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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.