Rating 4 stars
Plastic Emotions is my second book towards the 20 Books of Summer readathon, and it’s perfect summer reading, full of sultry tropical heat and drowsy meanders through the glare of the afternoon sun.
With this, her second novel, Shiromi Pinto has woven a narrative that mingles fact with fiction to shine a light on an almost forgotten woman. It’s a book that made me want to bunk off work so that I could immerse myself in its world.
The novel is a fictionalised exploration of the life of Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva, with her friendship with Le Corbusier depicted in the language of a love affair and her existence as a London socialite, celebrated for her exoticism, juxtaposed with that of her architectural practice in Sri Lanka, where she was treated with suspicion because of her gender. De Silva, it should be noted, helped to remould the built landscape of a newly independent Sri Lanka with her daringly modern designs.
It’s a beautiful novel, full of rich description and insightful observation, that reveals something of what it was to be de Silva. She was a risk taker, a fiercely independent woman working in a highly male-centric society, and she wanted to bring the traditional crafts of her nation into the modern world so that they would continue to have relevance. She saw Sri Lanka’s independence as an opportunity for the nation to move away from its colonial past.
The novel’s title intrigued me. Plastic is increasingly understood to mean artificial or inauthentic, like the synthetic nature of the polymers that plastics are made from. A quote from Le Corbusier at the front of the book, about the ability of an architect to mould the emotions of those who experience the architect’s work, uses the phrase plastic emotions, with the physical meaning of plastic apparent. Plastics are malleable and can be easily shaped. We talk about the plasticity of the infant brain when it is making new connections through the child’s interactions with the world. I wondered whether this quote was chosen to reflect not only the impact of Le Corbusier’s architecture on the developing modernity of the 20th century, but also his impact on the life and practice of the subject of this novel. De Silva credited Le Corbusier with being the only person who took a serious interest in her architecture (source: 5th paragraph).
Alongside the Le Corbusier quote is one from de Silva herself. In it she seems to challenge Le Corbusier, speaking of modernist architecture as being beautiful but inauthentic. Modernism, she says, is an attempt to free the post-war world from its formalised past, but instead creates a beautiful but sterile environment that lacks any contact with the people who live in the resulting buildings. Her contribution to modernism, the so-called regional modernism, was an attempt to free Sri Lanka from its colonial past while at the same time embracing its craft traditions and its very different climate and terrain to that of Europe, bringing it into close contact with the people who helped build it and those who lived in it.
The prologue introduces de Silva’s architecture, increasingly lost to neglect, perhaps bearing out the truth of her belief that modernism, even her own version of it, was too divorced from the reality of people’s lives. For more on de Silva’s architecture and place in the history of modernism, Gillian Darley’s article in Apollo magazine is worth a read. The Frieze article linked to above adds more detail, particularly in relation to de Silva’s concept of regional modernism, and Pinto herself contributed to The Guardian’s Cities series with an article about de Silva.
I’m a fan of modernist architecture. Its crispness attracts me. I’m drawn to its clean lines, the balance of its proportions, the surprise of its futurism. I understood the compulsion of the architecture student in the prologue who travels to Sri Lanka to track down de Silva’s work. She is fascinated by the woman and her work. She finds a villa, based on the Karunaratne House, de Silva’s first commission in Sri Lanka, still occupied but poorly maintained, but when she tracks down the hilltop house that de Silva called home, she finds it in a state of utter ruin. Picking her way through the debris of the collapsing building, we see through her eyes what this cottage must once have been. The descriptions give a flavour of Pinto’s eye and poetic soul. She describes the student’s experiences of this ruined symbol of de Silva’s life with such beauty that I knew I was going to enjoy the adventure Pinto was taking me on.
The student is the first to see it: a white bathtub, now mossy and overflowing with ivy. This once elegant, claw-footed tub is the source of the profusion of green swallowing up Nell Cottage. Or so it seems to her.
This short passage struck me with an instant vision of a bathtub in the wildness of an abandoned, crumbling house, pouring out the greenery that flows through the rest of the ruin. It placed me there. I love it when writers do that. Pinto has a talent for it, making me feel present in places that I have never visited.
Pinto’s delight in detail was a joy throughout the book, popping up in unexpected places, like a giggle. Describing de Silva’s friend Mimi, for example:
Her red ringlets were springing in all directions like frightened rabbits, so that her hat quivered like a jelly.
Or the effect of a bumpy flight on the passengers in an aircraft:
The plane rises and dips, and the passengers rise and dip in their seats, like jockeys on horseback.
Or this description of de Silva screwing up a letter from her erstwhile lover:
She watches the words collide against one another as her palm swallows them up.
And here a description of a ramshackle house inhabited by a French artist:
The architect recalls Minnette’s long-ago description of the painter’s ‘crooked house’, though it is now so bent and twisted, it is genuflecting to its neighbours.
From the prologue, Pinto plunges us into her fictionalised version of de Silva’s world, starting with the time she spent in London after the Second World War, newly admitted to RIBA as an Associate, in love with and missing Le Corbusier, in love with her freedom and the life she is leading. The story begins with a series of letters written by de Silva to her lover Le Corbusier, describing her life, yearning for his presence, afraid of the next turn her life will take. Her father has summoned her back to Sri Lanka, which is still referred to as Ceylon, it is so newly independent. He wants her, she says, to claim her place in the new nation.
Through these letters, Pinto reveals de Silva’s character. She is confident, sure of herself, aware of how unusual she is in London as a South Asian woman and how unusual she will be in Sri Lanka as a woman architect. She is frustrated by the limits that are placed on her but knows that the world is hers for the taking. I thought that these letters, the last of which introduces the love affair between de Silva and Le Corbusier with the tender exhilaration of love’s first flush and the agony of love performed in secret, set the scene well for the rest of the novel, which arrives in interrupted chunks of time that mix together the working lives of de Silva and Le Corbusier.
De Silva’s first job in Kandy on her return to Sri Lanka is punctuated by her longing for Le Corbusier’s words, since she cannot have his presence. Pinto captures the anguish of loving someone who is not free to fully love back, and the determination not to let the anguish affect you that has no footings, no foundation.
In the quiet of her room, Minnette is suddenly, overwhelmingly, filled with need. Why doesn’t he write? She has been waiting for months and she is tired of it. Moths circle her lamp, immolate themselves. She decides to forget Le Corbusier, to ignore his letter when it comes. Then she sits down at her desk, moves her drawings aside, and begins writing.
This imagined affair allows Pinto to add a rich romanticism to the novel, adding a subtle poetry in her figurative descriptions, such as the moths immolating themselves in the flame of the lamp. What is de Silva, we are led to ask, if not a moth before Le Corbusier’s flame? De Silva never married and her reported words, here in the present reality, suggest that she had little time for men. Pinto creates a softer aspect to de Silva’s character by permitting her to have insecurities early in her career. They are insecurities that this version of de Silva believes can only be banished by the confidence of Le Corbusier’s presence. They are insecurities countered by her frustrations with her clients, whom she sees as timid in the face of her modernity. She doesn’t need Le Corbusier, she just doesn’t realise it yet, Pinto suggests.
Across the novel, Pinto sets de Silva in her cultural context, combining her actual presence at key moments in 20th century history and her acquaintanceship with those who shaped the future of the Indian subcontinent with her re-imagined life moulding the new Sri Lanka to her ambitious vision. We are afforded brief glimpses of how she must have worked, and what she must have thought when faced with the reluctance of Sri Lankan society to follow her lead into the future. We also see her moving through the privileged section of society that her parents have given her access to. Sometimes she is at odds with its easy confidence, more often she is all too unthinkingly comfortable. Sri Lanka’s post-independence history is a turbulent one, and Pinto gives de Silva her place in that, too – one that shakes the foundations of some of her friendships and that threatens the unthinking comfort of her life. Pinto uses another character, Minnette’s friend Siri, to express the strength of feeling at the time among Sinhalese nationalists. Perhaps because of Siri’s involvement with a Buddhist temple, Pinto’s writing here made me think of Mishima.
Chapters flit from the thoughts and actions of de Silva to the thoughts and actions of Le Corbusier. The contrast between the two is an interesting one. Pinto portrays Le Corbusier as a virile, confident personality who refers to himself in the third person, aggrandising himself to the status of one worthy of being observed. In his work at Chandigarh, he is considering similar things to de Silva in Sri Lanka, but he does so with conviction and without any doubt that his ideas will be accepted. It’s a commentary on how differently men and women are encouraged to think of themselves and how differently society permits them to enact that self-image. More, in both the acceptance that Le Corbusier shows in being offered the Chandigarh job and in the obstacles presented to de Silva, including the requirement that a European man checks over her designs before they are accepted, Pinto demonstrates the way in which Asians have, through the colonial system, been conditioned to see their own ideas and ambitions as subordinate to those of the European white male.
The novel travels across a period of some fifteen years or so, taking in the peaks and troughs of de Silva’s career and the waning of her love for Le Corbusier from passion to fondness. It depicts both of them as people, fallible figures behind the facade of artistic egotism. They occupy a particular world, one unlike that experienced by most people, a place of social privilege and the expectation of beauty in everything they encounter. The arrogance and entitlement that comes with the territory they occupy should alienate, but Pinto finds their humanity, so that their love story transcends its faults and their flaws.
Those fifteen years include moments of loss and Pinto’s understanding of grief, as expressed by de Silva to Le Corbusier in a letter, is deeply moving.
You saw me at the beginning, she writes, not sure she will even send this letter. By the end, I fancy I was back to my old self. Almost, for we can never really be what we were. That would be to suppose a certain atrophying of the individual – an unwillingness to be shaped by experience.
More than the description of Minnette’s depression during the months following her mother’s death, this handful of sentences really captured for me the feeling of loss of self after bereavement, the wish to go back to who you were before, and the knowledge that, even though you do regain your equilibrium, you are changed forever.
It isn’t until the novel is over that the reader encounters the author’s note (unless you’re someone who likes to check out the end pages where things like author’s notes and acknowledgements tend to live). Here Pinto reveals the liberties she has taken with facts and the alternative realities she has created to plug the lacunae in de Silva’s biography. The novel for me was a springboard to wider reading about de Silva, about whom I knew nothing before I started to read this book, and I became alert to Pinto’s interweaving of fact and fiction. In her note, Pinto likens her narrative to the woven threads of de Silva’s saris, an image I like. The thing to note is that Pinto’s novel mustn’t be taken as biography. This is becoming a theme in my more recent reading, starting with The Faculty of Dreams and explored also in The Shape of the Ruins. It’s something that creates a tension in me, this reimagining of truth. As a dreamer, I love it. Why should someone only have the life they lived? Why not imagine alternative lives, particularly when the person is someone neglected by history or given a role in the narrative of someone else, usually someone male, as has happened with Minnette de Silva and Valerie Solanas? The tension comes because I’m an archivist and therefore someone dedicated in my professional life to the legitimacy of documented fact. I enjoy that tension. Books like Plastic Emotions feel liberating in the way they permit the reader to set documented fact to one side and grab hold of the story the author wants to tell. I really enjoyed having my emotions moulded by the telling of this particular story.
My only regret about this novel is that there was too much Le Corbusier. He could have been less foregrounded for me. I wanted more de Silva, more of her inner thoughts on her work, more reflection on her frustrations. Le Corbusier was adulated during his life and, in a book about Minnette de Silva, who wasn’t adulated during hers, it felt unfair that he got so much page space. I enjoyed the book most when I was immersed in de Silva’s world.
With thanks to the publisher, Influx Press, for the advance copy of this novel. Plastic Emotions will be available from 11 July 2019. If my review has whetted your appetite, you can pre-order a copy here.