In October 1904 at the age of 24 Leonard Woolf set sail for Ceylon as a cadet with the Ceylon Civil Service. He had with him a wire-haired fox terrier and 90 large, beautifully printed volumes of Voltaire.
He came back to England seven years later with Ceylon in his heart and bones and a growing disillusionment, misgiving and distrust of the British Colonial System.
‘The jungle and the people who lived in the Sinhalese jungle villages fascinated, almost obsessed, me in Ceylon. They continued to obsess me in London, in Putney or Bloomsbury, and in Cambridge.” (Growing: An Autobiography 1880-1911. )
The Village in the Jungle was published in 1913, and is the chilling tale of Silindu and his daughters, village politics and malevolent neighbours. It’s told using the traditions of local, oral story telling, it’s not sentimental or sensationalist, it doesn’t fantasize about the jungle or the people living there. In many ways it’s dispassionate. But it’s rich with description and empathy for the people living immersed in the heat, waiting for rain, for the harvest, fearing the gods, hunger and the vast jungle that folds around them; perhaps a metaphor for the hopeless struggle Woolf saw against injustice.
Like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, this is a book that I’m very glad I’ve read, perhaps more than ‘enjoyed’. I’m also interested to see that it’s widely read in Sri Lanka where it’s also been made into a play and film.
“The Village in the Jungle was a novel in which I tried somehow or other vicariously to live their lives.” (Beginning Again: An Autobiography 1911-1918)