Book Review: Plastic Emotions

Plastic Emotions, by Shiromi Pinto, is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Minette de Silva who was the first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Her father was a prominent politician in Ceylon and her mother a campaigner for woman’s suffrage. de Silva befriended the lauded Swiss-French pioneer of modernist architect, Le Corbusier, and, in this story at least, they are for a time lovers.

The portrayal of Le Corbusier is not flattering. He is egotistical and a serial womaniser.

“He has never appreciated a woman who makes an effort to cover her charms. ‘It is not natural,’ he would say.”

Le Corbusier requires affirmation from all he encounters that they are impressed by his achievements. It is difficult to understand why de Silva was so obsessed with this married man who considered only his own needs.

Ironically, given his personality, Le Corbusier dislikes America and admires India for its ‘absence of ego’. He has this idea that India’s poor are content with their lot and do not desire better for themselves.

de Silva studied in London and enjoyed regular visits to Paris but was required by her father to return home to Ceylon after she qualified. Raised in great privilege, amongst her country’s elite, she subsequently struggled to support herself financially. She longs for the freedoms enjoyed in London and Paris, feeling constrained by the demands of the upper echelons of Ceylon society. She is assisted in many ways by her wider family and develops close friendships, although these suffer over time as Ceylon’s political situation deteriorates.

“She does not understand how she has forgotten him so effortlessly. She wonders whether she has abandoned him because his politics no longer suit hers.”

The various groups of friends depicted consider themselves artists and intellectuals who revel in their perceived talents and cleverness. They appear detached from the wider population believing that only they know how to improve a country in which so many suffer poverty which, in their cocoon of privilege, they cannot truly comprehend.

“There will always be room for us, Laki. We are artists. We stand above such petty arguments.”

The group are scathing of de Silva’s clients who will not bow to her will when designing what will be their home.

“They strike me as the types who appreciate something only after everyone else tells them how wonderful it is.”

Le Corbusier has the same issue when others try to alter his vision for a new build. He is so convinced of his own brilliance that he talks of seeking heritage status to prevent residents from altering anything about a building and its associated surrounds in the future.

Throughout the years covered in this tale each of the key characters indulges in affairs. These include an assistant de Silva employs and then casually sleeps with. When he leaves she feels anger that he takes her ideas to his new position – as if gaining such learning is not why he worked for her. There is little long term loyalty even between close friends.

The main story starts in 1949 and details de Silva’s life through to the 1960s – with brief coverage of how it later ends. Parts are epistolary. A wider picture is drawn by giving occasional voice to certain servants and friends. The pace felt slow in places as there was repetition and little action other than the increasing violence in Ceylon. Friendships are formed and cool; affairs blossom and then wilt with subsequent hurt and recrimination. The historical aspects are interesting as is the personal recognition of behaviours – suggesting a degree of self-awareness. The people depicted live a gilded existence despite personal slights and frustrations.

de Silva struggles to gain the professional appreciation she believes she deserves.

“when she surveys her past work, she finds an uncomfortable truth: all the recognition she has received has been through family contacts. Almost all the contracts she has received have also been through contacts. Very few have approached her on the basis of her reputation. Her reputation, in fact, is generally prefixed by the word ‘woman’. That ‘woman’ architect. As if that somehow sullies the work”

Le Corbusier has no such issues finding new projects, although he spends a great deal of the time period covered working on a large scale development in India. When this is finally completed he ponders how moving on from such a commitment feels.

“It is the same gloom that falls at the end of any long project. Like the first time you take a woman you have wanted for a long time – that feeling of: So? What next?”

The writing is precise and articulate although I struggled to empathise with either de Silva or Le Corbusier. Perhaps those with an interest in modernist architecture may feel more sympathy.

It is a familiar and depressing refrain that women struggle to attain the same regard as men for the same work. de Silva was a first in her field and faced prejudice. Nevertheless, the depiction presented here suggests she had opportunities others could not hope for due to her family’s position.

Although fictional a story inspired by real people will draw readers to their lives and the work they left. I am now curious about architects and their egos. The honesty with which characters’ lives and thoughts are presented – their chafing against expectation and convention – makes this a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press. 

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