When Memory Dies
by A. Sivanandan
Published in 1997
Published by Arcadia Books
A. Sivanandan, a Sri Lankan Tamil who left his native country for Great Britain in 1958, composed this novel about three generations of a Sri Lankan family who witness their country's descent into ethnic strife and the beginnings of civil war in the mid-20th century.
The narrative is divided into three sections, one for each generation. In the first section, Sahadevan, an educated Tamil, describes the trade union politics of the 1920s and 1930s through his friendships and family ties with those people who are in the midst of events. In the middle section, his son Rajan lives through the first years of independence. The entire novel is, in fact, narrated from Rajan's point of view, although he vanishes from the scene when he moves to Great Britain and disappears. The third generation is represented by Vijay, who, through some deft genealogical slight-of-hand on the author's part, continues the same family despite actually being Sinhala. He gets to witness the full-blown culmination of the disintegration of the social order that had so troubled his father.
What we have here, and what overshadows the book's actual narrative, is a political and social history of Sri Lanka from the 1920s to the early 1980s, from trade unions agitating against British rule early on, to the early years to Ceylon self-government, to the total breakdown of the country along communal lines in the late 1970s. Actual individual characters seem unimportant by comparison. Oh, there are plenty of characters about, but they all seem expendable. When something truly horrible happens (and many, many horrible things happen over the course of this book), you're warned of it several pages in advance by the shift in mood.
So I was never really able to get emotionally invested in this book. I found it a valuable read chiefly because it was educational. My wife and I are planning to visit Sri Lanka over next Chinese New Year, and when visiting a new, unfamiliar country, acquainting oneself with the basics of its culture and history are necessary to avoid being a bumbling, idiot foreigner. On one hand, the politics discussed in the book are now 30 years out of date. But on the other hand, they deal with the origins of the very same civil war which only ended in 2009, and remains the single defining event in the nation's recent history. The narrative itself may have left me cold, but When Memory Dies had true value for me for giving me a contextual framework upon which I can hang new bits of information about this nation of Sri Lanka.
Last month I wrote of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother that I found the novel weakest when characters ranted at each other about politics. By any objective measure, When Memory Dies is a hundred times worse in that regard, and the density of political ranting increases as the novel goes on, as characters shout cliched lines at each other. (I found it downright funny when, on page 360 of my edition, a character who appears nowhere else in the narrative pipes up to say of the Prime Minister, "Boy, that guy likes to play around with democracy, doesn't he?")
I actually didn't mind this so much, probably because it was far removed from my everyday experience -- hearing complaints about the dictatorial ambitions of Prime Minster Ranasinghe Premadasa was new to me, so my brain was able to contextualize it as data concerning political history. That said, by bringing this up at all I believe I have become both the first and the last person ever to draw a comparison between A. Sivanandan's When Memory Dies and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.