Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions has as its narrator an ex-militant radical leftist who was once involved in the Angry Brigade bombing campaign (which targeted banks, embassies and the houses of Tory MPs). It is set, however, in 1998, a generously apolitical year, and so has its structure and plot set from the get-go.
By this I mean that this will always be a novel about the act of looking back, of weighing up the past, and will only ever address other issues through this lens. From the very first pages, this is a book that is going to end on a ‘dying fall’, a moment of melancholy.
That moment of where to end, the final impression taken away by the reader, is always important. Working through this book, I could picture this idea coming. Melancholy and memory often seem to me to be the supreme markers of value in literature, which the inevitable knock-on effect that other things have to be viewed through them, rather than addressed head on.
About halfway through the book, the self-proclaimed revolutionaries rob a supermarket and distribute the food on people’s front doorsteps. I wonder if there exists a kind of shadowy double of My Revolutions, which ends there, which doesn’t tell the story from years in the future, which doesn’t feel obliged to play events out so that history can rub them away. Without wanting to seem too pretentious, this is a question of the conditions of possibility for the Novel—how would that book work, how would it feel reading it?
The phrase ‘my revolutions’ appears in the book with reference to the twists and turns of an individual life, and the circular movement enforced by authority.
“Though I’m dog-tired, I can’t face the complexity involved in turning off and looking for somewhere to sleep. So I carry on, round and round, Porte des Lilas, Porte de Montreuil, right shoulder inwards, circumambulating the large stupa at Wat Tham Nok, following the line of chanting monks, the tea-light in its little clay bowl warming my hands. Circling in the Aegean, the taste of salt on my lips, blank and free. Round and round. Porte de Charenton. Trudging round the yard at morning exercise. My revolutions: a hundred of us walking, two abreast, inner ring clockwise, outer ring counter-clockwise. Back in the days when Pentonville was the gateway to transportation, the builders constructed an endless double path of flagstones, two snakes eating their own tails, set into the black tar. Face-masks, enforced silence. Round and round, a folk dance or fairground ride. Very important, they thought, never to give the scum a sense of achievement.”
It’s very neat—the reader realises that these are the only revolutions that will appear (and then immediately after realises they already knew this, because the novel has to have its roots in history).
To some extent, this book for me took a lot of its lustre from things external: the cover design, its future history (the following decade through which the reader will have to view it), the story of the book launch featuring a panel discussion between a former member of the Angry Brigade and Bill Ayres of Weather Underground fame, and most of all the brilliantly chosen epigraphs:
I used to have fiery intensity,/ and a flowing sweetness.
The waters were illusion./ The flames, made of snow.
Was I dreaming then?/ Am I awake now?
The question of what would have happened if… is ambiguous, pacifistic, moralistic.
RAF, The Concept of the Urban Guerrilla
Unfortunately I never felt anything in the book (which is certainly worth reading, don’t get me wrong) ever recovered these heights, and as I’ve said, from the very start, implicit in the structure itself, the conditions for this to happen aren’t there.
(Finally, I read his earlier book Transmission a month ago, and it was excellent—in particular, one of the disparate strands involves a marketing guru/ professional bullshitter being contracted to rebrand the EU border guards and customs officials as attendants at the most exclusive nightclub in the world was very, very good, and hopefully as my own writing starts slowly to turn its sights on the EU and the euro I can produce something a fraction as inspired).