September Issue 2009
Looking Back In Anger
Last year was the 40th anniversary of the famous student revolts of 1968. Across the world, there were celebrations of a now long-lost age of radicalism, criticism and mass mobilisation. Nowhere was this more true than in France, where the battle over the spirit of ’68 — and the heart of its participants, the soixante-huitards — never really faded. Children of the ’60s — now on the verge of retirement — vigorously debated whether 1968 had been a “good thing,” a “bad thing,” or simply a passing moment.
At the same time, today’s anti-globalisation and critical left-wing movements still live under the shadow of 1968. Though the vast majority of the activists on the streets of Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001 had not even been born when their forefathers were chanting anti-Vietnam slogans, there remained a deep sense that 1968 provided the formative moment for their movement. The pacifism, civil rights, and anti-consumerism of the 1960s have mutated into the anti-war and anti-capitalist rejection of neoliberalism that has come to characterise today’s protest movements. Even those opposed to everything that 1968 represented have been forced to acknowledge its powerful legacy.
It is, therefore, of more than just passing interest that Hari Kunzru was born in Britain in 1969. This meant he suffered a double-bind: on the one hand, he was born too late to be part of the spirit of 1968; on the other, he was born in a country with a politically weak and disabled radical left-wing tradition. In contrast to some of its neighbours, most notably France and Italy, the radical left (be it Communist or anti-Communist) has had a weak presence in Britain. From a tightly knit British elite that has fostered an environment of consensualism to a working-class more interested in self-improvement than class struggle, radical left-wing groups have always failed to make significant inroads in British politics.
We can read Kunzru’s latest novel as an attempt to face the problem of British radicalism. Is it possible to remain committed to a cause when the real fights are being fought elsewhere — be it Palestine or Vietnam? What, in fact, is the fight, or the cause? And how does this matter to a young Brit born in the wake of the Second World War?
Chris, the book’s central character, was born after the war to a lower-middle class family, which slowly falls apart. Chris’s mother is eventually admitted to an asylum, while his brother turns increasingly violent and aggressive as he grows up. A product of post-war London suburbia, Chris finds some solace in schoolwork. After some effort, he manages to secure a place at the LSE, which gives him an opportunity to flee the family home.
But Chris’s commitment to education is short-lived. He is gradually drawn to various left-wing protest groups. It is the late 1960s, and causes are freely available. The most obvious of these is Vietnam, and Chris begins his career as an activist by leading an anti-war group. Unfortunately, while participating in a demonstration at the US Embassy in London, he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is picked up by the police, convicted and sent to jail. He only emerges again in August 1968, by which time the ‘Summer of Love’ has passed. Chris has missed the most festive and international moment of the mass protests of the 1960s.
Chris’s jail time does not cure him of his radical aspirations. He soon finds himself back in a thinning circle of left-wing activism, now more and more radicalised as it tackles the disillusionment of the 1970s. He does drugs, makes and breaks relationships and drifts, until he finally finds a core group of activists with whom he develops a deep bond.
Over time, however, this group becomes so deeply politicised that even Chris expresses his discomfort with its ideological leanings. Finally, the group fractures, and Chris flees yet again, this time to the Far East — and to the edge of death.
Chris survives his flight and, once home, erases his previous identity, changes his name and begins a new life — with a wife, Miranda, and a child from Miranda’s first marriage. Nevertheless, try as he may, his past returns to haunt him and he soon finds himself on the run, this time from a past he cannot hide.
The narrative begins at the end of the story. Gradually, Kunzru rebuilds the narrative, until all the pieces fall into place — until we realise the full magnitude of Chris’s story. Though there are others who intrude on the storyline, the book is essentially an extended internal monologue. The world is seen through Chris’s eyes and we are invited to share in his predicament and, ultimately, his nostalgia.
Despite the very obvious problems he encounters in his life as a radical, there is a lingering sense of nostalgia — that more could have been done, that there were missed opportunities. It is not that the fight was wrong, it was just fought in the wrong way. By returning Chris to the life of the nomad, Kunzru suggests that the life of the true revolutionary is destined to fail; he or she will eventually be marginalised.
This is the time-worn model of the romantic political hero, and the author boldly tries to rewrite this trope into post-war Britain. As ever, Kunzru’s style is brisk and his prose crisp. There is a sure touch of the popular culture of the last four decades. Even though the secondary characters appear distant and often thin, there is much texture to Chris, whose peregrinations, for the most part, sustain the interest of the reader.
He falls in and out of love — a love that is never free of ideological overtones. He agonises over the revolution, casting a wry glance at the earnestness of his colleagues. He drifts in and out of a drug-induced haze, which serves as a useful foil for the fading political promises he and his colleagues make. Clearly, Kunzru has worked hard not to wallow in the kind of soft-focus reminiscence that has become part of the mythology of the ’60s generation.
But there is, nonetheless, the feeling that not only Chris, but the novel itself carries a kind of nostalgia. As it becomes clearer that Chris is forever implicated in his past actions, it is as if the revolution remains open-ended, its tentacles stretching to the present day. But does it? I am not so sure — nor am I sure that Kunzru avoids all the clichÃ©s of the revolutionary generation, who imagine themselves to be far more radical than they are.
Eventually, is Chris actually anything more than a former activist, and now a simple middle-aged house-husband? Kunzru’s decision to pull Chris back towards his past at the end of the novel implies that he will always be a revolutionary. But is this not itself a form of nostalgia for a now long-lost revolution? Ultimately, there is the feeling that the construction of Chris’s character does not entirely escape the clichÃ© of the romantic revolutionary, despite Kunzru’s brave attempts to break new ground.
There can be little doubt about Kunzru’s talent, both as a craftsman and as a stylist. He has always written with great confidence. But, as with his previous novel, Transmission, his characters often struggle to find depth. In this case, Chris is a compelling figure, but his contradictions never quite come alive and he is weighed down by the myths surrounding the revolutionary. The secondary characters have moments of great vividness but eventually they too fade into a political haze. Rather like the revolution that Chris so earnestly believed in, one is left with the feeling that the personalities in My Revolutions are deeply-felt and passionate, but also transient and easily lost in time.
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