Start Fire: The Best Books on Political Awakenings

The journey to an awakening, whether of a fictional character, a reader or a writer, is rarely straightforward. In Suncatcher, my narrator’s political awareness begins as a young boy when he reads Trotsky by torchlight. “The Problems of Life” is a Young Socialist pamphlet he has nicked from his father’s bookshelf. Under a mosquito net, in post-colonial Ceylon, Kairo is drawn in by Trotsky’s impassioned lectures on vodka, housework and the cinema. I discovered it while researching Sri Lanka in the 60s, a time when the Trotskyite party was at its peak. But it could have been in our house all along, tucked among the leftwing books on my father’s shelves – the 1962 edition I found in the British Library had been printed in Colombo, a mile from my childhood home.

A generation earlier, in 1908, Ananda Coomaraswamy, a Ceylonese man of English and Tamil parentage, published Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, printing it on a hand press used by William Morris. Could an innocuous-sounding study of drawings and pottery be political? “Nations,” Coomaraswamy declared, “are created by poets and artists.” The monograph was instrumental in awakening a modern consciousness of artistic identity in South Asia and became an important strand in the national movement for self-rule.

Further east, José Rizal – now honoured as the first Filipino – launched his subversive novel Noli Me Tángere in 1887 (written in Spanish, printed in Germany) to galvanise his readers into political action. His story of Crisóstomo – an idealistic Filipino who returns from Europe to modernise his country and marry his childhood sweetheart – was condemned by the Spanish authorities. Rizal’s anticolonial writing led to his execution nine years later, but the novel ignited the fight for freedom from Spanish rule.

By the 1970s, Pablo Neruda was the go-to poet for political verse. I carried his poems in my pocket from Manila to London, but I was dismayed to discover his tarnished reputation as a consul in Colombo. Now I turn to Neruda’s friend Federico García Lorca instead. Lorca’s Romancero Gitano fuses the spirit of poetry with our earthly world and shows how politics can invade a line of surreal verse.

Han Suyin confronts political turbulence in books that range from China’s revolution to the last throes of British rule in Malaya. Born in Henan province in 1917, Han was an early supporter of communist China who lived in Europe and across Asia, ending her days in Switzerland in 2012. In The Crippled Tree, published in 1965, she embarks on a journey to find herself, the history of her family and her future. It is an illuminating exploration of how political events affect individual lives.

Another immigrant writer, Kamala Markandaya, was celebrated for her accounts of rural India in the 1950s. The Nowhere Man, a gem recently republished after years of unjust neglect, charts the experience of an Indian family in Britain from 1919 to 1968. It shows a restrained writer’s radicalism and is extraordinarily prescient of our current political plight. The story of elderly Srinivasan facing a confusing, hostile political climate of rising racism and smallmindedness makes us see our surroundings in a new light. Written with elegance, the novel is a devastating indictment of doing nothing when things are going from bad to worse.