Review of Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
September 7, 1999
This article originally appeared in India Currents Magazine in March of 1996 under the title, “A Fine Provocative Debut.” It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
“A remarkable achievement” – that’s how The Globe & Mail, Canada’s most prestigious national newspaper, describes Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy: A Novel In Six Stories. What is unclear is whether The Globe was referring to the novel alone, or to its author’s atomic explosion into the literary limelight.
Indeed, when discussing Funny Boy, one cannot avoid paralleling the novel’s impact and reception with the personal voyage of its author. A current obsession with the Canadian literary media, Selvadurai is the 1995 winner of Books In Canada Magazine‘s first novel contest, traditionally a surefire entry into the ranks of the Canadian artistic elite.
But his acclaim only just started with the contest. Funny Boy was nominated, as well, for this nation’s Giller Prize — an honour second in Canadian circles to the coveted Booker Prize for writers. Notoriety and excellent sales follow such kudos: the novel was sold out for weeks in Toronto (Canada), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and in Colombo (Sri Lanka).
Why all the fuss? The novel is written matter-of-factly, hesitant to exude poeticisms and pretensions of artistic grandeur. John Steffler, one of the Books In Canada judges, describes Selvadurai’s prose as “graceful and lucid” and likens it to “calm music”. And yet each word is well chosen for its emotional impact, and its obvious personal importance to Selvadurai himself.
“A very lyric writing style,” comments Selvadurai’s University writing teacher in the Globe article. “Unlike many students, he had something to write about.”
Which brings us to the novel’s content, the keenly massaged kernel of both controversy and acclaim. Funny Boy is six chronologically sequential short stories that tell the larger tale of a young Tamil boy growing up in times of political distress in Sri Lanka while confronting his own burgeoning homosexuality.
In life, a slight and vaguely feminine man, Selvadurai has clearly imprinted many of his own experiences onto Arjie, the protagonist. Arjie’s boyish innocence and genuineness are shared by his creator, and this is what compels a reader to cherish the words a bit more than usual: the book glows with honesty. And in these times of partial truths, a documented experience that cries with such authenticity is a valuable literary caveat indeed.
We first meet Arjie as a very young boy who has eschewed the traditional play past-times of young boys –cricket and rough-housing– for the more sedate activities of his female cousins –playing dress-up or, as he calls it, “bride bride”. And so begins his evolution into what his father fearfully calls a “funny boy”.
Paralleled with this evolution is Arjie’s awakening to the social conflicts that surround him and his family, that they as Tamils are somehow different from his Sinhalese school friends and neighbours. For readers who are new to Sri Lankan politics, Selvadurai’s very personal tale presents a suitable introduction to the horrors of that country’s civil war, and to the differences between political rivalry and personal hatred.
The characters are familiar and well developed: a domineering principal, an authoritarian but morally steadfast father, an understanding cousin, a suspicious brother and, as The Globe & Mail puts it, a “cast of lovers and heroes as likely to be white, Sinhalese or Tamil.”
The disappointments are few but noteworthy. Arjie’s first sexual experience, both eagerly anticipated and dreaded, is insufficiently described for an event so pivotal to a reader’s understanding of the main character. Suggested parental infidelities are just that: suggestions that are never confirmed and whose place in the novel’s tapestry is uncertain. And it is somewhat suspicious that Arjie happens to be eavesdropping at just the right moments to hear key events that propel the narrative along.
Despite these shortfalls of inexperience and literary hesitancy, Funny Boy must be regarded as a fine and provocative book, not only for its fresh subject matter but also for its charming and unobtrusive style.
The West’s love affair with South Asian literature continues into the next generation, then, with Shyam Selvadurai’s first novel thrust forward with great pomp to represent the heretofore untold tales of yet another marginalized point of view.