cover image Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

John Gimlette. Knopf, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-385-35127-0

Sri Lanka, the seemingly paradisiacal island at the tip of the Indian subcontinent, has a troubling, obscured past that’s slowly revealed in this vivid travelogue. Gimlette (Wild Coast) takes in the colorful polyglot metropolis of Colombo, lunching with slum-dwellers and chatting with a former president. He visits ancient ruins and reservoirs as well as modern ruins from the 2004 tsunami; meets farmers who live in trees to evade marauding elephants; chats with boy prostitutes in the island’s sex tourism mecca; and strolls the old forts of European colonialists, who left behind townlets that look like Dutch watercolors. Gimlette’s writing is in fine form, featuring his usual gorgeous evocations of landscapes, sharp-eyed thumbnails of characters and eccentrics, and an endless font of amusing anecdotes drawn from his own picaresque adventures and from the follies of royals and imperialists. He finds the people friendly, gossipy, and cosmopolitan, but beneath that veneer lies the memory of the country’s brutal civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority’s Tamil Tigers terrorist group, whose suicide bombers besieged Colombo for years. The appalling violence left a historical shadow that, Gimlette observes, many Sri Lankans hide behind an evasive good cheer. Gimlette’s blend of dry wit, entertaining reportage, and perceptive insights makes for another tour de force of travel writing and history, lushly green but edged in darkness. Color photos. [em]Agent: Georgina Capel, Capel and Land. (Feb.) [/em]