The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers

This quirky little book tells the story of a young boy forced to leave his rural village for a crowded refugee camp at the height of the civil war and political unrest in Sri Lanka. 

As the title suggests the main protagonist is a unique individual who feels more at home in the company of numbers than words and throughout the narrative a distinct divide is driven between our young hero who speaks in numbers and those around him who ‘speak in colours’. Although what this symbolism of communication denotes is never made clear, the device serves to create a sense of segregation and aloneness so often experienced by those in war, particularly children who are expected to play a part as child soldiers. A touch of magical realism involving the transformation of many human war-time figures into animals such as ‘the constantly complaining cow’ or ‘the lying lizard’ as well as a strong interdependence between text and image, and a rejection of narrative linearity and characterisation lends an almost Alice in Wonderland kind of feel to the book, which is purposefully and self-reportedly disorienting, with its opening lines of: ‘If at any point in the following story you are to feel dizzy, out of breath, light-headed, disoriented, and of the growing suspicion that you are lost, it’s probably true.’ 

However, although forewarned, the reader may find it difficult to derive much meaning or significance from this narrative which errs on the side of being slightly too riddled with symbolism to have a clear message. While this literary technique is effective in depicting the chaos of war, there is a lack of an overall lasting impression after completing this book apart from one of confusion and displacement and no real grasp of the reality of this tragic pocket of Sri Lanka’s history. It does succeed, however, at piquing the reader’s curiosity about this little known civil war and thus encourages further reading/research on the topic.