By Hari Kunzru
Dutton, 277 pages, $28.50
Former French prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aristide Briand is probably the true source of a political line inaccurately attributed to Churchill: "The man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at 40 he has no head." This relationship between maturation and politics is the focus of English novelist Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions. When youthful idealism and (narcotic) dreams of a better future propel underfed militants to reach for dynamite and a pistol, however, more is debated than just whether politics is best trusted to the head or the heart.
Like The Darling, by Russell Banks, and Neil Gordon's The Company You Keep, My Revolutions is a midlife crisis novel with a moral and judicial twist. In 1998, on the eve of his 50th birthday, Englishman Michael Frame may finally cease living the double life he's successfully maintained for nearly three decades. Michael's current partner and stepdaughter know nothing of the youth he spent as what his radical cadre deemed a revolutionary, and what the English courts would call a terrorist. His family doesn't even know his original name.
Commencing his "self-invention" as a scholarship student during London's fervent sixties, Michael quickly begins to do more than just join protest marches. When the hand of fate sees him, but few others, arrested and jailed, he emerges from a brief stint in prison, ready to renounce everything save the revolution. Family, study, stable housing, health and most happiness are rejected as traces of "pig" culture, while pamphleteering, squatting and petty crime are intended to get the troops out of Vietnam, redistribute wealth and liberate workers, women and the consciousness.
This revolution may have been fuelled by the sixties pharmacopoeia of weed, LSD and speed, but Kunzru admirably liberates the politics of a specific time to pose enduring questions about social and personal change. Michael privately confesses that his present-day romance, in the 1990s, is founded on misinformation and delusion, but at 50, he honestly wonders if all relationships aren't layered with lacunae and half-truths. Indeed, some of the conflict of "individualist" versus "collective" action persists from his radical youth into his confessedly passive middle-age. His co-revolutionaries, modelled on England's Angry Brigade, push all comfort levels, including their own, striving for a "totalitarian sharing" which has them removing bathroom doors to diminish privacy and frequently deriding each other in "criticism-self-criticism" sessions.
This dedication to self-criticism combines biting realism and a rewarding literary device to air the indictments many people would never dare to say. The personal doubts and collective infighting of Michael's group escalate, along with their threat to the state and to each other, and this same commitment to truth will continue in Michael's later life. His combination of years of meditation in a Buddhist monastery and middle-aged domesticity prompt him to admit: "All things are transitory. All things must pass. Attachments, whether to material possessions, to people, to places or a name, are futile. Despite your clinging, these things will fade away." The same candour with which Michael alternately denounces and is denounced makes Kunzru's sober, fearless voice genuine, not platitudinous.
Kunzru's dual commitment to realism and a good read sees him attend to another relevant aspect of sixties politics: sex. These dissenting middle-class refugees personalize their politics with that other quintessential flower child drug, the Pill. In squat after squat in condemned buildings, Michael and his unwashed peers attempt polyamory in their cramped quarters, pursuing free love in front of others sleeping on the same dirty floor. One strident female insists on making even the sex revolutionary, hurtling insults and performing or seeking erotic torture. Here Kunzru, who was recently recognized by Granta as one of the 20 best fiction writers under 40, shows his age a little, writing more vividly of young sex than he does of midlife love. Michael's past is only a threat to his present because of his current romantic relationship, yet we don't see why or even how he loves the woman he has shared his life with for 16 years.
My Revolutions simultaneously admires and critiques the militancy of youth. Given the youthful demographics of many of today's more politicized countries, this attention on young firebrands gives the novel an immediate global relevance, but also a narrative challenge Kunzru doesn't quite meet. Love isn't the only aspect of life in which his sympathy and intelligence are more devoted to the young than the aging. The present-day scenes are repetitive and flat, with a morose Michael simply changing locations for his late-night drinking.
Judiciously, Kunzru sets the present tense of the novel in 1998, a recent yet already different time, in which resistance to state authority was both more viable and more palatable. This split between the sixties and the late nineties also makes My Revolutions an implied elegy for days of greater political involvement, now that even voting in the West seems radical. My Revolutions isn't afraid to pose sharp questions about inherited complicity and inherent selfishness, and we too are baited into self-criticism. Kunzru skewers us with indicting questions we might be afraid to answer.
Darryl Whetter remembers the smell of tear gas, but now makes his revolutions with a bicycle. His debut novel, the bicycle odyssey The Push and the Pull, appears next month.