Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage captures the same feeling of ponderous mindfulness of L’Étranger by Albert Camus. The main character, Dinesh, has been living every day as though it’s his last. Given that his country has been gripped by a deadly civil war, this is not a radical position. The Story of a Brief Marriage unfolds over a scant two day period in which Dinesh might have the opportunity to look ahead to a future without war, if he and his new wife can survive the present.
Dinesh has, after months of constant moving, fetched up in a refugee camp where he works as a sort of orderly in a makeshift hospital. He hides in the nearby jungle most of the time because the camp is frequently shelled and cadres of the “movement” are always looking for healthy men to press into service. Dinesh has gotten used to thinking that he could die at any time and the chapters are full of long, detailed descriptions of Dinesh taking in everything about his bodily functions and actions. Early in The Story of a Brief Marriage, for example, we are treated to pages of Dinesh making what he thinks might be his last bowel movement. Everything is significant to him because it might be the very last time and he wants to remember what it felt like.
Dinesh is one of the few young, relatively healthy men left in the refugee camp, which makes him one of the few options for a old man looking for a husband for his daughter. The man worries that, without him, Ganga will have no one to protect her. So he talks Dinesh into marrying her, arguing that the movement might be less likely to take a married man and bribing him with the deed to his house and land. Dinesh takes the offer, but mostly to learn what it would be like to be married, to have companionship after so long alone.
Once married, Dinesh reflects (at length) about trust and touch and what the future might be like for he and Ganga. Ganga is understandably wary of Dinesh and I appreciated her prickly practicality, especially after Dinesh’s fleshy meditations. Dinesh is so zen-like most of the time that I admit to skimming paragraphs of his ponderings. Because of the title of this short novel, however, I knew their relationship wouldn’t last. I was braced for whatever it was that would end it.
I thought a lot of L’Étranger as I read The Story of a Brief Marriage because they are both existentialist. L’Étranger is a philosophical, slightly artificial examination of existence by a bored, disaffected pied-noir. The Story of a Brief Marriage is much more realistic in that Dinesh constantly faces his own mortality. Both novels have a slow pace, full of reflection and wondering about the meaning of every detail and action. The pace forced me to slow down as well, to consider the outsized significance of the little details of living in an active war zone.