By Hari Kunzru
Its a generally agreed upon notion that history is written by the winners. But the best fiction is written by and about losers. Our favourite movies and books often have at their centre a character so utterly flawed and hopeless, unable to reach the heights and aspirations they had set for themselves. And any astute Buddhist will tell you that life is suffering and as such it is to fellow sufferers that readers and movie-goers most relate to and feel for. Which brings me to Hari Kunzru’s protagonist in his third novel My Revolutions.
Chris Carver aka Mike Frame is a failed ‘60s radical who is about to turn fifty. A former member of the Angry Brigade (a sort of British equivalent of the Weather Underground) he is still in hiding. His spirit is all but dead, his attitude to life sardonic and bleak. The book sees Chris/Mike looking back on macrobiotic salad-acid tripping-squat dwelling-long haired-unwashed days as an angry student when the revolution and nothing but the revolution seemed on the verge of changing everything. Kunzru, born in 1969, didn’t actually live through this era and perhaps owing to this, is able to portray a time that has been so excessively portrayed in our popular culture, allowing him to treat all his characters respectfully and avoiding the popular tendency to view such revolutionaries as deluded, spoilt middle-class teenagers bent on anarchy. One gets a sense of the desperate yearning for change that underlied their actions.
The novel opens with Mike and his wife Miranda. Mike is not really Mike but Chris but Miranda does not know that Mike is Chris. She has no clear idea about who Mike was when he was Chris, to her his real life does not exist. One day, whilst holidaying in the south of France with Miranda, Chris/Mike sees Anna Addison, a fellow comrade from the revolutionary days, a girl he loved to the point of infatuation even though love at that time was considered a trite, bourgeois concept. Yet Anna was supposedly killed in 1975 while attempting to take over the West German Embassy in Copenhagen. Seeing Anna essentially brings Mike back to his life as Chris, forcing him to remember his old life after having been marooned in a counterfeit one for nearly twenty years. What’s more, the life he has lived with Miranda, a ‘thrusting entrepreneur of the type celebrated in the glossy magazines’, is littered with the capitalists he once sought to rid the world of – ah, the irony!
The book thus alternates between 1998 and the preceeding thre decades. The Angry Brigade, having started out well enough (nothing too anarchist about stealing from supermarkets to feed the poor or occupying empty flats to house the homeless, is there?) become disillusioned with peaceful protest when the new order they had envisioned does not materialise. They feel they have wasted their time ‘shouting in to a vacuum’. After a series of undocumented bombings they begin to believe that ‘nothing takes place…unless its electronically witnessed’. The group expands, forming an alliance with a Marxist-Leninist Palestinian organisation, the violence increases, things seem to lose control. For Chris, the potential bloodshed and rising paranoia prompt him to get out and from that point his revolutions become nothing but a painful turning of the karmic wheel; destitution, loss of self and identity, heroin addiction. He ends up at a Buddhist monastery but even there he cannot find the freedom which has eluded him. He is rootless, tied to nothing and noone and has lost all belief in the world.
The question is asked of Chris/Mike ‘What would freedom look like?’ and essentially that is the question that this book asks of the reader. For there are many parallels to be drawn between the political and social upheavals of the ‘60s and what we experience today. However the characters in this book and the aspirations they shared in fighting for justice make our own seem hopeless, pitiful. In fact, rather than being an hommage to a bygone era, My Revolutions is more like a requiem for our own.