Thursday, March 6, 2008

Hari Kunzru's "My Revolution": Book Review

"The State installs the cop in your head." (188) So goes one memorable line from a leaflet in this fictional account conjuring up days and years of real rage. Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent," a century ago, plotted the machinations of a cruel alliance of anarchists in London, and how they used idealists and malcontents to further, and then botch, and later eliminate, their mistakes as their act of violence consumed innocents and guilty. Kunzru's new novel explores the English radical underground, with similar ties to internationalist factions and increasing violence, in the early 70s. It's inspired, he explains in an afterword, by the Angry Brigade which had operated then; "countercultural support for terrorist tactics" (279) lost its allure for Britain, unlike parts of Western Europe still enthralled by radical chic, when England was hit by a mainland bombing campaign by the Provisional IRA which killed forty-four people in 1974.

"Human being or pig. You make your choice." (245) So the narrator, Chris Carter who's gone underground as Mike Frame since the time of the bombings by his August 14th collective, recalls as what the dreams of the Sixties had dissolved into during the slow descent into violence in the Seventies by remnants of an outraged, impotent, and bitter minority of hippies who found they could not change the world by love, peace, or dope. A cadre ruthlessly purges the wavering among them and learns to take up arms against a sea of troubles. Backed by a Palestinian cell, the English radicals are given a mission. Assigned as a class enemy a London Jewish merchant who the Palestinians target as a "Zionist," Chris chooses his own fate.

He spends the rest of the decade incognito on the trail through Europe to Asia so many other backpacking tramps followed. He spends years in a Buddhist monastery detoxing and decompressing, but curses the chants and sickens from the oppression that religion fosters. He comes back to small-town England, finds a partner who starts a sort of faux-The Body Shop line pitched at his own demographic, and settles down uneasily with a concocted past identity and a present rootless banality. The novel spins through the decades since, back and forth, to 1968 when he was first jailed after an antiwar march at Grosvenor Square, to his rejection of the State and his attempts to rally the working classes to rise up against the Establishment.

Beaten by police, sentenced for protesting, imprisoned for his principles, he wonders-- how did he authorize the British government to "distribute violence on my behalf," when he never gave his consent? "The state claimed it was an expression of the democratic will of the people. But what if it wasn't? What if it was just a parasite, a vampire sustaining itself on our collective life, on my life in particular?" (79) The alternative, in the eyes of the leaders of the collective (the term is deliberate on my part), is "I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires." (110)

Hating the war in Vietnam, the war in Ireland, the defeat of the French strikers, and hailing Palestinians, Viet Cong, and squatters, the collective tries its best to overthrow the system. Kunzru channels through Mike/Chris' first person narration a stream of phrases and slogans from this past. The author deftly mixes the decades, although this may throw off a casual reader. The book's layered, and juxtaposes events and recollections constantly. This kaleidoscopic effect mirrors the protagonist's attempts to come to terms with the unmasking of his underground persona as 1998 finds a disturbing comrade from his past life showing up to haunt him for political dirty-tricks as he tracks Mike/Chris during his efforts to flee yuppie domestic stagnation in Chichester.

The problem remains for the radicals the same as it ever was. "We were in a church hall and somehow that made everything we were doing absurd, just a bunch of people pushing each other around, like a Scout troop. How could we even think of making something new for ourselves when there were metal-framed chairs stacked at the sides of the room and a piano under a canvas chair in the corner?" (131) This solidity, this forever England, frustrates those who long to follow Mao's dictum that to give up the gun, one must take up the gun; to bring an end to war, one must make war. Kunzru seems to me to fudge or blur, perhaps deliberately to reflect his narrator's worried state, the decision to go underground after the collective bombs the Post Office Tower. (Kunzru's endnote informs us that this was in fact done on October 31, 1971; no claim of responsibility was ever made.) I was not sure why Chris cut his hair, and donned a suit precisely then, but the general necessity emerges: those truly devoted to their cause had to blend in, to vanish into plain sight.

Mike/Chris, faced with his past colleague who threatens to blackmail him if he does not cooperate with his Blair-era dirty-tricks scheme, defines his philosophy. His nemesis "could live in the world as it is, which (depending on your point of view) is either pragmatism, coarseness, or a particular kind of heroism. Whatever it is, I've never been able to do it. The world has always seemed unbearable to me." (168)
This combination of concern and detachment unsettles him and the few with whom he stays, as the Seventies dim the bright visions of the Sixties, to struggle on. But, after the Post Office Tower, Mike/Chris cannot find an easy solution. Had their fight, now that an economic target, a symbol of Britain, had been bombed, turned real?

"We were already floating free, as removed from the experience of the average worker as the diners of the restaurant at the top of the tower. After that, the insidious message of the spectacle-- that nothing takes place, even for the participants, unless it's electronically witnessed and played back-- took us over. We thought we were striking a blow against it, the hypnotic dream show of f[---]able bodies and consumable goods. Instead we fell into the screen. Our world became television." (202)

This trail of exposure, literally and symbolically, traps the collective. The man who pops up from his past to rip off Mike's mask to reveal Chris rationalizes his move. His New Labour-type of service, he intimates, is "grown-up politics, not the kind that starts out by carving out a Utopia and then hammering at the world, trying to make it fit." (207) Later, his pursuer elaborates his dream for an Age of Y2K rather than of Aquarius. The triumph of Das Kapital, but the end of history. "In a couple of years, it'll be a new millennium, and, with luck, nothing will bloody happen anywhere, nothing at all. That's what a good society looks like, Chris. Not perfect. Not filled with radiant angelic figures loving each other. Just mildly bored people, getting by." (259) At least, his handler counters, his pragmatism occupies no less a moral high ground than does a former member of the collective.

For, as Mike/Chris recounts, the August 14th group, splintering inevitably into a harder and tougher core, enters the frontier where ideals shadow into fanaticism. "'The revolutionary is a doomed man,' wrote Nechayev. 'He has no interests of his own, no affairs, no feelings, no belongings, nor even a name.'"'(219) This, in turn, compares to Mike/Chris' later retreat to the monastery. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, he reminds us, urge us to see suffering, recognize its cause in greed and craving, and to realize its potential to come to an end. Then the problem emerges. "But what's the right way to end suffering? The revolution, giving yourself up to history? Or Nibbana, giving yourself up to transcendence?" (219)

Those vowed to the former path learn to shoot on the desolate Holstein marshes, mudflats on the Danish-German border. One of their PFLP trainers teaches comrade Anna how to use a Skorpian machine pistol. "Khaled stood beside her, nodding approvingly, his eyes fading from view behind his Polaroid sunglasses whenever the sun emerged from behind a cloud." (229) Not for the first time in this novel, Mike/Chris finds himself spooning bland vegetable soup, debating ideas "in a patchwork of languages. Plans were formed. People spoke of a strategy for victory. They spoke about the end of Imperialism. They could have been talking about anything. Road resurfacing. Water disposal. Out in the marshes, I thought. We're out in the marshes at the edge of the sea, miles from the nearest other human beings, talking about who we're going to kill to demonstrate our organic connection to the masses. I'd light my way back to my tent with a little pocket flashlight, a bright speck in the enormous darkness." (230)

Caught in a campaign to expose another former radical, and seeking to expose another himself, Mike unravels back into Chris. The conclusion arrives with tension. Without giving it away, here's an excerpt a few lines from the end. "Because legality is just the name for everything that's not dangerous for the ruling order, because the poor starve while the rich play, because the flickering system of signs is enticing us to give up our precious interiority and join the dance and because in the corner an insect world is waiting, so saying we must love one another or die isn't enough, not by a long way, because there'll come a time when any amount of love will be too late." (276-77)

This dense, intricately organized, intellectually rewarding story -- while it revives the sentiment of the counterculture perhaps more vividly and effectively by comparison with the duller decades that followed, and while the characters dim by comparison with the evocation of fiery rhetoric and urban uprisings-- represents a considerable achievement. It'll reward a thoughtful reader seeking a nuanced valediction and sharp dissection of a radical's rise and fall as seen from 1998 projected back upon '68.

[Posted to Amazon US today.]

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