Martin Wickramasinghe talks about
how writers have ripped apart the impeccable facade of "civilized"
One of Fieldingís novels reminded me of certain of Piyadasa Sirisenaís novels. His "Joseph Andrews" was a satirical novel. In language and style of course it was nothing like Sirisenaís "Wickramapalage vickrama" (Wickramapalaís heroics). The similarities lay in the choice of subject. Wickramapala was a pious upasaka. Among the thakkadiyas, the wily, the caste-conscious and vile persons he denigrated as he travelled all over the island, were bikkhus, teachers, educated people, and middle class men and women.
The two main protagonists in Fieldingís "Joseph Andrews" went around on horse or on foot in London as well as in the countryside. Among those who were the recipients of Fieldingís civil ridicule were upper class men and women, "godly" men with double standards, servants, the pious, innkeepers, and downright liars.
Joseph Andrews worked as a servant in the house of an elite member of society. The lady of the house, Madame Boobie, attempts to seduce Joseph. Being a man of virtue, he flees the house, abandoning his job. Joseph is a follower of the priest David who was a good Catholic, both in word and in practice. Wherever the two went they suffered at the hands of sham priests, rough and crafty men, women whose heads were swelled with pride, and thieves.
Joseph encounters two brigands while walking along a narrow path. Threatened by the two men, Joseph hands them all the money he carried.
"That was all the money I had. Please give me a few shillings for the expenses I will have to meet on my way home.
"Yes of course, we will give you something. Remove all your clothes," one of the men growled.
"Remove them," the other insisted as well.
One aimed a pistol at his head. The other gave Andrew a blow with a staff he was carrying. During the altercation, Andrew receives a blow on his head and falls down unconscious. The brigands take away his trousers, coat and shirt, and leaves him totally naked.
Joseph starts whimpering as he regains consciousness. A stableman, travelling in a horse-drawn carriage hears him and says, "I can hear someone moaning."
"Thereís someone in the ditch, moaning," he says.
"Donít stop; we are very late as it is. We donít have time to check on dead men," says the coachman.
The lady in the carriage hearing the cries says, "stop the coach and find out what has happened."
"Get down and search," the coachman orders the stableman.
There is a butt-naked man lying face upwards in the ditch," he reports.
"Oh! Jesus!" the lady cried. "A naked man! Coachman, please continue. Let the man be."
A lawyer in the carriage becomes agitated upon hearing that the man had been beaten and robbed. "It is illegal to go away as though we havenít seen him, because we did see him. If he dies, for example, we would also be implicated in his death. Therefore we have to take him in this carriage."
"If a naked man is taken into the carriage, I will get off and remain here," the lady threatened.
Two of the upper class civilized, were not willing to offer their long coats to the naked innocent who was lying there half alive. A pundit piped in, "let he who has sympathy for the naked man be the first to help him". The coachman, who had two coats, was unwilling to give one of them to the man. He protests that the coat might get soiled with the injured manís blood. The servant of the lady doesnít want to give his coat. The lady of course found a manís nudity revolting. And yet she condoned her servantís decision. The stableman, who had once been convicted and punished for being a chicken thief, removes his coat and insists as he gives it to the injured man to cover his nakedness, "Even if I had to live the rest of my life wearing just my shirt, I will give this man my coat."
Those in the coach protest his pledge.
This story by Fielding is full of such satirical commentaries. Although different in style and language from Sirisenaís "Wickramapalage Vickrama", the concepts are very similar. Some of the stories and sayings in Fieldingís story are very reminiscent of the Mahadenamutta story. Some critics have asserted that Henry Fielding is a novelist who is comparable with Shakespeare.
Anatole France, who won the Nobel Prize, was also a novelist who employed a sharp satirical style. He was wont to lampoon western society and Catholic Church and his novels sold well even in Ceylon. His "Penguin Island" ridicules the Catholic Church and western civilization.
This is how his short story "Procurator of Judea" ends: "Jesus?" he (Pilate) asks almost in a whisper, "Jesus of Nazareth? No, I donít remember."
The reader has no inkling whatsoever until this last line that the story subjects the Catholic Church to subtle mockery.
A rich, educated young man by the name of Lamiya, born in Rome, lives the life of a womanizer along with his friends. He returns to Rome after completing twenty years of exile upon the order of Tiberius Caesar. In a mountainous region he meets a friend, an old man by the name of Pontius Pilate, who is a magistrate. The two men recognize each other and begin talking. Pontius Pilate invites his friend Lamiya to his home.
After having their fill of food and drink, the friends start reminiscing about old times. Lamiya talks about a beautiful Syrian dancer who has captured his heart. "She danced in taverns full of soldiers and vulgar men. Stricken by her, I found that I couldnít be without seeing her. I followed her from tavern to tavern. One day she disappeared. I never saw her again. I frequented slums and taverns for a long time hoping to find her. After several months I heard that she had joined a group of men and women who had become followers of a miracle-performing young man from Galilee. His name is Jesus. He was from the land of Nazareth. He had been nailed to the cross. I couldnít find out what his crime had been. Pontius, do you remember this man?"
Pontius Pilate brought his eyebrows together in the manner of one who is trying to remember something and then he passed his hand across his forehead. He was silent for a few minutes.
"Jesus?" he whispered. "Jesus of Nazareth? No, I do not remember."
Maupassantís biographer says that it was after he read Maupessantís short story "How he won the Legion of Honour" that Anatole France changed his views about politicians. I hadnít come across this story in any of Maupassantís books that I had read. I got a collection, which included this story and read it. I wanted to translate it into Sinhala, but was never able to do it.
A man, desiring to be knighted, begins to associate closely a French minister. On occasion he would take his wife along when he went to meet the minister. Their friendship grew. The man begins to visit the minister even more frequently as his desire to be knighted increases.
One day, having left his house, he decides for some reason to return home. The minister is making love to his wife. Learning that her husband had returned unexpectedly, the woman sends off her lover through a back door and then opens the front door to let her husband in.
"This is the coat with epaulets indicating knighthood," she says as offers her husband the coat that her lover had left behind in his haste.
"The minister sent it?"
This is the gist of Maupassantís story.
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