Tuesday, December 25, 2007


My Revolutions

Hari Kunzru

To me, the most interesting thing about the book was the context – the England of the late 60s and early 70s was a bit of a revelation. It should have come as no surprise that there would have been a radical Left that threatened the Establishment, that there was something called an Angry Brigade that bombed London and had connections with leftist forces elsewhere and that there was an anti-American movement that culminated in anti-Vietnam protests. Strangely enough it did.

Hari Kunzru finally writes a book that completely captures my attention. Chris Carver alias Michael Frame is interesting in the sense that he has been at the centre of a time in history when people were really hoping for or dreading a (depending on your point of view) ‘revolution’. A time when people actually talked about things like “ The state claimed it was an expression of the democratic will of the people. But what if it wasn’t? What if it is just a parasite, a vampire sustaining itself on our collective life, on my life in particular?” Hello???

Chris Carver is 19 years old in 1968. Incidently, it is one year before Hari Kunzru’s birth. But Kunzru manages to make it sound convincing, at least to a fellow 1969-er. Anyways, Chris Carver is 19 years old in 1968 and ends up being Michael Frame dreading his 50th birthday party in 1998, when he expects his carefully constructed alias to come crashing down. The transition from the LSE dropout to the suburban husband and step father is the story of the book. Loosely based on the Angry Brigade (that seem like a Boy Scout crew today, given that their bombings hurt precisely one person), a rag-tag group of university drop-outs convicted for a series of bombings around London, it tracks the story of one of the members, his initiation into the ideals and his subsequent disillusionment, dropping out or betrayal, whichever way you choose to see it and the inexorable way in which the past catches up.

The teenage Chris, with little family life to speak of, is easily drawn into a harmless world of protests and demonstrations that challenge status quo. This initiation quickly turns into bigger things when he joins the LSE and comes into contact with a wider circle calling for the overthrow of the established order and a ‘revolution’. The idealism was, I suppose, real enough. But with hindsight and in today’s context seems a bit naïve and slightly ridiculous.

What starts off as a Bohemian Age of Aquarius trip with acid, free love and communes soon descends into extremism and violence and the justification of it – Mao’s line about ‘In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun’ is oft-quoted. So sit-ins for affordable housing turn into bombings to make a political statement and anti-war protests turn into training camps with Palestine terrorists. And when international solidarity with the oppressed becomes a reason to take on a job of killing a Jewish capitalist, Chris bails out. He runs with the money and an assumed identity and starts a new life. With an Anita Roddick-type wife and step-daughter who have no clue who Michael Frame really is, his past, his run-ins with the law and his addictions, Chris Carver becomes Michael Frame – still refusing to give in completely to the capitalist pigs, still looking at his business-woman wife with scorn. And there are the in-between years, the 4 years in a Bangkok monastery, getting cured of his drug addiction.

Of course the past catches up with him. And he is forced to choose between a past he is running away from and a present that does not completely satisfy him, yet is something he has made peace with. And that is Michael Frame’s dilemna. Can he truly accept the politics of the middleman Miles, what he calls the 'real, grown up politics, not the kind that starts by carving out a Utopia and then hammering at the world, trying to make it fit'? Whether he does or not, he knows that his daughter Sam, the hot shot corporate lawyer-to-be is lucky. Lucky that in her world, politics feels optional, something it’s safe to ignore. Because he knows that for most people, politics is forced on them. But even in Sam’s world, he knows it’s not really an option. As he tells her in his mind, 'Thatcher’s gone, the Berlin wall’s down, and unless you’re in Bosnia, the most pressing issue of the nineties appears to be interior design. It’s supposed to be the triumph of capitalism – the end of history and the glorious beginning of the age of shopping. But politics is still here, Sam, even in 1998. It may be in abeyance, at least in your world. But it’s lurking round the edges. It’ll be back.'

My Revolutions is an interesting read. Not least because it reminds us that we should be thankful not only because Britain did not go the way of the revolution but also because there was the Angry Brigade and the anti-war protests and the labour union unrest and the rock music and the radical left. It sure made the world a better place for us.

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