Poetry and Polemic by Timothy Brennan (on Sivanandan)


By Timothy Brennan – contribution to ‘A World to Win:  essays in honour of A Sivanandan’ (Race & Class Special issue July 1999)

When I was in graduate school at Columbia University, Race & Class was banished to the basement library of the School of International and Public Affairs-a tall, forbidding high-rise on the wrong side of Amsterdam Avenue. Stockpiled under the fluorescent lights of the ill-used periodicals room in a part of the university reserved for future diplomats and foreign agents, the journal could only come off to a New York graduate student as a curio from an unknown London, warehoused for the benefit of some future dissertation on failed utopia. This physical location (one might call it a kind of exile) had the effect of keeping the journal for the only students who knew how to use it; the poets and the socialists who (like me) would slip over to enemy territory from time to time to find a reprieve from the suffocating efflatus of Lionel Trilling and ‘high’ literary learning.

This is a paradox, I think. Anyone who knows Race & Class’s editor, A. Sivanandan, knows that he cannot write an essay without quoting T.S. Eliot at least once. One could see right away that ‘Siva’ spoke the language of literary learning -not an aestheticised learning, but nevertheless majestic, even spiritual. I survived graduate school in part by reading Race & Class and by sharing its anger. Not that it was literary criticism, of course. The articles were not about Shelley. They were Shelley -the rebel poet of English tongue and street-corner broadside, equater of beauty and revolution.

There is a lot to be written, it seems to me, about rhetoric and politics, especially the rhetoric of iconoclasm. In that mode, the rhetor is less an orator or stylist than a public litigant (wasn’t it Shelley who once called Roman law ‘poetry’?). Sivanandan was a poet even before he became a published novelist – and he was, in that sense, like his contemporary E. P.Thompson, whose fights with the British cultural conservatives and francophilic theorists were laced with Blake, Hopkins, and Auden, living the sort of literature that makes writing move. In a much more direct, less scholarly, way Siva always kept the same company as Thompson, and wrote with the same modus operandi.

To bring up rhetoric in this way, though, is to make one wonder if a case cannot be made for a classicism that has an affinity to radicalism itself. The ‘forever’ quality of classicism’s simplicity (usually thought be, for that reason, conservative because changeless) is perhaps closely related to honest speech. This is an old, one might say, ‘classical problem that can be raised here again in the embattled world of class and race in Anglo-American current affairs the realm of everyday police bulletins and the broadsides of the Daily Express. Siva’s is a speech that doesn’t clear its throat or cover its face with its hands and in that way it meets the enemy on its own turf. Its virtue, among other things, is that it does not let burghers and philistines have the only unguarded, populist say, but gives the Left its chance to speak without dallying or evasive gymnastics. But to say this is to bring up another problem related to that of Race & Class’s literary audience and (seemingly) unliterary profile. For, the poetry of polemic is not exactly poetry; and the bid to be a poet by writing a work of fiction (as Sivanandan now has) means entering a rhetorical world where polemic cannot be

Is the political poetry of exposure found in A Different Hunger or in ”Imperialism in the silicon age’ impossible when imperialism’s prosecutor becomes an author of literature? This must be more than an idiosyncratic question for one who escaped graduate school by reading Race & Class in a basement library. It is a question about the limits of literature itself, although now reversed: not literature endangered by politics but a danger to politics. Siva’s essays have given us what most literary criticism does not – the language of clear air, the speaking with pointed fingers and folded arms, without recourse to passive voice or third person. Without a hint of backing off from his commitments, Siva set out to write a novel because of the poetry within him, and because of the opportunity it gave him to have his say on the Sri Lanka of his childhood rather than the black or working-class Britain of his adopted stay. Youth, first impressions or, more simply, the past all seemed to dictate the mode of fiction. But although no less elegant as prose, When Memory Dies-as a novel -carries within it a necessity of form, and it is a necessity that essays do not suffer. The organic closure of fiction militates against the enlightening negativity of the essay-form: negativity as critique, opposition, accusation, fact. There cannot be in fiction defiance without arrogance. As Ezra Pound put it, the most beautiful is the most clear (or something to that effect). But novels invite uncertainty and unverifiability. They virtually demand ambiguity.

Years later, now out of graduate school, I met Siva in the offices of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in London while writing an anthology on the black communities of Britain. We spent hours jabbing at a crippled, self-defeating, cultural leftism then fashionable in the Ūnited States and Britain – the argument that would later find a place in his essay ‘All that melts into air is solid’, an essay I greatly admired and quoted from often, although it said nothing I had not felt deeply for more than a decade before its composition. His assault on the turn of Stuart Hall in the ‘New Times’ controversy was exactly that of my own critical take on Hall in an essay I had written in 1989 as a result of my London research: ‘Black theorists and left antagonists’. But although my. critique was my own, and similar to his, I did not have Siva’s words. It is difficult to be plain. Directness is terrifying because one lives in fear that the simply dull or uninformed is often mistaken for the bravely plain, just as (in turn) the plain is often slandered for being dull. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Race & Class took the risk of slander for the purpose of speaking not so much to ‘ordinary’ people (its politics remain extraordinary and minoritarian) but to people who might become extraordinary without being privileged specialists.

These are problems of accessibility; they intertwine with the rhetoric of poetry and polemic; they lie at the heart of Sivanandan’s and, by extension, Race & Class’s achievement. Their successes, as I will try to explain below, are shadowed (on the one hand) by the vexations of cultural ‘theory’ and (on the other) by what I would call the dilemma of the small. The one has to do with the paradox of carving out a clarity by force of a certain willed ignorance, apportioning precious time, choosing sides and accepting that one cannot be everything for everybody. The other has to do with the Institute of Race Relations as an outpost of honesty set up (not altogether consciously) to keep ideas alive precisely because it is, in important ways, ‘untimely’ and isolated.



Let me begin, then, with the end. The point of my opening was that Sivanandan’s essays on racism, Sri Lanka, capitalist technologies and the British media, although about ‘race relations’ and social studies were not for the most part read by people in those fields. His audience was made up of students of literature as well as activists who found their bearings in terms (justice’, ‘truth’) mostly confined to the yearnings of the imagination during the slacker era of Thatcher/Reaganism. For the sombre social sciences, the analysis of Race & Class was at once more naive and less ‘scientific’ than dignity allowed. A radicalism of belief, by contrast, had managed to survive in literature departments both in England and the United States, as well as on the activist Left, many of whose members were hibernating in academia. Sivanandan’s rhetorical presentation had created an audience by way of a classicism derived ultimately, from the astonished and indignant humanism of nineteenth-century European radicalism. This formation had to do with a certain schooling in Sri Lanka, a certain relationship to un-benighted white colonial teachers who gave him a handle on the language of the dominant tribe, and he took this for what it was, transforming the poetry of the colonial classroom into a demand for the values it contained while facing the realities of Brixton and Tottenham, defunding, Tory rate-capping, ‘sus’ laws and the culturalist blathering of ‘New Times’.

At least part of Siva’s brilliance, I would argue, is the result of a particular collision of contradictions that have literature at their centre.  Over and over again, in intervention after intervention, his focus is tirelessly on policy, pragmatics, expects no novels from such a man. The unforgettable essay on ‘Racism Awareness Training’ (RAT), for example, is probably the most eloquent most unflinching of all his work, attacking the confusions and fallacies of RAT’s ‘metaphysics’ and ‘potions’, its tortured belief in the church manuals and education bulletins with their arguments that racism was some ‘structural taint’ interiorised ‘within the white psyche and white behaviour’, thereby giving multiculturalism a de facto separatist content. It may be his masterpiece. I emphasise it here not because it has no rivals but because it makes us recall the workmanlike surroundings of Siva’s clearest polemics – their hammered-out quality in the unscholarly environment of an old-fashioned ‘cell’. One learns to appreciate the sort of tongue that in 1985 – the era of Fred Halliday’s ‘New Cold War’, the rise of ‘cultural studies’ as a new discipline and the triumph of junk bond king Michael Milkin – could express the following:

There is a class war going on within Marxism as to who…are the real agents of revolutionary change: the orthodox working class, which is orthodox no more, or the ‘ideological classes’ who pass for the new social force or forces… The solution, for theory, pointed to a re-reading of Marx, a rehashing of Gramsci and a return to intellectual rigour accompanied by activist mortis. The working class, as a consequence, was stripped of its richest political seams – black, feminist, gay, green, etc. – and left, in the name of anti-economism, a prey to economism. Conversely, the new social forces, freed from the ballast of economic determinism (and class reductionism), have been floated as the political and ideological ‘classes’ of the new radicalism. But that flight from class has served only to turn ideological priorities into idealistic preoccupations, and political autonomy into personalised politics and palliatives.

Among the interesting aspects of this passage is that it considers ‘theory’ untheoretical. Not only does this theory lie behind, or at least act in concert with, the apparently unrelated world of Lord Scarman’s report, the Kerner Commission and so-called ‘Human Awareness Training’ (launched on a military base in Florida at the end of the 1960s), but it is, more importantly, passé (‘rereading’ Marx, ‘rehashing’ Gramsci). He rips the shibboleths of cultural Marxism from the sacred pages of postmodern novelty and instead of seeing the ‘new social movements’ as black, feminist, gay, or green -which were, he says, a full part of the ‘old’ social movements (if one bothered to read Wilhelm Reich, C.L.R. James, Alexandra Kollontai or intellectuals acting on behalf of a class they nominally opposed, undermining activism in the name of the ‘personal.’  Sivanandan is not only accurate in making these claims, and he not only made them early, but his rightness is related to being vexed by theory, and to being ‘small’. If the literary academy was a place where a belief-radicalism could hibernate during the winter of Reaganism, it did not escape the inroads of another and more mainstream culture of belief. The very constituency drawn to Race & Class was whittled away at by a theory that rendered culture a god so that literature could be more easily dispensed with. It was as though postmodernism’s ‘culture was the conflation of literature and activism, making the active longing of the one and the longed-for action of the other a topic for paralysis. What Sivanandan takes up in ‘RAT and black struggle’ is continued in ‘All that is solid melts into air’ – the essay that addresses the lamentable theorising of post-Marxism, but now in the academy rather than in the world of policy. The latter essay is his attempt to come to terms with the fact that the cultural Marxists dominated the field, and had won the attention of youth. A key constituency was dying. It was no longer certain that one could go on speaking without quotation marks. 

Siva the novelist, still a few years off, was busy fighting for the classical word of rage in the venues of critique. This contradiction in the making grew out of a great nay-saying that was effective, but had its limitations. For Stuart Hall-the object of Siva’s polemic- had certainly read Michel Foucault, Max Weber, Julia Kristeva and even Marx with an impeccable erudition and creativity, one that Siva could hardly match. Siva, by contrast, had spent his time making contacts, dealing with editorial meetings, lecturing to activists, or wielding a conjunctural pen. What he knew of Marx he knew by instinct rather than textual mastery. From a scholarly point of view, there is just no real competition between Stuart Hall and A. Sivanandan on the corpus of Gramsci, even if Hall had rendered Gramsci a corpse. The balance sheet is not as straightforward as it might seem; there are losses as well as gains. 

Anyone who has spent decades reading cultural theory knows the dangers in an anti-intellectual, ‘rough-and-ready’ approach to knowledge on behalf of activism (one thinks of Marx crashing his fist to the table in the presence of the Proudhonists with the oath that ‘ignorance brings us nothing’). There is, to be sure, an overwillingness in Race & Class to dismiss cultural theories without fully knowing them. On the other hand, how long is life? What are the diversions? How ingenious are the ways to silence the oppressed? It was Sivanandan, not Hall or the British cultural studies speakers’ circuit, who understood the emptiness of Thatcherism and prophesied the disenchantment it would bring, portraying in vivid colours the people who would pay for it with their jobs, their dignity and, at times, their lives. Sivanandan is not, exactly speaking, a scholar. So be it. But he, rather than Hall, won the key debate between them, and left a more welcome, clearer and more accurate political legacy. It would do to analyse why. It is a classical problem.


At times one can say that it pays to be small. Or maybe that is the illusion; one remains small by remaining true. The problem with the strictures of rhetoric is that language renders most trite what is most true, and it is therefore difficult to say convincingly what needs to be about Siva. He is willing to lose friends for the sake of ideas, because he knows they are never only ideas, but seeds of future action(one does not act on what one cannot see). But clearly the ideological cannot always be thought of in so utilitarian a way. The point of not dodging ‘theory’, whatever its present contagions, is to come to what one does not yet know or even conceive, and therefore need not insist on, protect or safeguard. How can knowing more do harm? How can theory’s explorations into the possibility of thinking or the historical development of the structural possibilities of thought be irrelevant to struggle? I do not believe it is. Put another way, the world looks different after reading Heidegger (whom I pick because of his influence on the worst, murkiest, most infuriating positions in contemporary cultural theory: his destruction of materialism in the name of ‘things’; his pessimism about knowing in the name of a shadowy ‘being’; his demolition of the idea of persons as effective agents in the name of an aestheticist ‘revelation’ of the inanimate). The left is stronger knowing him than not, provided it knows what to make (or remake) of him.

The holding of the line that we associate with Race & Class, its ‘folding of the arms’ in the face of theory (as I said above) is not in itself preferable. But a careful analysis of the last two decades tells us that this obstinacy was necessary. Zola famously wrote ‘J’accuse’. Sivanandan said, in effect, ‘Je refuse’, and we benefited from his position. He and the IRR must always be thanked for it, because they were a meeting-place during dark times, and reminded us we were not crazy; that we, not only William Bennett, could talk of ‘virtue’ (although not in his Christian terms); that not only the religious right wing (or in Britain, the new Majorite entrepreneurs) understood that politics meant control of office rather than cultural style; that not only the Sun or the New York Post knew how to talk to people without mediation. Race & Class gave words to our ideas and expressed our anger when theory didn’t help us but only muddled us, or when we were fearful of losing props. While the identity cops were patrolling the battlements, we either could not, or would not, find the right words. It mattered having allies brash enough to accuse – those with nothing to lose in the kudos dispersement sectors of the professional managerial class.

Especially in an essay about rhetoric, it seems grotesque to speak of ‘truth’. But I do not apologise. Truth is often incompatible with the rhetoric of public nicety. Any reasonable analysis of El Salvador during the US occupation, for example, Israel today would tell us that ‘terrorism’ is not merely a politics of desperation but a contributing factor to a favourable resolution of conflict. As a strategy, terrorism cannot win alone, but neither is it in all cases counter-productive, unthinkable or unjustified in principle. This is true, but one not be said. Sectarianism has similar image problems, utopian diatribe, the grey discourse of official parliamentary politics, or anarchist spleen. But each has its place…and time. Even untimeliness has its time. Race & Class provided a bridge from the battles of the 1970s to the present, keeping alive a way of seeing and speaking for two long decades. Rather than being like the librarian whose watch has stopped, it was like the village chronicler and prophet. It said, ‘This is where you will be for the “simple” reason that there is no other place to go.’ 

Many of Sivanandan’s interventions display his awareness of, if not pride in, untimeliness. He met the charges of belatedness (which is not the same thing) above all in two major essays that, on the one hand, plunged him directly into the methodological and political quagmire of Anglo- American cultural ‘theory’ (All that melts into air is solid’) and, on the other, displayed the contemporaneity of the IRR’s overall social theory (‘New circuits of imperialism’). The former essay, along with much else, showed the self-consciousness with which Siva explored many of the paradoxes I’ve been underlining here – his desire to face his own untimeliness and defend it strategically. He was never, in other words, a bridge between a period of former struggle and a future possibility only in some ‘objective’ sense, but actively and with self-awareness. The latter essay, apart from continuing his earlier observations on key technological changes affecting race and class (Imperialism in the silicon age’), looked forward to his debates over globalisation with Ellen Meiksins Wood -an intervention that, despite its classical rhetorical posture, dealt with a topic that was not only modern but actually trendy. The point is key, it seems to me, for diverting the slander to the effect that little separates Race & Class from traditional cultural conservatism of the Leavis type. 

His polemical essay on Hall and cultural theory is the most useful one to examine here, since it both directly confronts the recurrent problem of knowledge vs. activism that I have been alluding to above, and because it sets up my concluding comments on the rhetorical drift from essay to novel in Sivanandan’s writing – a problem of poetry and polemic or, rather, the poetry of polemic. ‘All that melts into air is solid is one of his two or three most important essays. It illustrates both the tone and theme of his exemplary style which is, among other things, funny -an important aspect of his rhetorical voice and a key weapon in his arsenal. More than the programme, it is the humour that is Marxian, depending (like Marx’s own gibes) on the logic of Hegelian reversal. It serves the purpose of declaring one’s lack of awe towards the enemy, one’s self-confidence in the face of a numerically superior foe,  since humour occurs above all to the unimpressed, whereas vituperation is an attitude of weakness.

The very title of the essay, of course, turns Marx’s famous line from the Communist Manifesto around while expressing a surprisingly similar idea, in effect completing the Manifesto’s argument. The metaphysical bias of capitalist mystification, Sivanandan implies, has become so depressingly complete in the 1980s that it now takes its metaphysical self to be the ‘material’. One has not fled from materialism and agency but replaced them with a helpless, arrogant evanescence: everything is culture. This logic of reversal, on the other hand, does not at all end in the title, which only forecasts a barrage of belittling inversions, now ventriloquised in the voice of the culturalists themselves: ‘I am, therefore I resist’, ‘Philosophers have interpreted the world; our task is to change the interpretation’. If not exactly student of philosophy per se, Sivanandan nevertheless sums up the era, theoretically speaking, with perfect accuracy: ‘a discourse on western imperialism was transmogrified into a discourse on western humanism’ The agony of the recent cultural Left cannot be put more succinctly than that.

In other words, Siva’s relationship to Marx is not one of knowing a tradition but being a part of it in his time. There is an urgency in every line regarding the danger of getting analysis wrong, of the consequences of sloppiness or egotism when it comes to ‘the communal lifestyle of the poor’. By contrast, for all of its intelligence, the discourse of his interlocutors (among them, Hall, Martin Jacques, Rosalind Brunt, Charlie Leadbetter) seems almost ludic, an experiment in revision. Satirical humour, in good Gramscian terms, is set against ludic irony; one kind of humour against another. Of course, Siva himself may never have these Gramscian references to hand as such; it is only that he feels what it is to be Gramsci now, a Sri Lankan, Tamil, ‘common-sense-socialist’. Gramsci for a new Britain that is not, for all that, ‘New Times’. And, like the dignified Left of old but unlike the cultural studies circuit, there is a graciousness of tone. Given the British cultural Left’s concessions to Thatcher, its rediscovery of individualism, its apotheosis of consumption – given what all these positions must have meant to him – one might have expected Siva to greet his opponents with imputations of motive or descend to ad hominem caricatures. The rhetorical voice, by contrast, is businesslike with a preference for economy of means, for lists and facts, striving for an emotional neutrality it only occasionally betrays: ‘From saying “farewell to the working class” to electing themselves the new agents of change in New Times was but a short and logical step’. 

If talk of ‘apostasy’ lingers in the wings in passing accusations about culturalists ‘taking their cue from Tory successes at the polls’, the general style relies not on the barb but on patient explanation. As a materialist, he repudiates New Times, based on an analysis of labour’s structural disintegration rather than the momentous implosions of the self. While the language threatens to ironise culturalism (whose manoeuvres are referred to at one point as ‘the big waffle’) Sivanandan mainly sticks to education, regaling the culturalist dictum that ‘the personal is political by insisting on ‘determinacies’. The reshuffling and internal disarticulation of the working classes have, he argues, paved the way for a rudderless intelligentsia that attempts to solve the crisis by its own lights, using the suspect tools of the merely imaginary: ‘dragging Marxism with them to their own intellectual terrain, altering the battle-lines to suit their bent and equipment’. The frangible working class – once a kind of unity, now fissiparous is replaced by an information class that personalises the crisis while seeking social meaning in the ‘person’. It is thus personal in two senses, seeing itself as the solution while seeing labour as a body of monadic subjectivities. 

“By personalising power, the personal is the political’ personalises the enemy: the enemy of the black is the white as the enemy of the woman is the man. And all whites are racist like all men are sexist. Thus racism is the combination of power plus prejudice. Remove the prejudice and you remove the cutting edge of power; change the persona and you change the office… Carried to its logical conclusion, just to be black, for instance, was politics enough: because it was in one’s blackness that one was aggressed, just to be black was to make a statement against such aggression.”

The reductio ad absurdum is in the position charged rather than the charge. For Sivanandan concedes the need to redress racial, sexual and gender discrimination as such, with attention to the particular sectoral interests of each, but at the same time stresses that culturalist solutions ‘deal not with the politics of discrimination but its arithmetic… The new social movements tend to replace one sort of sectarianism with another…when their native thrust and genius were against sectarianism and for a plurality of interests’. The key theoretical point to be made here is that Race & Class lives up to the demands of a collectivity based opinions and goals rather than on backgrounds and professional associations. The journal has withstood the slacker years by way of its colloquial reiterations, in every issue, of the class in race, the uses of race to class divisions. Siva in particular has never, for example, disallowed whites from having something progressive to say about race, or of the privileged (white or black) from having something progressive to say about class. Dubbed ‘sectarian’ by the ameliorists of cultural Marxism, he is precisely the opposite. 


Perhaps the shift from the polemic’s rigid grace to the langorous demotic of the novel – at least Siva’s novel, When Memory Dies – comes from the necessity of memory. In its structure memory is a place, identity. The focus in every sense of the term ‘domestic’. The argument over outcomes can only arise within the family, so to speak, and that has its effects on the novel’s political possibilities. Overwhelmed by the sound of the falling rain of the opening chapters, which are set in the villages of 1920s’ Ceylon, the reader is arrested not simply by the restraint of the prose, but its anti-romanticism. This is decidedly a beauty without ‘colour’ – a novel of mood whose backdrop is what it is because it was. Being autobiographical, the setting cannot be re-imagined, but cannot be only affect either; it is fixed. Ideologically, the setting must be an arena for personal education as much as national decline. 

And yet the paradox I have been building up to is that Sivanandan’s rhetoric is driven here by the force of principle to a truth-telling that would, politically, have been better to fictionalise. To describe the collapse of contemporary Sri Lanka into a berserk communalism in the novel’s third section (of the same kind but more identity politics of ‘All that is solid melts into air’) is both to rob the reader of the earlier chapters’ confident flow, and to convert the anger of analysis into the lament of fate. I’ve often wondered what the effect might have been (as in the political science fictions of Samuel Delaney, say) if the final chapters had refused to narrate the actual history of contemporary Sri Lanka with its descent into sectoralist carnage, but instead imagined the outcome he would have wanted for Sri Lanka socialist, or multicultural, Sri Lanka, not necessarily without conflict on the model of Soviet Life, but at least governmentally victorious, along the lines, say, of Cesar Vallejo’s Peruvian socialist-realist novel, El Tungsteno. Under Siva’s observant eyes, the truth of fiction is almost more than one can bear. The logic of the saga-form dictates the unsatisfying, and uncharacteristic, conclusion that our lives typically end in a tragedy that must be content with knowing tragedy’s perennial nature. 

And it is knowing, finally, that links the author to the polemicist on the pages of When Memory Dies, which cannot be set free from the essays. For, it can be said that the novel is one long song of praise to education, to an ethos of living, learning and striving, that manages at every step to avoid (as John Berger has said of the novel) ‘flip evasions, post-modern cop-outs’. Thus Uncle Para mourns, at one burning of the bazaar and the library, ‘the two pillars of our community and scholarship, the social and the ascetic’. The wistfulness of elderly wisdom permeates a narrative that is, by nature, a familial looking-back. But this is the sort of mood we learn from at rest rather than at war. The memory of saga is a different way of making the points as the essays, but the difference has consequences: ‘no doubt my telling of it now after all these years’, says the narrator, ‘gives conversation a greater clarity than it perhaps showed at the time’. In other words, the present is, after all, open-ended; the immediacy of polemic asks that we be accounted for at future’s making. A saga struggles over the record, a record filtered by feeling. It is with a strong sense, then, of the consolation of knowing that the novel urges, ‘return your education to the people who gave it to you’ and protests, ‘We Tamils have never wanted to get rich…we wanted to have just enough to go on learning’. Notice the shift in tone when Sivanandan makes the same sort of point in his essay, “Sri Lanka: a case study’ (1984): 

“Eminent scholars who voiced their opinions of dissent in public were set upon and beaten – while piddly little sociologists who descended into the lurid investigation of sexual manners or historians who cobbled together books from other people’s books or researchers in institutions that produced great tomes of meaningless abstraction which left them safe continued to make it in the upper echelons of academia. The universities themselves had ceased to be places of learning and become the seed-beds of reactionary excellence – and provided the climate for the racial violence that erupted in the Peradeniya University in May 1983.”

This specific placement of the jeremiad in real events ( ‘Peradeniya University in May’) is not what separates the essay from ‘fiction’; real events can be found scattered throughout the novel as well. What is different are the frontal assaults on the professoriate and the disparaging adjectives ‘piddly’, ‘meaningless’, ‘reactionary’). The purifying anger comes out like a great gasp, heightened because they personal. Sivanandan knows these people, and it has given him an insight into the breed. He does not want to hide his disgust because it is inextricable from the political reaction he is eliciting. 

But the rhetorical shifts should not be overstated either. If one systematically set the novel, point for point, against ‘Sri Lanka: a case study’, there would be more than a few parallels (and that essay remains in some ways the necessary primer for reading the novel). Above, Uncle Para considered scholarship to be ‘asceticism’, an almost clerical notion that is implicit in the reined-in anger and classical parallelism of the polemical moment: ‘[Britain] divided in order to rule what it integrated in order to exploit’. On final analysis, the novel is filled with such moments too – moments of what might be called activist antimetabole: ‘If you can’t join them, beat them into joining you’. Indeed, line for line, there is little that separates the language of novel and essay provided one is looking at the right passage, as in this aside from the late chapters on sectoral fighting: ‘The ludicrous sight of Marxists persuading capitalists to part with their ill-gotten wealth has been overtaken by the more ludicrous prospect of Tamils asking the Sinhalese to part with their race-begotten power’.

For those of us who came to know Siva in the campaigns against British imperialism and (for me at least) its American legacies, When Memory Dies jolted us into remembering his early formation and on- going attachments to Sri Lanka. There was, in myself at least, worry that the novelist would overcome the politician, and that the urge to write the sort of work he had so a sense of long invoked and loved would dampen the fire, and reduce it (of all things) to an image. We worried that the style of memory would only make him sentimental. In the end, the novel cast his polemical essays in a new poetry that was both in them and of them.