Crows and squirrels. Beggar’s Feast is crowded with these urban vermin, potent symbols whose meaning I could never quite make out, just as I could never quite tell what was behind anyone’s words when I was in Kandy town almost exactly twelve years ago and saw neither crows nor squirrels. When I pulled Beggar’s Feast by Randy Boyagoda from the stack of overdue library books all I knew was that the book is by an Iceland Writers Retreat featured author. When I discovered the novel was set near Kandy, and that it spanned a century of Sri Lankan history, I was certain that it would be one of my favorites. I even hoped that it would help me understand the week twelve years ago that spawned some of my own best favorite travel stories.
So I was surprised when the first two thirds of the novel turned out to be as much of a struggle as the endless staircase at the back of the never-named temple the Tamil boy who later turned into a cobra took me to in the heavy-aired hills outside of Kandy. The language in Beggar’s Feast is as lyrical as poetry and as unpunctuated as time in a country where appointments are never more precise than “tea time.” It’s an easy rhythm to slip into, now as then, but impossible to hold on to make sense of align with the great narrative arc of unknown history, history which appeared only in the immediate impacts. The civil war that dominated everyone’s consciousness during my early 21st century trip appeared late in the book, only as a roadblock that kept the family from attending a festival. Lyrical as poetry and equally obscure; I often wasn’t sure what exactly was going on.
I loved my baffling time in SE Asia, and would have been happily confounded in the slow flowing language of Beggar’s Feast, except the protagonist, Sam Kandy, had no soul. He is Jay Gatsby without romance, Charles Foster Kane without nostalgia, Keyser Soze without confidence. He is a cold-blooded cobra in the warm world of Ceylon. His shame-based pride and ambition are too metallic to inspire feeling in the reader. Sam never connects with another human being in the story either – he has a Jacob Marley business partner, a frigid marriage, and a parade of unsuspecting, probably deserving marks – because no one else in the book seems to have any redeeming qualities either. It’s entirely believable, but hard to get through so much callous nonfeeling.
Until a lifetime of cold anger erupts in hot, murderous passion and it gets worse. But also better. Because nothing could really change as long as Sam was an automaton acting on a frozen rage. After his anger starts to spill out he becomes human – a bad human, but at least human. Sam wins and loses all the things he thinks will satisfy his cold hungry pride. When domination is no longer an option, Sam marries for the third time and finally begins to live.
I have an old border collie. For longer than most dogs live, he was a retrieving machine. He could snatch a ball out of the air from dozens of yards away. He wore his teeth down anxiously gnawing tennis balls. High strung and untrusting, he barked with excitement when anyone came to the house, then bit anyone who tried to pet him. Now, at sixteen years old, he is completely deaf and partly blind and my children climb on top of him while he sits happily panting, his head bobbing like a dashboard ornament.
Sam killed people for less than a comparison to a dog, but I need it to explain Sam’s transformation into the beloved village patriarch, which is otherwise too easy. There is an option to read Christian redemption into the story. Sam’s third wife is a Christian, who infuses the village with new life in a way that Sam’s “loveshine” never did.
Giving without counting, without demanding, without considering first what was leaf- and star-cast by each their birth-hour heavens.
But I prefer the canine explanation. I like to attribute Sam’s softening in old age to a few years of comfortable living with the sound of child’s laughter and someone besides himself looking out for his well-being.
After the first headlong rush when Beggar’s Feast finally hooked me, when after a week of trudging through the front of the book I read the rest in one sitting and was shocked to discover that I’d been sitting for hours, until the next day even, I had to go to bed and then to work. But as soon as I could I sat down again and read the final chapter and confirmed that yes, life wore the rough edges off Sam Kandy, cracked the seams just enough so that with his third marriage, at last something warm could slip in and melt the cold thing driving even such a one as Sam Kandy. The cold thing wasn’t original sin or even actual sinning, not anger hatred shame revenge. It was just lonely. Simple lonely. And it’s hard to understand remember believe that something so simple and common could drive a lifetime of hurting and punishing and even killing. That it doesn’t actually take evil to explain a world of callous nonfeeling and that’s why we need fiction.