01 January 2008

Turn, Turn, Turn



My Revolutions
By Hari Kunzru
Hamish Hamilton
Pages 278
£4.50


In his latest novel, Hari Kunzru switches off his Indian side. In his two earlier novels The Impressionist and Transmission -- one a send up of the Empire, the other a comic take on the new technology-based global economic and social order -- Kunzru, born of Indian-English parentage, drew on his own straddling of two worlds and put enough India on the pages to earn himself the tag of 'Indian Writer in English'.

My Revolution gives India a miss, except for a few stray references. It catches Britain in the grip of the restless but formative 70s: The brief flirtation with counterculture, the radical politics that almost became terrorism. Yet the new novel continues almost seamlessly with the earlier books' themes of transformations, transmutations, and the at once persistent and elusive nature of cultural identities, dealt through chameleon-like characters, changing but blending in as they move through social and cultural spaces.

Mike or Michael Frame has a past. And just a day short of his 50th birthday, Mike realises that his cover is about to be blown. An acquaintance from the past, Miles Bridgeman, has blackmailed him into exposing the brief radical past of the woman who would be Home Minister, to keep her from getting the top job. Mike’s own exposure is certain, threatening his suburban bliss of a successful businesswoman wife, a daughter just beginning to experience the joy and pain of adulthood, and his missus’ BMW in the driveway.

Mike, a self-effacing man employed in an old-fashion neighbourhood bookshop, his daughter thinking him a born monogamist, is actually Chris Carver, a one-time revolutionary who took part in the famous Post Office Tower bombing in the early 70s. Something he now regrets, as he is about to be banished from “the good society” of “mildly bored people, getting by” that he has become a part of.

Mike flees to Paris in his wife’s car. As if to assure himself of his past existence as a free-living radical, he goes off in search of the woman who might have been the reason behind his turning into a revolutionary -- Anna Addison, a Modesty Blaise-like alpha woman with a Willie Garvin-like boyfriend, Sean Ward.

Starting with this telling image of an ex-revolutionary in a BMW, Kunzru explores all the subtle ironies of this circle turned full, the whole shebang around the adage: ‘Today’s revolutionary, tomorrow’s conservative.’ Not a nostalgia trip this, Kunzru painstakingly rescues the 70s from the clichés that have turned them into one long, limp joke. Hence, barring two faint references to rock ‘n roll and some coming-of-age and later politicised sex, and drugs, Kunzru bins the popular myths of the Rocking Seventies.

Instead, we get a deeply-researched account of the Alternative 70s, which becomes a meditation on the futility, the necessity, and even the inevitability of change, as Mike flashbacks to his earlier avatar. We follow Chris’ progress from his living in the “joyless hole” of a Britain of the 50s and the 60s; to becoming a CND campaigner and a groupie; to his drift into a commune that changed his sense of property and propriety; to gradual radicalisation that begins innocently enough with “feed[ing] a few people” with stolen food and supplies to “make a political point: it would be an example of a practical redistribution, a condemnation of consumer society.”

Antes are upped, innocence lost, stances harden. Sit-ins turn into bloody demonstrations to ‘Off the Pig,’ the fascist state. Armed robbery becomes “Expropriation, the next logical step” to car thefts, to finance themselves to do “whatever it was we were daring each other to do.” The faux-political discourse also comes in handy to explain away the Notting Hill brigands’ internecine squabbles that entail the re-education of the politically backward, the purges, the factionalism, splits, and interrogations.

Then, as they are faced with fate worst then death for a revolutionary -- being ignored, becoming invisible unless they were seen on the telly -- and feeling appropriated by the very mainstream they had travelled lengths to escape, an epiphanic moment is precipitated: “We thought we were striking a blow against it, the hypnotic dream-show of fuckable bodies and consumer goods. Instead we fell into the screen. Our world became television." Desperation peaks. A PLA-trained and inspired cadre is born, willing to follow the “logic of confrontation” to the end.

With hindsight we can tell they were inching towards Margaret Thatcher’s monetarism -- the materialist 80s of conspicuous champagne-and-Porsche 911 consumption, to final the steady, low-key consumerism of the late 90s. Chris himself starts working, doing odd jobs -- readying himself for the ‘80s. All along in their communes there are hints of their longing for ordered lives, domesticity, suburbanism, which they would later embrace.

Kunzru recreates the bilious generation’s times and confusions convincingly without trivialising or robbing them of their complexity, thanks to prodigious amounts of research. But that very research chokes the narrative and suffocates the main characters giving them little space to breath and come alive.

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