WHEN MEMORY DIES by A. Sivanandan


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First published in Britain, a novel that movingly details how three generations of idealists try to find meaning and purpose as their country, Sri Lanka, becomes another killing field. The author, born in Sri Lanka, infuses the story with palpable feeling for his country and its plight. Once a place of shared values and tolerance, the tropical island is now riven by sectarian violence as the Hindu guerrillas—“Tamil Tigers”—fight for independence from the majority, the Buddhist Sinhalese. Sivanandan carefully explores the causes of the civil war. He’s often less successful, though, with the characters, most of whom are Tamil. Many seem more like fleshed-out representations of ideas and historical forces than complex human beings. The narrative focuses on three men: Sahadevan, his son Rajan, and Rajan’s stepson Vijay. Sahadevan, who was born in a northern Tamil village where drought and crop failure were endemic, leaves the countryside to get an education, and works for the post office in the last years of British colonial rule. He and his friends are socialists who dream of a fair and just society. Son Rajan, born in 1930, an idealist like his father, becomes a schoolteacher, but during his life, post-independence dreams wither as politicians enrich themselves and cynically foment divisions. When his wife Lali, a Sinhalese, is raped and killed by Sinhalese vigilantes who think she’s a Tamil, he despairingly flees to Britain. And finally Vijay, who is lovingly reared by his old grandparents, joins the rebels as a student, teaches, marries unhappily, and, while trying to save his rapidly disintegrating country, gets caught in the cross-currents and dies near the old family home. At times the melodrama--too many people die on cue--undercuts what is essentially an anguished tale of dying dreams and hopes deferred. Instructive and deeply felt.

Pub Date: May 18th, 1998
ISBN: 1-900850-01-X
Page count: 414pp
Publisher: Arcadia
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998


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