“Beggar at the feast! Master of the dance!” The chorus from the musical Les Misérables will ring in your ears while reading this rags-to-riches saga spanning the 100-year life (1899-1999) of a Sri Lankan man.
In a remote Ceylonese village, young Ranjith — unable to chase off crows on his birthdays — is blamed for the recurring droughts and pronounced ruinous by an astrologer. The 10-year-old is relinquished to a monastery, where he spends three years and suffers sexual abuse. He escapes, but not before taking revenge on a pedophile monk, who called him squirrel, by knowing “where to kick.” He changes his name to Sam Kandy and embarks on an adventurous journey to Colombo, where he learns much from a street hustler. He stows away on a ship to Australia, where he works for an affluent family. At his next stop, he toils as a street hustler, and in three years there “might have been the richest virgin in Singapore.”
Sam eventually returns to his village in the manner he’d promised, “like it had never been done before,” wearing a suit, and in a motorcar! More riches follow from his business dealings and particularly during World War II, while helping the British military. He lives a luxurious life with three marriages and sixteen children. Other reviewers have aptly compared him to fictional characters in the like of Mr. Biswas, Duddy Kravitz, or Jay Gatsby.
Boyagoda does a superb job of telling this century-long tale, which others might take a trilogy to cover, in just 311 pages. Eastern readers will recognize this novel as the kind of story told orally by elders, perhaps around a campfire, one with less showing but producing more images in the minds of the listeners. It’s entertaining, with much insight into the life and times of that era in the East. Recommended.