What follows is not a review but merely an attempt to draw readers’ attention to this work by Sri Lankan (non-resident) author, Romesh Gunesekera. The spatial setting of the novel is yet another “paradise isle”, Mauritius, so named by the Dutch in honour of Prince Maurice of Nassau. Under French rule, the country was known as Ile de France. The temporal setting is the early 19th century, “after the abolition of the slave trade, but before the advent of indentured labour from India”. Britain, having wrested control of Mauritius from the French, was then “shipping convicts from other parts of the empire to work on the island” (Acknowledgements, p. 387).
Ehelepola, the Maha Nilame of the Kandyan Kingdom, deported by the British after the Uva Uprising, “the most formidable insurrection during the whole period of British rule in Sri Lanka” (Prof. K. M. De Silva), arrived in Mauritius on June 6, 1825, together with his entourage. He died four years later.
The novel’s title (with its singular definite-article, “the”) could point to this individual, isolated by age and position, deracinated and forcibly transferred, linguistically marooned, and never to see his homeland again. With restrained dignity, the Prince (as he is addressed) tries to keep up position and status though the power on which they were once based are now gone. Though treated as an honoured guest, the reality is that he is a helpless prisoner of the British.
What were the thoughts and feelings of this man? What were his regret and wishes? Gunesekera refrains from imaginatively exploring these interior spaces, and chooses instead to present him as seen by others, a wistful and sensitive figure; conscious of, and trying to preserve, something of that dignity and deference which once were his.
The novel’s focus is more on Lucy Gladwell, aged 19 who arrives from England in that same year, 1825, on a ship named ‘Liberty’, to live with her uncle and his wife. Lucy believes she’s a champion of freedom and equality for all, but Gunesekera subtly shows that she has no real measure of the slave past or of the cruel and exploitative present for the vast non-white majority: former slaves, prisoners and labourers. (The official abolition of slavery did not mean that a beautiful morning had dawned, as David Brion Davis, in his ‘Inhuman Bondage’, and others have shown.) Lucy and Don Lambodar, the young Ceylonese translator who accompanies the Prince to Mauritius, fall in love. But this is the early 1800s, and the English looked down not only upon “natives”, but disdained even those whites who did not have the good fortune to be born English. In real political and social terms, it’s a very challenging, if not impossible, situation for Lucy and Don. (Not wishing to destroy reading-pleasure, I won’t disclose how their story works out.)
The few whites on the island enjoy a privileged life but the danger of sudden and violent “unrest” is ever present. The juxtaposition of the beauty of nature (observed in detail and described in fresh – often wonderfully startling - language) and the ugliness of injustice and violence is a characteristic of Gunesekera’s work. The contrast is ironic and most tragic. In an email message to me, dated May 21, the author points out that, prior to the abolition of slavery and the importation of indentured labour from India, there were Indian as well as African slaves in Mauritius, but very little has been written on the subject of Indian slavery.
“Prison” and “paradise” are contrary, even contradictory, terms and the novel implicitly asks questions such as: Can a prison be a paradise if one is a prisoner? For whom is it a paradise? Is it only for the wealthy and their guests (in contemporary terms, tourists)? Are fauna and variegated flora; landscape, beaches and mountains sufficient to transform a place into paradise? Or is paradise based on other, far more important, attributes such as freedom, justice, decency, equality and a minimum degree of material well-being? (Why, one can ask, do so many abandon their visually paradisical homes and shift to foreign countries?) ‘The Prisoner of Paradise’, characteristic of Romesh Gunesekera, is an oblique, understated work, at once enjoyable and disturbing.