Plastic emotions by Shiromi Pinto

As I mentioned in my August reading plans post, one of the things I’m aiming to redress this month is my lack of reading works by women authors recently. This particular book not only helps with that aim, but is also about a pioneering female architect, of whom I’d never heard. In fact, her talents do seem to have been a little unappreciated generally, despite the fact that her work was groundbreaking, so I’m probably not alone. I always like a new discovery, whether it’s a book or a publisher or a hidden talent – and so I was very pleased that Influx Press chose to send me a review copy of “Plastic Emotions” – thank you! 😀

The architect in question is Minnette de Silva; born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), she trained in Bombay and then London. One of the guiding influences of her life was her encounters with the famous modernist Le Corbusier; and “Plastic Emotions” charts her life against the background of their affair and her efforts to take new architectural principles back to her newly-liberated country. The format is intriguing – the narrative proper opens with letters between de Silva and Le Corbusier, in the immediate post-War period, when their affair has been in full swing but de Silva is reaching a turning point in her life. As a female, she’s dependent on her family and is drawn back to Ceylon, where she starts to try to carve out a name for herself in the architectural world. Repeatedly, de Silva has to fight the prejudices in her country, not only because she’s a woman, but also because of the fact that her architectural ideas are adventurous and out of keeping with the more traditional views of her countryfolk. Again and again she comes up against resistance, with her submissions being turned down, as well as professional betrayal. This strand of the story is counterbalanced by a narrative focused on The Architect and his life, as well as the aftermath of their various encounters. There are letters between the two; they move through all manner of glamorous worlds and maintain their attachment despite the distances between them. At the end of their journey, the book returns to letters; and the relationship is only severed by the inevitable death of Le Corbusier.

This, in itself, makes for a fascinating story; but an extra element is always present in the background of the story, as the protagonists live through the changes going on in the world. In the early parts of the book, this is the post-WW2 landscape, but as the narrative continues Ceylon goes through turbulent political changes, which de Silva survives by becoming something of a recluse. Le Corbusier struggles with ageing, as well as also fighting to get his own architectural vision accepted. He’s actually not painted as a particularly pleasant person; motivated selfishly by his own needs, having numerous affairs while still living with his wife, his reaction to the latter’s death is typically self-pitying. It’s a complex and gripping story; Pinto writes lyrically and beautifully, bringing the settings to life vividly, and the book is an entrancing read.

Pablo Picasso, Minnette de Silva, Jo Davidson and Mulk Raj Anand at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace. PAP [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

It does have to be said that with “Plastic Emotions” we are in the realms of autofiction again, and this *can* cause the odd knotty problem. I know little about Le Corbusier and knew even less about de Silva; however, author Shiromi Pinto (an interesting woman in her own right) makes it clear in her afterword that she played fast and loose with the facts – took liberties, as she puts it. That’s not a problem as such, as this is clearly a work of fiction, and an excellent one at that. But I confess I did wonder why there had to be an affair between the two architects? I’ve not read enough to know if there actually was; and nothing I could see online indicates that they were any more than friends. I perhaps would have liked to see Minnette forging her life on her own terms *without* everything she did being informed by that affair, standing as a creative person in her own right and out of the shadows of the more famous participant in this story. Certainly it seems from the novel that she was driven to create an architectural style which combined the modernist techniques she loved with the heritage of her country; and that is a much more human way to develop a model for living than that of Le Corbusier, whose designs may have looked marvellous on paper but were probably not that much fun to live in…

But that’s a minor quibble, in the end. “Plastic Emotions” is an atmospheric, involving and compelling story which focuses on the life of a pioneering woman making her way in what was considered as a man’s field, and succeeding. That her work has been neglected is criminal and the fact she’s only just beginning to be appreciated is shocking; I can only hope that Pinto’s wonderful novel has the effect of making more people seek out the real-life story and the work of the woman that inspired it!