago during a too-brief excursion. In Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf, 1904–1911, author Christopher Ondaatje writes of travelling south along the west coast of that island state from Colombo to Galle, and I remember driving the same route, looking out at the fishers on stilts in the Indian Ocean, and up at the toddy-tappers dancing on ropes strung between palm trees, so marvellous we stopped to sample the toddy that would later be distilled into harsh-tasting arrack.
Ondaatje writes of travelling between Colombo, the bustling capital city, and Kandy town, the beating Buddha-heart of the island, situated 115 kilometres inland, and I remember riding an overcrowded bus with seats that flipped down into the aisle, the driver refusing to depart until every seat was occupied, and then swaying through towns and villages where shop signs proclaimed their business in both cursive Sinhalese script and palpably British English, and later returning by train, twisting and racketing through tropical tea-plantation countryside, descending more than 4,000 feet at speeds scarcely plausible for European bullet trains, but that here in the jungle screech madness.
Ondaatje writes of being shellshocked at the devastation wrought by the civil war, of discovering churches, hotels and ancient forts reduced to ruins, and I remember cordons and being searched on entering a literary conference and driving past a building in Colombo that, mere days before, had been bombed to smithereens. Ondaatje analyzes the civil war that pits the Buddhist-Sinhalese majority against the Hindu-Tamil minority, or maybe just ruling elites on each side, and writes that in 1938 Leonard Woolf, the ambivalent imperialist at the heart of this book, recommended that the country take a federalist approach to government, and this Canadian, for one, can’t help remembering that he himself couched it so: Sri Lanka could use a Pierre Trudeau.
Woolf in Ceylon will resonate powerfully for those who have a nodding acquaintance (or better) with Sri Lanka. But the book is sufficiently accessible—and this is one of its triumphs—that the reader who knows nothing of the teardrop-shaped island off southern India will find this a great place to start. The author introduces western readers into this South Asian universe by focusing on Leonard Woolf, arguably a comprehensible figure.
Woolf is best known, of course, as the husband of novelist Virginia Woolf and as a lesser member in good standing of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals who emerged in England in the early 1900s, among them Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Vita Sackville-West and John Maynard Keynes. But here’s the twist: Woolf spent seven years (1904 to 1911) as a civil servant in what was then called Ceylon, and travelled extensively within the country. Ondaatje uses those travels as a structural device: he rambles around in Woolf’s footsteps, pausing frequently to analyze and elucidate.
Yes, author Christopher Ondaatje is the older brother of the internationally celebrated Michael (In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient). He was born in 1933 and raised in Sri Lanka and educated in England. His family fell on hard times and, in 1956, he emigrated to Canada, where he became hugely successful as a self-made businessman. Ondaatje, who put business behind him in 1988, is the author of eight nonfiction books, including narratives treating explorer Richard Burton and writer Ernest Hemingway.
This time out, Ondaatje focuses mostly on the Ceylonese experiences of Leonard Woolf. He explores what they mean, explains why they matter and sometimes bounces them like echoes through the caverns of his own later experience. He also has the good sense to deliver enough “before and after Ceylon” to make this book a comprehensive championing of Woolf as an ambivalent imperialist, as an underrated literary figure, and as an all-round good fellow wrongly maligned by those who misunderstand or else willfully misrepresent his relationship with his brilliant, snobbish and self-destructive wife.
Woolf was born in London in 1880 and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he formed several lasting friendships, most notably one with Lytton Strachey (vividly portrayed in the film Carrington), to whom he wrote his most honest and revealing letters. In 1904, he applied to join the civil service in England, but failed the exam and was sent halfway round the world to Ceylon as a cadet in the foreign service. He survived the initial culture shock, with its attendant sense of unreality, and later recognized that dislocation as a rebirth: “To be born again this way at the age of 24 is a strange experience which imprints a permanent mark upon one’s character and one’s attitude to life.”
Ceylon changed his attitude, above all, toward imperialism. If the British Empire had peaked near the end of the 19th century, certainly it remained viable in its heyday, comprising one quarter of the globe’s surface and a like fraction of the earth’s population. Ondaatje demonstrates that, even while playing the dutiful civil servant and advancing through the ranks while moving around the country, Woolf gradually came to view the world through the eyes of the marginalized outsider.
As evidence, Ondaatje introduces Woolf’s literary works. He wisely avoids grandiose claims but does make a case for the merits of book two (Growing) of the author’s five-volume autobiography, his novel The Village in the Jungle, and his Sri Lanka–set fiction in Stories of the East. Popular novelist Alec Waugh (The Loom of Youth) summed it up succinctly, commending Woolf for having done with his Village “what I did not think was possible for a Westerner to do—get inside the mind and heart of the Far East. It is a unique achievement.”
Woolf’s friend Strachey detested that same novel for precisely the same reason—which speaks, again, and even more eloquently, to the impact of Sri Lanka on Woolf: that dramatically different country jolted him out of the British mainstream that the eccentric Strachey represented, and turned him into a subversive, a closet anti-imperialist.
Ondaatje devotes his penultimate chapter to answering critics and detractors of Leonard Woolf, and makes short shrift of those who have argued that somehow he drove his wife to suicide. Because this has little to do with the ostensible subject of this book—Woolf in Ceylon—it invites speculation about unconscious motivations and the always intriguing relationship between biographer and subject. Could it be that Ondaatje feels a need to defend Woolf against Virginia’s extremist champions because he, too, has been forced to work in the shadow of a more famous writer?
Woolf in Ceylon is so lavishly designed and illustrated that it might be mistaken for a coffee-table production. That would be a pity. Ultimately, this book is a brave, evocative and insightful rumination on empire that dares to be politically incorrect: Are the people of the independent state of Sri Lanka better off than those who lived in the British-run colony of Ceylon? Are they happier than those victims of imperialism? “The brutal scars of a civil war are all over,” Ondaatje writes of the contemporary state. “Woolf would be aghast if he could see, a hundred years on, the change and devastation.”
Ken McGoogan, who has written extensively on the fur trade and Arctic exploration, recently published Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation.