Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

This travel memoir (432 pages) was published in February of 2016 by Knopf. The book takes you to the jungles of Sri Lanka. David read Elephant Complex and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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Elephant Complex

Travels in Sri Lanka

John Gimlette

John Gimlette is a barrister in England with a degree from Cambridge. According to Salon, he’s also ‘the world’s best living travel writer.’ Based on this book, we have to agree.

The author possesses an unlikely combination of traits. He has an extrovert’s need to talk to people and an introvert’s eye for detail. And wow, he can spin a yarn. During his trip to Sri Lanka after its decades-long civil war, he seemingly went everywhere and met everyone.

During his travels, he got close to elephants, slept in the jungle, came perilously close to crocodiles and snakes, and had all manner of conversations with farmers, war heroes, tribesmen, cricket players, terrorists, and a former president.

One of the great gifts of Gimlette’s writing is that he will convince you that you, too, should go to Sri Lanka and sleep in a tree house high above the jungle floor — even as your inner voice reminds you that it’s a terrible idea, some part of you will yearn to do it. And that is all down to Gimlette’s preternatural storytelling ability.

It’s also worth mentioning that the book includes the cleanest description of the Sri Lankan civil war you’re likely to find. It’s short and punchy, guaranteed to give you an understanding of the many different perspectives of that long conflict. On Wikipedia, the civil war is a confusing jumble of names and dates. Here, it’s a good story well-told and an ongoing, far-too-relevant tragedy.

If you want to imagine the call of animals in the wild or the smell of a cinnamon grove, this book is for you — a cracking travelogue and a huge adventure tale with a wildly entertaining barrister as your guide.

‘But what do you do when the elephants turn up?’

‘Ah, that’s when you sing, no?’

A strange evening had suddenly turned slightly surreal. Mahathun had an entire repertoire of elephant-scaring songs, and was soon working through them. These were nerve-tingling warbles, somewhere between fado and a muezzin’s call to prayer. Even more surprising, they drew a response from some distant trees, and soon the whole paddy was singing along. At that point, the fireflies appeared, filling the tree house with their twinkly light. It was like being in the cockpit of a tiny, thatched jet.

At midnight, Mahathun left, to be with his cows. For a while, I lay wondering what to sing if the elephants turned up. Perhaps the Bee Gees would show them who’s boss, if only I could hit the notes. It was exhilarating to be up there, basking in stars. I had hoped for a disjointed night, so that I wouldn’t miss a thing. If there weren’t elephants, there’d surely be wild boar and porcupines. But, in the end, the rocking was too much and, the next thing I knew, it was dawn, and I was plastered in straw. Below me, and all around, the rice was already pale blue and squeaking with peacocks.

Then a jackal appeared, picking its way across the paddy.

There goes obstinacy: 2,400 years of cities and he’s still not a pooch.

The jackal must have heard my thoughts. It looked up, saw me, and — with a doggy sneer — veered off into the ancient scrub. — John Gimlette

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