‘Plastic Emotions’ by Shiromi Pinto constructs the dazzling arc of an innovator
[A] portrait of Minnette de Silva1 is echoed in Shiromi Pinto’s compelling novel Plastic Emotions, which retells de Silva’s life particularly in relationship to her encounters with the Swiss architect Le Corbusier from 1949, a year after Sri Lankan independence from colonial rule, to 1965, the year of Le Corbusier’s death. Partly an epistolary novel, Plastic Emotions sketches out de Silva’s life through letters, newspaper articles and telegrams exchanged primarily with Le Corbusier – referred to as “the architect” in the novel – and with her friend Mimi.
“She enjoyed the excellent acoustics in the auditorium itself, although the mass of the outer building troubled her, sitting like a hen on the ground.” Or her views on sinking Venice: “Islands of arches and campanelli, Palladio’s Basilica, the Piazza San Marco – all of it fainting frame by frame into the Adriatic.”
Minnette de Silva thinking or playing at work emerges as a unique protagonist with a wry humour whose drive to sculpt the landscape of her country is enough to propel the novel. As it progresses, the affair with Le Corbusier dwindles into a steady friendship, which serves the story well: we see Minnette tending to the world around her, in the midst of a communal storm, and dealing with the losses of those she loves. The novel effectively uses Nell Cottage and the arts complex that de Silva built as a framing device, siting them in 2005 as a pilgrimage spot for an architecture student, as crafting the history and memory of Sri Lankan architecture.
- 1. In her 1998 memoir, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, Minnette de Silva narrates her origin story as the fulfilment of a childhood dream. “My longing was to be an architect. How did I develop this?” she writes. “Mr Oliver Weerasinghe, the Town Planner came to visit my father one day on official work, and lent me some magazines. That, I believe, triggered the whole thing off.”