Romesh Gunesekera selects books from Trotsky by torchlight to free fighters in the Philippines to trigger new understanding
The journey to awakening, be it a fictional character, a reader or a writer, is rarely straightforward. In Suncatcher, the political consciousness of my narrator begins as a young boy when he reads by torchlight to Trotsky.
“The Life Problems” is a Young Socialist pamphlet that he nicked from the book shelf of his father.
In post-colonial Ceylon, under a mosquito net, Kairo is fascinated by Trotsky’s impassioned lectures on vodka, housework, and cinema.
I discovered it in the 1960s when I was researching Sri Lanka, when the Trotskyite party was at its height. But it could have been in our house all along, tucked among the left-wing books on my father’s shelves–in Colombo, a mile from my childhood home, the 1962 edition I found in the British Library was printed.
A generation earlier, in 1908, a Ceylonian man of English and Tamil parentage, Ananda Coomaraswamy, published Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, printing it on a William Morris handpress.
Could a harmless study of drawings and pottery be political? “Nations,” Coomaraswamy declared, “are created by poets and artists.” The monograph was instrumental in awakening South Asia’s modern awareness of artistic identity and became an important strand in the national self-rule movement.
Further east, in 1887 (written in Spanish, printed in Germany) José Rizal, now known as the first Filipino, released his subversive novel Noli Me Tángere to galvanize his readers into political action.
The Spanish authorities condemned his tale of Crisóstomo – an idealistic Filipino who is coming back from Europe to modernize his country and marry his childhood sweetheart.
Nine years later, Rizal’s anticolonial writing led to his execution but the novel sparked off the fight for freedom from Spanish rule.
By the 1970s, for political verse, Pablo Neruda was the go, to poet. I carried his poetry and poems from Manila to London in my pocket but I was dismayed to discover Colombo’s tarnished reputation as a consul.
Now I turn instead to the friend of Neruda, Federico García Lorca. Romancero Gitano from Lorca fuses our earthly world with the spirit of poetry and shows how politics can invade a line of surreal verse.
Another author of immigrants, Kamala Markandaya, was praised in the 1950s for her rural India accounts.
The Nowhere Man, a recently republished gem after years of unjust neglect, charts the British experience of an Indian family from 1919 to 1968.
This reveals the radicalism of a restrained author and is extremely aware of our current political plight. The story of elderly Srinivasan faced with a confusing, hostile political climate of rising racism and small-mindedness makes us see our surroundings in a new light.
Written with elegance, the novel is a devastating indictment that when things go from bad to worse, they do nothing.
In books that range from China’s revolution to the last throes of British rule in Malaya, Han Suyin confronts political turbulence.
Born in 1917 in the province of Henan, Han was an early supporter of communist China who lived throughout Europe and Asia, ending her days in 2012 in Switzerland.
She embarks on a quest in The Crippled Tree, published in 1965, to find herself, her family’s history, and her future. It is an enlightening exploration of how human lives are influenced by political events.


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