“Appachchi Avith” (Name of the Father)
Posted on April 3rd, 2019

Book Review: By Maximus Jayantha Anandappa (Sydney, Australia)

The recipient of the prestigious Swarna Pusthaka Award for the best novel in 2018, Saman Wickramaarachchi’s Appachchi Avith” (titled Name of the Father” in English) has been commended as an unqualified success in the Sinhala social and print media which had prompted me to pen my comments on the book.

To me as a whole the novel is fundamentally flawed, too contrived and unconvincing with little literary merit to speak of, or to savour.  In keeping with what appears to be the contemporary norm, written in vernacular Sinhala, I found the book to be easy light reading and generally jejune (partly due to the quality of the language and partly due to the lack of sincerity of the novelist and his superficial level of observation).  As soon as finished reading the book, I was struck by this involuntary thought: If this work can win a major award as the best novel and also receive high ‘critical acclaim’ from the literary fraternity, the contemporary Sinhala literature and criticism is in dire straits and in a serious crisis”.

The author has stated that his narration is a hybrid of hypothesis (theory) and fiction (niyaaya ha prabandaya: න්යාය හා ප්රබන්ධය) a technique though may be a novelty to the Sinhala reader, has been recently used by few others in overseas.  This particular technique which is being promoted as its innovative strength has led to multiple weaknesses and limitations.  (It may be worthwhile to recount that Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1862-69) with its narration interspersed with a long chapter on military theory and author’s views on history as an epilogue is possibly an early precursor to this technique)

I will expound on that point later, but to start with, whether this book can qualify as a full length novel is debatable.  This should qualify more as a novella or a long short story.  If printed on the standard A5 size paper with standard margins, Appachchi Avith” is likely to be a slim book of 115-120 pages.  On a smaller 4.75 inch x 7 inch paper, with generous margins and white spaces and a larger font this runs to 223 pages.  I would not bicker with the length so much if the content has substance and literary merit.  I can only assume that the judging panel was not unfair by other novelists when picking Appachchi Avith” as the best novel in spite of its short length, obvious faults and the pretentious shallow nature.  Having not read the other novels shortlisted I cannot comment on these.

The Modern and the Postmodern Novel

Admittedly the writer has made a conscious attempt to emulate the genre of the modern or the postmodern novel and adapt a new narrative technique for his discourse.  Hence it may be relevant at the outset to briefly look at some features or aspects of the modern or the postmodern novel as a means to provide a framework to critique.

Modernist literature is characterised by a conscious effort to break away from the traditional way of writing which includes a clear beginning, middle and an end (or an introduction, the conflict and the resolution).  Historically the third-person omniscient perspective has been the most commonly used in narrative writing: it is seen in countless classics by those 19th century masters including the works of Dickens, Turgenev, Tolstoy and George Eliot to mention a few.  An omniscient narrator will present an all-encompassing point of view, seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world of his story from his inner eye including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling and how should be acting in a situation.  The omniscient writer ideally is a great psychologist like a Tolstoy, a Dostoevsky or a Flaubert with an unfailing insight to his characters, so that the characters can be presented to us with unerring vividness as if they are real life characters.  The ever reliable omniscient narrator will leave no stone unturned to ensure that the truthfulness or the objective of the plot or the realization of his themes is not compromised.

Pioneers of the modern novel can be traced to the likes of Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dolloway-1925 To the Lighthouse -1927), James Joyce (Ulysses -1922) and Franz Kafka with some important precursors being Dostoevsky and Conrad.  The postmodern novel which starts in around early 1950’s after the outbreak of the 2nd World War is virtually an extension of the modern novel (Source: Wikipedia).

The modern or the postmodern novelist has been looking for more flexibility on his role.  Critics generally agree that the modern and the postmodern novel can be characterized by reliance on narrative techniques involving fragmentation, paradox, an unreliable narrator; rejection of the rigid boundaries between high and low art, lack of clarity in the way characters behave, use of irony satire and metaphor.

Stream of Consciousness is a new narrative voice used by some modern novelists- notable early exponents being Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust.  Stream of consciousness– loosely comparable to an internal monologue can be described as a literary style in which a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions are depicted in a continuous flow uninterrupted by narrative description or conventional dialogue.

Themes of the Novel

Appachchi Avith is a clear attempt to break away from the third person omniscient narration- the novelist has leant to a large extent on the Stream of Consciousness as a literary style or a narrative technique.

Let us now move on to critically looking at Appachchi Avith”. The novel is underpinned by two interdependent themes.  According to the author, the primary or the central theme is derived from a concept the French psychologist Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) presented (in mid1950’s) to cover the role of Father in the Symbolic order which he termed The Name of the Father” from which the English title of the book is derived.  This concept (though downplayed by Lacan himself later) describes the influence of cultural and social law within the family associated with the actual figure of the Father.  Taking Name of the Father” as a signifier Lacan postulated Father as a symbolic function to which all group or community members are subject to, a community or a family cannot function without the influence of the Father who can be the Real, Symbolic or an Imaginary Father. 

The other theme of the novel is a study of a paranoid / schizophrenic / psychotic government official and his interaction with his family and the workplace.

The storyline can be summarised as follows:  Nissanka Senadheera the protagonist is a senior executive officer in public service and is married to Sumali whom he had met whilst studying in the same university.  They have a 10 year old daughter, Sumudu.  Sumali works in a bank.  Nissanka’s manager is Nihal Samaradivakara who is about to retire from service which will open the door for Nissanka, his next promotion as the director.  With a humble beginning Nissanka have been raised in a dysfunctional family headed by a drunkard father with loose morals.  Though the medical doctors (surprisingly) fail in clinical diagnosis and declare him as a normal” person, Nissanka suffers from paranoia / schizophrenia/psychosis but is blissfully ignorant of his condition.  Nissanka imagines that his infirm ageing” father had come back to live in his household again.  He is obsessed with communicating” secretly with the father endlessly.  His father in fact had died sometime back and all these encounters are hallucinations in his schizophrenic mind.  In all these imaginary dialogues/ monologues, with his patronizing ways it is the Father who has the first and the last say in keeping with Lacan’s concept.  He is virtually possessed” by his father.  Unable to cope with the husband’s highly irrational behaviour, Sumali leaves him, taking away the daughter with her.  Highlighted by irregular attendance, negligence of duties with very serious lapses, his behaviour in office is equally absurd.  Culmination of this story is that Nissanka kills his wife and daughter by slitting their throat after preplanning murder.

The novel unfolds roughly in three parts.  It opens in a courthouse with statements of three key witnesses after the double murder had been committed.  Through the statements of their inquisitive neighbour Hilda Gunawardena (the first to visit the murder scene), Sumali’s father and Samaradivakara, Nissanka’s manager who is the head of a government department, the reader is presented with some key points of the storyline and how the characters notably the protagonist should be perceived.  Once the testimonial of the three witnesses is over, the author moves on to the second part presenting pages and pages of monologue / dialogue Nissanka is having with his (non-existing) father and other fantasies or hallucinations caused by his paranoid / schizophrenic / psychotic mental state.  With these discourses the reader is provided with an insight to the character of Nissanka, his relationship with his father, mother, school teachers, his father’s past, university life, his wife and child, workplace relationships and his (imagined) amorous adventures. 

In the final concluding part the writer brings the reader back to the courthouse where the lawyer (or the novelist) presents his argument in defence of the accused (Nissanka)- the argument in fact is a lecture to the (ignorant) Judge on the psychological theories the writer is attempting to expound.  This is intended to be the hypothetical or the theoretical part of the book that would explain the enigmatic behaviour of the protagonist.  Reminiscent of the final courthouse scene in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho (in which a psychiatrist explains why the protagonist having killed his mother out of jealousy and mummifies the corpse), the final courthouse scene in Appachchi Avith is the least convincing part of the book.  Meant to shed light on the enigmatic behaviour of Nissanka, it exposes writer’s bankruptcy or the superficiality of his approach.  The lecture to the Judge is limited to providing fleeting reference to the likes of Kafka, Lacan and Freud and their work.  In the course of presenting his case of the defence, the lawyer even offers his own whimsical psychological explanation on Michael Jackson’s appearance and why he bleached his skin which is contrary to what the autopsy revealed after Jackson died.  In the end the defence lawyer urges the Jury to, instead of acquitting the accused, to declare that he is mentally deranged. 

Fundamental Flaw

The writer has committed a serious mistake in combining two starkly different psychological themes- both (Name of the Father and paranoia/ schizophrenia/ psychosis) warranting serious reflective analysis- but neither been addressed seriously enough.  His lack of serious intent was evident throughout his narration.  It looked as if the novelist was hell-bent to produce a book with certain features of the modern novel and use vernacular language to make it marketable and readable.  Nissanka was used as his mouthpiece.

Lacan’s Name of the Father concept is an untested theory but paranoia/ schizophrenia / psychosis are not mere concepts- they are malaises that can be medically described, diagnosed and treated to a large extent.  The writer seems only to have a superficial grasp of paranoia and schizophrenia- a major social malaise that needs serious and sympathetic attention. (There is evidence that at least 0.3 – 0.7% of the population suffers with schizophrenia).  In a country such as Sri Lanka, with the majority labelling anyone even with the slightest mental health issue as social outcasts or mentally deranged, Wickramaarachchi should have demonstrated more responsibility and maturity when dealing with a theme involving mental health.  The triumphant indictment at the end of the novel that Nissanka should be declared as a mentally deranged person, illustrates the novelist’s insensitive and unsympathetic attitude towards mental health issues.

Given that schizophrenic patients are likely to be subjected to hallucinations, the writer’s primary interest in Nissanka has been to use him merely as a vehicle to present his concept on Name of the Father through his schizophrenic hallucinations.  Trying to validate Lacan’s Name of the Father concept through the eyes of a schizophrenic patient was possibly a deliberate ploy, as it gives the writer the freedom to create a fanciful storyline replete with juicy incidents or tales (such as Nissanka’s father eloping with his mother, Nissanka’s amorous adventures etc) to cater for the popular taste.

When embarking on this novel, if the intention of the writer was to educate the Sinhala reader (who cannot read English) on psychological concepts such as Oedipus complex, the Primordial father, Name of the Father formulated by the likes of Freud and Lacan, it is a positive move that is commendable but the writer should take upon such a task seriously and with sincerity.  Sketchy references in the final courthouse scene to the works of Freud, Lacan, Muriel Gardiner, Paul Schreber et al and the creative fiction of Kafka sounded more like a pretentious apology or a camouflage for his deficiencies- adding nothing to the narrative.  His interpretation on Michael Jackson’s skin colour is not only an irrelevant digression from the storyline but is a misrepresentation as the autopsy proved that Jackson suffered from a skin condition known as vitiligo.

I am not challenging the writer’s freedom for artistic expression, but he is guilty of trivialising the mental health of his hapless protagonist Nissanka who needs a sympathetic study.  As an artist the writer ought to have shown more sensibility and discipline and certainly a better appreciation of mental health issues.  In the end he has produced a book which looks very phoney and fake and I am amazed how such a work could bag a major literary award.  On the other hand where the standards of art had plummeted down to an unprecedented level, it is not fair to expect fictional writing to stand tall in exception.  Sign of the times, perhaps.

Maximus Jayantha Anandappa (Sydney)


One Response to ““Appachchi Avith” (Name of the Father)”

  1. Charles Says:

    Maximus your essay is good but how much it is relevant to the book you are reviewing is doubtful. As I gather the book you have reviewed is in Sinhala and I have my doubts whether you have understood it well as the title of the Book Appachchi Avith to my understanding is The Father has come., but you have got even the translation of the title of the book wrong…….so what of the meaning of the whole book you said to have read !

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