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When Memory Dies Paperback – 1 Jan 1997
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"Haunting, with an immense tenderness. The extraordinary poetic tact of this book makes it unforgettable." - John Berger, Guardian"A brilliant and moving first novel" - Times Literary Supplement"This rich novel, peopled with unforgettable heroines and heroes, will haunt the reader's mind - David Rose, Observer
From the Back Cover
A powerful three-generational saga of a Sri Lankan family's search for coherence and continuity in a country broken by colonial occupation and riven by ethnic wars.See all Product description
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Most of all, there is a real evenness of tone - the book lays bare the real tragedy of sri lanka, that at its heart it is a place where both tamils and sinhalese have lived side by side for years, intermarried for centuries, have tried to build a future together, but are being manipulated by forces outside their control. The last part of the book, covering the massacre of JVP activits in the south, and the uprising of tamils in the north, show the real parallels between disaffected members of both communities. Gorgeously written.
Sahadevan, Saha, is born in a northern Tamil village of Sandilipay, where drought and crop failure were regular occurrences. This forces him to leave the countryside to get an education and to work 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, but come to realise the gulf between dream and reality.
His son, Rajan, is an idealist like his father, and becomes a schoolteacher. During his life, post-independence dreams wither as the leading politicians seek personal power, become rich and create divisions within society to achieve these ends. When his wife, Lali, herself a Singalese, is raped and killed by Singalese who believe her to be a Tamil, Rajan has a breakdown and is taken to Britain for treatment, leaving his son to live with Lali's parents.
Saha's grandson and Rajan's stepson,Vijay, is lovingly reared by Lali's parents, joins the Tamil rebels as a student, but then follows his father into teaching. He marries a fellow teacher but remains unhappy and unfulfilled, and seeks a way of forestalling the disintegration of his country. The end of the novel is both pessimistic and realistic.
These three characters, and those around them, are positioned within the colonial history of Ceylon, which will probably be familiar to only a minority of readers. In the mid-1800s, the British colonialists employed a divide-and-rule policy to support a Tamil population who they had brought from Southern India as rural workers. As is shown in the first book of this novel, the Sinhalese and Tamil populations at first showed a mutual tolerance and respect, and even intermarried.
The subsequent violent history of the ethnically-divided Sinhalese, rural Tamils and Colombo Tamils, is presented in the second and third books of the novel. With the benefit of hindsight over the increasing ethnic clashes and civil war that occurred since 1997 when this novel was first published, it is clear that the author was right to develop such a melodramatic narrative without, in my opinion, seeking to manipulate the emotions of the reader.
However, as the novel progresses the murders and deaths accelerate on the periphery of the main characters' lives and intrude into their everyday existence. There are a great many facts to bring in and historical characters to present, and the author just about manages to achieve this without turning the novel into an indigestible history of 20th century Ceylon. That he achieves this is, in no small part, due to his ability to reproduce the everyday dialogue which keeps families and friends in contact even when opinions and beliefs become strained to the limit. The author is also very good at describing the native flora and fauna, and the violence of the monsoons that overcome human endeavour and political machinations. It is, of course, the lowest in society that suffer, and lose, the most.
Few, if any, characters reflect on the past in order to escape or attempt to divert social, religious and ethnic hostilities. As a result, the novel's title, "When Memory Dies", expanded within the book to "When memory dies, a people dies", becomes both a critique of 20th century Ceylon and a warning for Sri Lanka's future.
This is a powerful book which should attract a readership beyond those with familial links to the island.
It is the longest book I have ever read, split into three generations which are cleverly woven together. I found the first generation a little slow in parts but this is needed as background to the next two generations, at which the intensity grew I became completely engrossed. The book can be read at different levels, because every event he writes about has some underlying meaning. I have never been interested in politics but this book really makes you think and broadens your understanding. This book is full of love, compassion, hope, fear, reason, haste, and real characters. It is beautifully written, capturing every moment, yet never growing any moment out of proportion. You really find yourself becoming involved with the characters and find parts of yourself in their personalities. I still have no idea how I would cope with what they have gone through, I have been filled with admiration for them. The scariest part is that the struggle goes on.
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