Last night I finished Hari Kunzru’s latest novel, My Revolutions, recently out in paperback (with a cover which isn’t nearly as good as it had in the hardback, but there you go).
It’s a novel about activism in turn of the 70s London, particularly Notting Hill, and in part about the world that activism gave birth to (or failed to prevent) as the novel alternates between the life of the protagonist in the late 60s and early 70s and his life under an assumed identity in the late 1990s.
Although I dislike autobiography in blogs, it’s rather unavoidable here. I grew up in Notting Hill and North Kensington in the 70s and 80s (after the period of this novel, but in a world its characters would have recognised) and my mother and stepfather were part of the counterculture, being involved in squatter’s rights protests and co-operative movements and the various causes of the day. As such, the world depicted in the novel is in large part one that is very familiar to me from childhood. That does allow me at least to say that those parts of the novel which deal with matters with which I am personally familiar, are pretty much right.
The novel opens with its protagonist, now named Mike Frame, living in Chichester with a woman who has a vaguely Body Shop-esque small business which is doing increasingly well and her daughter, Sam, a 20 year old with the ambition of becoming a corporate lawyer. This part of the novel is set in the late 1990s, before 9/11, during that brief period in which the end of history was hailed as having arrived and many thought we were post-ideological. Within a handful of pages, we learn that Mike Frame is not who he claims to be, that he was once someone quite different, that this is about to be revealed and his life and that of his partner and his step-daughter will be shattered as his past becomes known. A past he has never shared with them.
I don’t wish to get overly into the details of the plot here, it’s not complex and some may read this who prefer to avoid that kind of disclosure, however in broad terms we follow Mike’s flight in the late 1990s and his thoughts on the world, his relationships and those around him while simultaneously we also follow his passage from being a student radical in the late 60s to his becoming an armed radical in the early 70s. We see his seduction as a young man by fatal purity, the lure of simplicity, and by contrast the ideological bankruptcy of the future his earlier self could never have imagined.
I’m going to discuss the issues the two time periods in the novel raise separately here, although in the novel they are of course intertwined.
Taking first the late 1990s part of the novel, Mike Frame is a man who has withdrawn from politics and from activism entirely. His partner, Miranda, is a woman focused on (faux-)authenticity, she hangs a dream-catcher in the bedroom, she is fond of objects she perceives as “ethnic” or “natural”, she regards herself as socially concerned. Her business is taking off, she drives a BMW, she is a successful product of her age and she is an example of the commoditisation of the counterculture. She is organised, efficient, modern, all of which is summarised for me in a wonderful line where Mike contemplates what is coming and muses “Poor Miranda, no amount of Post-its will ward off what’s about to happen to you.” She has a lifestyle.
Miranda’s daughter, who Mike has come to see as his own, is also a product of her age. Sam is 20 years old, her dreams are not of social change or of revolution but of becoming a corporate lawyer. She contrasts in the novel with Mike’s earlier self, Chris Carver, who in his early 20s wants to make a better world and is potentially willing to die to achieve that end. Sam is apolitical, viewing her parent’s vaguely right-on sentiments as essentially quaint. She is content with the world as it is, and does not enquire too deeply into what kind of world that is. At one point Mike considers her life and comments on her wanting boyfriends who were the sort who would meet her in the pub and talk of holidays and jobs.
Miranda and Sam fill dual roles in the novel, they are characters in Mike’s life and they are examples of categories of people, of ideas even. Part of the success of the novel is that Kunzru succeeds in making them both. They do carry important ideas, but remain convincing as characters in their own right and Mike’s relationship with them broadly persuades. That said, it is difficult (it was for me anyway) to read the early pages of the novel and the descriptions of Miranda and Sam without feeling a sense of anger at the sheer vacuity of their world. At its empty consumerism and at the commoditisation of experience.
Miranda considers herself as someone in touch with the authentic, the natural, but while that may once have been true (but probably wasn’t) she is by the time we meet her simply a producer and consumer of the myth of authenticity. Her authentic experiences are purchased, she is ignorant of history and has no interest in it, her contact with other culture’s experiences of the world are mediated through commercial exchanges. She is an example of the way in which late 20th Century capitalism co-opted the ideals of the counterculture, repackaged them and sold them to increasingly middle-aged ex-hippies who now had semi-detached houses and four-wheel drive cars. The revolution has in fact been televised, rebranded and has become a lifestyle option.
She is also of course simply a middle-aged woman with a small business who wishes a life which is comprehensible, interesting and enjoyable. A woman who cares for her family, and whose faults are ones of vanity and complacency, faults most of us share to some degree or other. It is all too easy to react to what she represents, and forget the person underneath the representation. This is, in my view, quite intentional as in inviting us to objectify Miranda as a character Kunzru invites us to commit the same error the earlier revolutionaries did – thinking of people in terms of what they symbolise rather than who they are. Forgetting their humanity, and so forgetting our own empathy.
Sam is a young woman who has grown up within that corporatised world, a woman to whom activism would mean buying a fair trade coffee from Starbucks. She is untroubled by concerns about the wider world, the issues which occupy her are personal rather than political. Again, one can take her at the symbolic level as an example of a person free of ideology, who benefits from a world order which places her in a position of wealth and comfort without questioning how that came about or who might be paying for it. Or one can simply see her as a young woman trying her best, as we all have to, to find her way in the world. She is also of course an inhabitant of the world the revolutionaries sought to create, either an example of how profoundly they failed or perhaps more interestingly an example of how they succeeded and the inhabitants of that new world are people that the revolutionaries themselves would never have tolerated (several times a key character in the novel comments that the post-revolutionary world will have no place in it for the revolutionaries themselves).
By contrast, in the late 60s and early 70s Mike Frame was Chris Carver. A young man from a working class family who becomes a CND activist, goes to university at the LSE, and from there falls into the world of anti-Vietnam protestors, squatter’s rights activists, collectives, escalating over time into participating in increasingly radicalised direct action groups and ultimately finding himself involved in bombing campaigns against a largely indifferent British establishment.
Much of this is based on real history, in particular the Angry Brigade who in the early 70s carried out a series of bombings on economic and political targets. Much else in the novel is based on non-violent groups of the time, and there is an acknowledgements section which briefly identifies the history drawn upon.
Carver’s journey is an interesting one, in part as where he ends up is plainly wrong, by the end he is in a group which is planting bombs and which may escalate into killing people, but it is difficult to say clearly at what point along the way it all goes wrong. At the start the CND and the student anti-Vietnam activists are dilettantes who achieve nothing but a feeling of self-satisfaction, they change nothing and their internal arguments and their mix of well-meaning sentiment and self-interest is neatly captured. From there Chris becomes involved in co-operative and activist movements which for a while do make some small differences, people are housed who otherwise might not have been, how much difference though is open to question and certainly they are making no systemic changes. By the time Chris has radicalised, he is helping nobody. The system still fails to change, lives are put at risk and some even die without anyone being helped by their actions at all. At some point Chris crosses a line from activist to terrorist, but the line is never really clear until he is well beyond it and the logic to him of each step along the way is hard for him to resist, and in this we are shown how easy it can be to move into territory which at the outset would have been regarded as horrific.
The activist groups themselves are well captured, in-fighting is constant, accusations and counter-accusations of how best to benefit the working class or to forward the causes of the revolution, suspicions of who might be working for the police and the intelligence services. As they become more radicalised, internal debates become more vicious, with “criticism-self-criticism” sessions in which those viewed as insufficiently revolutionary are humiliated and by which over time the group purges itself of all moderating influences. Ironically, in fighting what they regard as fascism the group Chris belongs to slowly becomes a microcosm of what it fights, as charismatic leaders demand ever stricter obedience to increasingly puritanical concepts of revolution and dissent becomes more and more ruthlessly crushed.
Central to all this is the figure of Anna, a revolutionary young woman that Chris loves and who is at the heart of the group’s increasing radicalisation, a woman who he believes died in 1975 during an armed occupation of the German embassy in Copenhagen, but who he discovers may in fact be alive after all.
The novel also contains many other small elements which add to its veracity, Chris’s discomfort on going into an Afro-Caribbean cafe on the All Saint’s Road, his estrangement from his family, in both his committment to what he regards as the cause of the working class doesn’t remotely help him deal with anyone actually belonging to it. Equally the character who starts out as a student radical, but ends up as a New Labour junior minister for police affairs is all too familiar as an example of the individuals who are actually in the government today, many of whom walked precisely that particular road. Generally the novel’s smaller observations are interesting, and frequently quite subtle.
Moving on from the events in the novel itself, it is worth noting that although the “contemporary” elements of the novel are set in the late 90s, the novel was actually first published in 2007. Clearly, therefore, in writing about radicalisation Hari Kunzru is making a broader point than a purely historical description of 1970s socialism. Chris Carver starts out as a student activist, his radicalisation begins when he is arrested and wrongly convicted (with the police lying to get the “right” result at his trial) of assault following a demonstration outside the US embassy. Eventually it becomes clear that the police believed him to be a radical, treated him accordingly and so inadvertently turned him into a real one. The parallels with current events need hardly be underlined.
This is a highly readable novel, the language is skilful without being showy and the milieu Chris and his later self Mike inhabit is believably depicted. The radicalisation of Chris and his colleagues is gradual, and balances the seeming inevitability of their destination with the fact that along the way many characters in the novel see where the group is going and part company with them (or are ejected). Those parts of the novel I can speak to from personal experience, the Notting Hill of the 1970s, how policing was conducted in that period (which was different to how it is now, lessons were thankfully learned in the early 80s), the atmosphere in collectives and activist groups back then, the way in which Chris/Mike’s generation (which is my parent’s generation) moved from being radicals to being part of consumer culture, all of that is in my view spot on. That gives me confidence in those parts I can’t speak to – the depiction of the radical groups that embrace violence. Those I grew up with were all committed pacifists, which they viewed as central to their ideology, a belief which the book also picks up on as most of the activist community comes to be as appalled by Chris and his group as is wider society and regard them as sabotaging that which the wider activist community is working for. In turn, Chris and his group come to view other activists as essentially collaborators, so becoming increasingly divorced from any world beyond themselves.
The novel comes with no answers. Did the radicals change the world, even a little bit? Is Sam a product of their success or their failure? Did any of them achieve anything? Is Sam’s indifference to politics a sign of a better world, or are Sam and Miranda examples of how we have become comfortable with the injustices of the world we inhabit? The book also of course provides an indirect commentary on today’s radicals, on the anti-war activists, and of course on how some people when they perceive themselves as having no choice become radicalised and in the end commit terrible acts which betray everything they believe themselves to be working for.
I thought this a tremendous novel, one with much to say about the world we now inhabit, both in its corporate banality and in the way in which well meaning young men and women can move from being idealists to violent extremists. Along the way, it also sheds light on a now largely forgotten episode of British history, and one which (as history so often does) helps us understand better the present we now share.
For the curious, the lyrics to Gil Scott-Heron’s song “The revolution will not be televised” can be found in full here: http://www.gilscottheron.com/lyrevol.html. They’re powerful lyrics, well worth a visit.