Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2021

The Road to Urbino, by Roma Tearne

I bought The Road to Urbino when it was nominated for the 2012 MAN Asian Prize, but it wasn’t shortlisted so I didn’t prioritise reading it at the time.  (That prize was an excellent source of fine novels — the winner that year was Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists)

Despite its Italian-sounding title, the preoccupations which underline The Road to Urbino are Asian, and specifically, Sri Lankan.  It’s the story of a Tamil, Lynton Rasanagium a.k.a. Ras, who is in a British prison cell on charges of terrorism.  He has stolen one of The West’s most treasured artefacts, ‘The Flagellation of Christ’ by the Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesa, with the intention of holding it to ransom for his cause.

The narration is unusual, with two first person narrators, Ras and Alex, addressing in the second person, a character who never speaks directly.  Elizabeth, the barrister assigned to Ras, is one of Britain’s best, and as you can see in this excerpt from Part 1, Ras is replying to her questions as she tries to prepare the brief.  We do not hear her voice but can intuit her questions and responses to Ras through his replies, his observations and his inner thoughts.

‘Call me Elizabeth,’ you say, in a clipped voice, cutting me short.
The edges of your mouth tighten.
‘And let me give you these to sign, first.’
You had me two pieces of paper and point to the crosses on them.  I sign.
‘Now,’ you say. ‘We don’t have an awful lot of time.  There are just four weeks before your hearing and this charge of theft is of a serious nature. So we need to concentrate quite hard.’
Once a thief, always a thief, I think. Where have I heard that before?  The papers are calling me a terrorist.  I shake my head.  Terrorism is another matter. I know the law has provided me with your service, but actually, the only thing I’m interested in is seeing my beloved daughter again. (p.5)

Part II introduces Alex Benson’s narrative, again only in the form of his responses to Elizabeth, his observations and his inner thoughts. While Ras’s anguished narrative is designed to elicit the reader’s sympathies for the tragedy of his life, we are not meant to like Alex.  He is sardonic, cynical and flippant.  Since it’s not immediately obvious how these two strands of the novel connect, or why Elizabeth is interviewing him, this ambiguity makes him irritating too.

Gradually the pieces of the puzzle emerge.  Ras and his brother Sam came to Britain as boys after their mother was killed in the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). Ras can’t adjust, and he leaves school without qualifications and has a succession of menial jobs along with a succession of meaningless relationships.  He marries unwisely, and when the marriage falls apart, his daughter Lola rejects him.  Into this misery comes a chance meeting with Charles Boyar from the National Gallery in London, where Ras becomes a gallery guard and can indulge his newly discovered passion for the paintings of Piero della Francesca. (Of which the National Gallery has three.)

Through Charles, Ras gets to visit Tuscany where amongst other paintings he sees the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi and ‘The Flagellation of Christ’ in Urbino which he interprets as a commentary on the indifference to Christ’s suffering by the three figures on the right and the seated figure on the left.  He sees this as an allegory for the indifference of The West to the sufferings of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and that’s what triggers the charge of terrorism…

The Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca (c1468-70, Wikipedia)

Alex’s narrative reveals that he is hopelessly in love with Charles Boyar’s wife, Delia, and has been for years.

These manifestations of loss all collide when tragedy strikes the Boyar family.

Roma Tearne was herself a refugee from the Sri Lankan Civil War, and she is acutely aware of how fragile the refugee experience can be.  When Ras talks about ‘murdering’ his daughter’s innocence when he separates from her mother, Elizabeth remonstrates with him:

‘But,’ you frown, puzzled, ‘aren’t you making too much of this?  Surely thousands of people get divorced each year and they don’t consider it murder.  Lola was a clever little girl.  She had a father who loved her: that hadn’t changed? Why the fuss?’

I glance wearily at you.  I hear your words.  Are you talking about the thousands of children who have grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters?  All living a bus ride away.  I did not have any of that, don’t you understand?’ (pp.58-9)

It’s true, and as all migrants know, you don’t have to have been a refugee to be lacking a support network, which can make a displaced family very vulnerable when things go wrong.

Update, 14/9/21 Apologies, I had some sort of technical glitch with this review, and I ended up with two versions of it, and published the wrong one.  The review should have ended with this paragraph:

It’s an interesting idea to frame a novel around a terrorist event that does not involve violence against people, but rather explores the impact of an act of ‘violence’ against a cultural artefact.  The theft of the painting in this novel reminded me about the Taliban destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, described as a ‘death’ here; and the ISIS destruction of Palmyra and other cultural artefacts in Iraq and Syria is described as a war here. Tearne’s novel does not mention these events, but her theme applies: people develop what is sometimes called ‘compassion fatigue’ and is elsewhere recognised as indifference to ongoing violence against people, but outrage surfaces when cultural artefacts are deliberately stolen, lost, damaged or destroyed.  We think of these things as ‘world heritage’, as artefacts belonging to all of us, wherever they were sourced from, and wherever they are housed.

Tearne’s novel is a razor-sharp critique of the way we in the west are protective of the rights of the individual, a concept of human rights that defined the west for decades during the Cold War.  But in truth, Tearne asserts, concern for the individual only matters for individuals in cultures like our own.  The individuals in Sri Lanka who die or are damaged do not count in the public imagination as much as a well-loved painting does.

Image credit: By Piero della Francesca, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70840480

Author: Roma Tearne
Title: The Road to Urbino
Publisher: Abacus, 2012
ISBN: 9781408703922, pbk., 338 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Book Depository


Responses

  1. This does sound a really interesting approach to the subject. Addressing a silent interlocutor could be really clunky but it sounds like it works here. I want to read more Asian literature so I’ll look at the prize list – thanks for the pointer Lisa!

    Like

    • The nearest award there is to the Man Asian, is the DSC Prize which is well worth following, either on Twitter or Facebook. I’ve read some really good books from that prize…

      Like


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