Island in the stream of history

Melissa Benn welcomes a moving first novel from a veteran political thinker; When Memory Dies by A Sivanandan, Arcadia, pounds 9.99

A Sivanandan is one of the few political writers who really matter in this country: a polemicist who loves language like a poet, a deadly serious writer with the lightest of touches. In his most frequent form, the essay, he is without peer, able to command attention from that first declarative sentence. For him, the essay is both a kind of war and the place for tender argument.

Like that other great black writer, C L R James, Sivanandan - director of the Institute of Race Relations and founder editor of its journal Race and Class - is largely a prophet without honour in this, his adopted country. Yet he has a formidable international reputation. Essays such as "From Resistance to Rebellion" stand as definitive accounts of black people's struggle in postwar Britain. Thinking globally, Sivanandan was one of the first writers to consider the implications of the new technology and its impact on the third world.

Again like "CLR", this country's relative blindness to his talents has less to do with his "colour" than his politics. He remains that most unfashionable of creatures: a socialist who believes in the persistence of class. In the past decade, when it has become the vogue to discuss British blackness in terms of "identity", Sivanandan has stubbornly continued to address material as well as cultural realities.

Now, at the age of 70, he has written this profoundly simple, profoundly complex first novel about three generations of Sri Lankan men, each shaped by the politics of their time. While the narrative is carried forward by father, son and grandson, the true central character is surely Sri Lanka: a country like many others, deformed by colonialism, potentially liberated by independence, then deformed once again by "ethnic conflict".

Political novels come in many forms, but there is a fundamental difference between the writer who works from within a political faith and the one who describes from the outside. James Baldwin was at his brilliant best when he wrote from his knowledge of, and connection to, black anger. At the other extreme, Joe Klein's clever, humane but cool Primary Colors epitomises the outsider approach.

But the insider novel always risks piety and didacticism - a suspicion that the author is moving characters around a chess board, chasing positions without organic purpose. That Sivanandan largely avoids these traps is down not just to his own craft but to his certainty that political faith is indivisible from both intellect and feeling.

This indivisibility also justifies the novel's realistic simplicity. Irony, cynicism, clever switches in time or character, would make no sense here. A person belongs to their place, their family, their history and the choices that they make. For this is, above all, a novel about the importance of action.

For Saha, the young man from the dry north of his country born in the early part of the century, it is his move from a rural village to the city of Columbo - his contact with the petty glamour and snobbery of colonial rule and with working-class resistance to it - that shapes his story. For Saha's son Rajan, born in the tiny town where his father is made sub- postmaster, it is the wonder and absurdity of a British education that deeply affects him: "The economics professor went on and on about apples and oranges and marginal utility.... But it was the professor of poetry who grabbed me most...the raw feel of Donne and Keats and Hopkins and Eliot...answered to my waking sensibilities about religion and sex and fantasy and despair." Yet colonialism corrupts everything. The flowers in the garden of rich relatives who might fix Rajan up with a job disgust him. "The orchids and the imported roses" were needed "to remind them of their wealth, like they needed poor relations".

The final story rests with Vijay. It is his destiny to make sense of the vicious battles between Tamil and Sinhalese that have torn Sri Lanka apart and pushed Sivanandan, a Tamil, out of the country in 1958.

A militant opponent of the crude nationalism that sets Sinhalese against Tamil, Vijay has his most painful conflict with his sensual but cold wife Manel, who despises his politics. Husband and wife argue and reconcile a dozen times, until hatred and misunderstanding dissolve into indifference. Looking at his wife, Vijay realises "This was who she really was, this was who she had always been...He felt gentle towards her at last."

But this is not just a book about Sri Lanka. The struggles it touches upon, both moral and political, face us all: the battle between our hunger for love or learning or success and our need, even passion, for integrity. In this sense the book does have a message, a direction. The author hovers above his creations, taking each firmly but kindly through their moral maze.

This is a book of, and about, many lifetimes. Towards the end Vijay reflects on his family's bloody heritage, concluding that "They did not divide things, events, people into what would make them happy and what wouldn't. Everything was life. The important thing was to go with the grain of it."

Here is the notion of organic unity made explicit. And yet you probably have to wait until you are 70 to risk such a simple and complex sentence - to risk the reader grasping the unsentimental meaning that underlies the lucid thought.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition