Sam, a simple Sinhala village boy comes to live and work as a servant at a house he calls the River House. He is not quite right in the head; his words often don't come out right, and he only knows a few numbers, like 25 and 2,000. People look at him in a funny way. He knows this. “Sometimes I think I am different”, he says. “Often I feel so.”
His job, however, is simple enough. He switches on the lights, takes out the garbage, cleans the toilets. Among the three servants at the River House, he is the one who does the most menial of jobs. He is happy with his work: he is too simple-minded to be ambitious.
At the River House, the owner of the house is an international airline pilot (like the author), and his wife is a home- maker. The couple’s two children study abroad. Brutus and Lena are their dogs. It’s a gentle story of a quiet life whose days follow the slow rhythm of nature. Sam’s thrills are about watering the garden, or going rowing in the river.
His occasional conflict is with the Tamil cook, Leandro, who Sam does not like because he is “of the kind that made war… and threw bombs”. By and by, it emerges that Sam has lost two brothers who joined the army because they were too poor to find any other jobs. It turns, eventually, into a story about the civil war in Sri Lanka.
Author Elmo Jayawardena tells the story with sensitivity and a kind heart. His language is simple, and story direct. There is no needless artifice. Yet his choice of character makes his task difficult. Sam, the protagonist, is too stupid to tap rubber or even to understand why he always gets to clean the toilet. He flunked out of school without even learning to write his name.
However, he is smart enough to say lines like these: “We must have appeared like two mad men, he with his own joke and I with my ‘no’ joke. Big Boss and Small Boss, each laughing away for his own reasons, each not knowing what the other's joke was all about.”
Elsewhere, we hear Sam tell us about politicians, and how they appear during election time to fool the poor villagers. At those times, Sam’s political consciousness seems informed by a reading of Marx.
The character of Sam begins to seem a bit unreal. The device of using an ‘innocent’ narrator to look at society was used brilliantly by Volatire almost 250 years ago, in his story L’Ingenue (The Naïve One) which was published in 1767. In that great story, a Huron Indian is brought to Paris, where the contemporary French society of the day tries to mould him in their image. A series of hilarious incidents follow, as the naïve one innocently questions the many hypocrisies of church and state.
Voltaire’s Huron Indian was innocent, not stupid. And he was not the narrator. Jayawardena’s Sam could have learnt something from him.