By WILL BLYTHE
Published: February 10, 2008
History may be written by the winners the winners of tenure anyway
but the best fiction tends to be composed by and about losers.
Consider: A gloomy retired seaman imagines a shipwrecked sailor
bobbing about the Pacific in a coffin. Or a tubercular insurance
agent, spooked by marriage, scared of his father, dreams up a
man-turned-bug. What hagiographies can compare with such portraits of
loss by such intimates of failure? As the Buddhists like to point
out, life is suffering, and it is to fellow sufferers that readers in
their innermost selves relate. Add to this the contemporary
novelist's lot as cultural wallflower, lacking even the evanescent
glamour of an also-ran on "American Idol," and it is easy to see why
a fiction writer's sympathies are likely to affix themselves to
outliers, losers and superfluous men.
This brings us to the British writer Hari Kunzru's third novel, "My
Revolutions," an extraordinary autumnal depiction of a failed '60s
radical. Imagine a former member of the Weather Underground, still in
hiding, looking back on his macrobiotic salad days as a subversive,
when the revolution, always the revolution, seemed around the corner,
as close as a pop song blasting from a car radio. In assuming this
persona (or the British equivalent of it, based on the so-called
Angry Brigade), Kunzru, born in 1969, gives an amazingly convincing
account of a period he never witnessed. And by treating the
millenarian aspirations of his characters with respect, he rejects
the popular view of such revolutionaries as delusional adolescents,
playing at revolt. He reveals the yearning behind the dreadful
agitprop, the abiding message inside the Molotov cocktail bottle. In
doing so, Kunzru redeems a '60s sort of daring in the same way Tom
Stoppard does in his recent play, "Rock 'n' Roll."
Early in the novel, which shuttles back and forth between 1998 and
the previous three decades, we see a British couple on holiday in the
South of France. The heat is oppressive, the temperature between them
cool. They are having refreshments in the afternoon in a village. The
man spots a woman strolling up the hill, and there is something
familiar in her motions. He stands in wonder. His mate hasn't
finished her mineral water. "Can't you wait two minutes?" she asks.
The woman walking up the hill vanishes. Her name, the man believes,
is Anna Addison, his old comrade-in-arms, his lover even if love then
was only a bourgeois relic. She is supposed to be dead, killed in
1975 while taking over the West German Embassy in Copenhagen.
Until seeing Anna, the man rising in astonishment has been dead
himself, or only half-alive, though the woman finishing her mineral
water does not know that. Nor does she does know his real name, this
reticent fellow who shares her bed and helps raise her daughter.
For the nearly two decades they've lived together, he's been marooned
in a counterfeit life among irony of ironies! the capitalists he
once sought to overthrow. Miranda Martin, the woman with whom he
lives, is a "thrusting entrepreneur of the type celebrated in the
glossy magazines"; her talent has led her to money, "like an ant
following a pheromone trail." He works in an antiquarian bookstore,
playing with the cat during the long spells between customers. He is
known as Michael Frame; his real name is Chris Carver.
After their vacation, the couple return to England, where the past
continues to intrude on Carver a nightmare return not of the
repressed, but the oppressor. Miles Bridgeman, a mysterious figure
who shadowed demonstrations back in the '60s, filming the
participants for a putative documentary, turns up for the first time
in nearly three decades, bumping into Carver on the street. (He
appears to be photographing the local cathedral.) He wants a large
favor, and if it isn't freely given, he'll have to take it. At stake
is Carver's carefully constructed identity, now crumbling from inside and out.
In his student days, he is a braver sort, which is where his troubles
begin. His idealism makes him intolerant of compromise, and he falls
in with a loose collective of radicals squatting in a poor London
neighborhood. He encounters Anna as she rails against "atomized
workers." Not necessarily the stuff of romantic poetry, but then this
is the late '60s. Soon afterward, he runs into her at a posh party
where he feels out of place. Anna taunts Carver, challenging him to
overcome his middle-class proprieties, his aversion to confrontation.
Together, they berate guests ("pigs" being the epithet of choice),
fling wine at them and escape laughing into the London night. Having
vetted each other's revolutionary sternness, they kiss.
Romance, however, is hard to maintain in squats where the personal
and political are melded. Residents are required to criticize
themselves and one another. Privacy is derided. The bathroom door is
ripped off its hinges. Mattresses are jammed together; the
inhabitants watch one another make love. Everyone is experimenting
with limits, trying to achieve escape velocity from their backgrounds.
In bed, Anna, a ferocious feminist, asks that Carver hit and
humiliate her. "Sex for Anna was always an assault on comfort, on
the thing in herself she was trying to eradicate," he says. "Me, I
wanted to smash myself up, to get rid of structure altogether." What
Carver would do to himself, he would also do to society.
He and his comrades steal food from the supermarket and deliver it to
the community; they occupy and empty flats on behalf of the poor. But
the new world does not arrive. The radicals feel as if they are
"shouting into a vacuum." Carver and Anna argue over rhetoric, unsure
of whether they are writing for the people or their peers. They post
broadsides exhorting the masses to "SMASH THE STATE! OFF THE PIG!"
They come to suspect that "nothing takes place ... unless it's
electronically witnessed." They decide to mount a spectacle of
bombings. They no longer care if society changes as long as it pays
attention. At this point, the novel enters its death zone, where
utopians make the surprisingly short transit to terrorists. "We began
to judge ourselves by our willingness to take risks," Carver says.
After a series of increasingly unnoticed bombings, several radicals,
including Anna, form an alliance with a Marxist-Leninist Palestinian
organization. Ambivalent about the prospect of political bloodshed,
Carver considers divulging his comrades' plans. His revolution from
then on becomes a series of painful turns on the karmic wheel:
poverty, heroin addiction, anonymity. There is the suggestion that
liberation may not be found in the political realm. In turn, Anna
disappears into the terrorist underground, surfacing for the last
time in the attack on the West German Embassy. "You can't hate the
world's imperfection so fiercely, so absolutely, without getting
drawn toward death," Carver says of her.
Perhaps because of the novel's retrospective tack, Anna, for all her
allure as a revolutionary pin-up girl, flaunting cropped hair and a
hard hat for riot wear, remains more slogan wrapped in denim than
full-fledged character. The aging Carver pines for her. But is it
Anna he misses, or what she embodies: the past as that realm of
prairielike openness and possibility? And not just any past the '60s.
The related question that hangs over "My Revolutions" like a cloud of
tear gas is the one Miles asks Carver: What would freedom look like?
Carver and his fellow radicals may have lacked the winning answer,
but the question at least fired their imaginations. The visionary
aspirations for justice in our current epoch seem dull by comparison.
It is a measure of how respectfully Kunzru treats his characters'
yearning for a more generous time that "My Revolutions" feels less
like an elegy for their era and more like a requiem for our own.
Will Blythe is the author of "To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever."