Written by Mahinda Weerasinghe

Reviewed by H. L. D. Mahindapala

One day in 1987 Gunnar Larsen, 36, a Norwegian gemmologist, flies out from Gademoen air port in Oslo to finalize one of his business assignments in Sri Lanka. After a long flight and an equally long road journey he arrives at Paradise Hotel in the Eastern coast at 1 p.m. He goes out for a walk on the beach, taking in the majestic beauty of the setting sun, around 6 p.m. By 6.15 p.m. he is a corpse lying on the lonely beach. Someone had shot him between the eyes, leaving a "third eye" bleeding on the forehead.

Inspector Ravi Ranavaka, from Tangalle Police, arrives on the scene and is puzzled. Nothing has been touched. Larsen's transistor radio and purse are intact. His task is to find out who killed Larsen at a time when Norway-Sri Lanka relations are at a sensitive point. But there are no eye witnesses. There is no visible motive. It certainly is not robbery because his possessions are with him. And there are no traceable clues.

Inspector Ranavaka's detective work of finding the killer runs through this gripping book, Oslo Mission. It is the first Sri Lankan detective novel I've read since I was thrilled, as a teenager, by Piyadas Sirisena's Wimala Tissa Hamudurowo's Mudal Pettiya. It is a genre that has not been used by Sri Lanka writers. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who harboured ambitions of writing an epic novel on the scale of War and Peace ended up writing Maha Henay Riri Yakka - quite an intriguing detective story which was staged later at the Lionel Wendt when he was prime minister. Apart from that nothing in this genre comes to mind. Prof. D. C.R. A. Goonetilleke, authority on Sri Lankan English literature, too confirmed to me that no adult has written a detective fiction as far as he knows though he remembers a youngster writing something on these lines. And I must admit that living abroad has not helped me to keep up with all the latest publications.

Perhaps, my pleasure in reading Mahinda Weerasinghe's Oslo Mission may be due to the dearth of the Sri Lankan detective fiction. Not being able to lay my hands on a printed copy - it has just come out of the Vijitha Press -- I've read only the electronic version of Oslo Mission. It was e-mailed to me by the author whom I first met in the streets of Oslo, opposite a hotel within walking distance to his gracious house located close to King Harold's Palace. He was one of the organizers in Oslo who ran the conference of the World Alliance for Peace in Sri Lanka. The attendees were in the safe and campable hands of Weerasinghe who paid attention to details. He is a structural engineer who has specialized in offshore steel structures. He is often away from home working in distant Norwegian offshore drilling industry.

But that has not prevented him from running a one-man battle of his own against the ill-informed Norwegians on the Sri Lankan issue. He pours his intimate knowledge of Norway into Inspector Ranavaka's investigations which take him to Oslo. This opens a window for Weerasinghe to go beneath the surface of Norwegian society and look deeper, particularly into the Sri Lankan community domiciled in that cold climate. His barbs are reserved mostly for the Norwegians who are meddling in Sri Lankan affairs.

Weerasinghe's life experiences in Norway and Sri Lanka provide him the necessary insight to straddle both societies with ease. He sees the hypocrisy of Norway, which is brash enough to criticize Sri Lanka's treatment of minorities, with that of the Sami people, the indigenous Norwegians who have been marginalized and denied their fundamental rights for centuries. The following snippet of converstion between Inspector Ranavaka and his traveling companion, Patrick, the American, illustrates how Weerasinghe weaves politics into his who-dun-it:

"The Sámi people, whom we used to call Laps", he (Patrick) explained "speak a totally different tongue from those of Norwegian Danish or Swedish. If anything their language is closer to Finnish, which is a relative of Finno-Ugric languages. These Sámi have been often called Norway's Indians. As with the American Indians, these Sámi were already established on what in time would come to be known as Norway, the land of the Norwegians!

"In time zealous Norwegian missionaries laboured hard to eradicate Sámi cultural heritage but evidently failed. Until the last world war all education for the Sámis was conducted in Norwegian, the official language of Norway."

"Strange that, I thought, considering the present Norwegian media's drive to destroy the Sinhalese people's reputation. The popular media here, I was told, routinely use demeaning language to describe the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Government. The majority people in the Island were termed, the 'Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinist', 'Sinhalese and their apartheid Government', the 'Sinhalese insufferable nationalism', to name a few. But the Sinhalese never practiced nationalism the way Norwegians had done to the poor Sámi. The Sinhalese had been merely trying to save their country being split by a group of Tamils, who reject living in a pluralistic society due to their inbuilt apartheid mentality.

"In the end the Sinhalese will fall, I thought, due mainly to a historical tolerance of theirs. In fact when compared to the Sámi experience at the hands of Norwegian nationalism, the historical Tamil invader of Sri Lanka had a peaceful time culturally speaking. They have always practiced and continue to practice their language and culture without any interference from the Sinhalese. If an average Tamil in the north of Sri Lanka could utter a few words of Sinhalese or if there were any Tamil Buddhists in existence then this would amount to a miracle."

This is only a minor aside in a detective story that is packed with suspense and action. He writes with ease focusing on the thread of the story unfolding on each page. Ranavaka is a miniature mixture of Agatha Christie's Poirot and Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe. The English detective, starting from Sherlock Holmes, and the American detective, starting from Edgar Alan Poe, ran in two different directions. The mystery adventures of Miss. Marples and Poirot were purely cerebral. But when it crossed over to the other side of the Atlantic the Americans packed it with action and brawn that goes with it. While Agatha Christie focused on the British upper class where murders took place in lovely lawns or neat drawing rooms, the American writers, born and bred in the live-fast-die-young-and-leave-a-good looking-corpse-behind culture, focused on the seedy underworld. Both explored the dark side of humanity.

The detective novel is primarily concerned with the machinations of the mind and society obsessed with greed, lust, ambitions, avariciousness - in short the seven deadly sins. By and large, the Western mystery writers were cynical critics of their societies at large. They dived into the cess pits of their societies to bring to the surface the muck hidden below. They did not focus on politics overtly, though later Ian Fleming and Len Deighton added the new dimensions of international intrigue and the competing values of Cold War politics.

Weerasinghe makes no pretensions of aspiring to be in that class. Oslo Mission is a straightforward narrative running from A to Z --- Z being the triumphant moment when Inspector Ranavaka reveals the hidden mystery. Occasionally, without disrupting the flow of the narrative, he takes snide shots at the Norwegians and even the Sri Lankans. But those cracks are intertwined as integral parts of the story.

His characters are delineated with the credible characteristics of both cultures. His language is colloquial and easy-going. And the narrative runs fast. The politics running thorugh it is relevant to our times. What more can we expect from a detective fiction? It is a book that should be translated into Sinhalese and Norwegian, perhaps even to a film.

I missed reading the hard copy though. I would have appreciated it more if I read it curled up in bed in these wintry nights, down under. The texture you feel in the hands and the turning of leaves, with the hardly noticeable rustle, enable me to relate more closely to the characters on the page than the faces hidden in the depths of cyber space. They don't come out of the cold screen as warmly as they do on the pages in your hand. It is absolutely irritating to read fiction on the screen. It takes away half the kick you get when you read it in bed. I hope I'd get a hard copy next time Weerasinghe writes a book.

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