What’s it all about?:
This classic novel of colonial Ceylon (Sri Lanka), was first published in 1913 and is written by a prominent member of the Bloomsbury group, husband of Virginia Woolf. It reads as if Thomas Hardy had been born among the heat, scent, sensuality and pungent mystery of the tropics. Translated into both Tamil and Sinhalese, it is one of the best-loved and best-known stories in Sri Lanka. It includes a new biographical afterword by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, author of “Woolf in Ceylon”, and a short story, “Pearls before Swine”, which vividly draws on Woolf’s experience as a young District Commissioner. This book reeks of first-hand knowledge of the colonial experience, and of its profound, malign disregard for the psychology and culture of its subject peoples.
What did I think?:
Leonard Woolf is probably most famous for his marriage to Virginia but was also a noted political theorist, publisher (The Hogarth Press) and “leader” of the notorious Bloomsbury Group. As Woolf spent seven years in Ceylon as a colonial officer, he had first hand knowledge of the area which makes the book more authentic in my eyes. It is set in Ceylon around 1900 and follows the villagers of Beddegama (which means literally “the village in the jungle”)through their daily struggles. Although there are quite a few characters our main focus is a man called Silindu who beat his wife after she dared to give birth to daughters (after all, what use are they?!) but gradually comes to dote upon them, especially when they show interest in the jungle, which pleases him no end and he tells them many tales and folklore about the animals they should respect, and the demons that they should fear. However when his daughters grow up, their beauty attracts some unwanted attention and presents many problems for Silindu as he strives to keep them by his side, and protect them from evil. Silindu is also suffering with unpaid debts and being able to provide food for his family is a toil, with starvation and sickness ever looming.
The short story “Pearls before Swine” is also provided in this book, and felt like quite a contrast from the village of Beddegama. It is told by an unnamed narrator, whom after foolish comments from some upper middle class Englishmen in a club, tells a tale of how he supervised a pearl fishery assisted by a man called White who dies a horrible death in the throes of delirium tremens. This is compared to the death of an Arab fisherman which seems on the other hand to be serene and somewhat noble.
I really enjoyed The Village in the Jungle much more than I thought I would. It is a vivid, moving tale of how the villagers struggled with day-to-day life and things that we take for granted, such as having enough to eat. I loved the strange and superstitious character of Silindu, and felt sorry for the tragedies he suffered trying to protect his daughters, his constant hunger and worry about his debts and the almost obsessive worries over demons in the jungle trees. The prose flows beautifully throughout this story and as a reader I got a real sense of the place and time which I felt was captured perfectly. I didn’t get on as well with the short story Pearls before Swine, although I appreciate the message Woolf was trying to convey and thought it was written well.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):