There’s a scene in Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions where Chris Carver, a young member of the counter-cultural revolutionary movement in late 1960s/early 1970s Britain, is in a graveyard looking for an identity he can steal. His eyes fall on a tombstone bearing the name Michael Frame - a child who was born in the same year as Chris but died as an infant. “Resting where no shadows fall” reads the epitaph.
It’s a nicely ironic touch, for though “Michael Frame” is the alias under which Chris will live an inconspicuous suburban family-man life for nearly two decades, he will never quite escape the shadow of the past. Years later, as he turns 50 in the England of the late 1990s, he regards the two people he is closest to - his partner of 16 years, Miranda, and his step-daughter Sam - with a bemused detachment. “Unlike me, Miranda has the knack of living in the world,” he reflects - a busy entrepreneur, very much a creature of a capitalist world, she increasingly stands for everything he was once opposed to, or thought he was opposed to, and she doesn’t know much about his past. On another occasion, he marvels at Sam’s lack of imagination, “the unbroken borders of her world”, and wonders if her ambition of becoming a corporate lawyer can be properly considered a dream. Back in his own youth, dreams were far more radical, concerned more with bringing alive a Utopian world of the imagination than coming to terms with the imperfect real one.
If a restive interior life was all Michael had to deal with, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but as Kunzru’s book opens, ghosts from the past are taking corporeal shape. First, during a holiday in France, he glimpses a woman who is a dead ringer for Anna Addison, a comrade and sometime lover from his revolutionary days, supposedly killed while participating in an act of terrorism. Shortly after this, an old acquaintance named Miles Bridgeman reenters his life and subtly blackmails him for reasons that are not immediately clear, and Michael/Chris knows he must escape all over again.
From the story’s present - located in 1998 - numerous carefully woven flashbacks take us to Chris’s youth in the 1960s as he is drawn into the movement protesting the Vietnam War. Here, Kunzru’s writing is at its most vivid, bringing alive a time when it was possible to believe, honestly and unselfconsciously, that the world could be made a better place - so what if the process would require enormous sacrifices (Mao’s quote that you have to make war in order to permanently end war is referred to more than once), and so what if it was hard for anyone to describe what this “better world” would actually look like.
But as in any revolution, ideologies collide and lines get blurred. Initially, the group of radicals Chris belongs to resolve never to hurt people, only damage property - he takes active part in their plot to bomb the Post Office Tower - but this slowly changes. By the time some of his friends have become involved with the People’s Front for Liberation of Palestine, Chris knows that he lacks their zeal and commitment. “We’re damaged people,” Anna tells him at one point, summing up the position of the true anarchist, “there would be no place for us in the world we’re trying to build.” (This is typical of the tragic romanticism of the revolutionary stance: on the one hand you’re hopelessly idealistic about making a Utopian world for others to live in, but on the other hand you’re cynical about your own place in it.) However, Chris doesn’t share this purity of purpose and must eventually go his own way.
My Revolutions is a poignant story about a lifelong struggle between idealism and pragmatism. A key to the book lies in its title, in Kunzru’s clever use of the word “revolution” - it comes up in different contexts (including a revolving restaurant where a key scene takes place, and Chris’s perambulations in a prison courtyard and around a monastery stupa in Thailand), but especially notable is the suggestion that all ideologies eventually amount to going around in circles; that being too fixated on change can result in never changing anything at all. There’s a moving passage where Chris speaks of seeing a NASA image of the earth for the first time; of the protective tenderness he feels towards “the green and blue disc surrounded by infinite blackness”. “We were on the world’s side, on the side of life,” he says, and one feels for him here, but it’s worth considering that the blue-green disc is, after all, an endlessly and meaninglessly revolving body of gaseous matter, indifferent to human causes and conflicts. As the pragmatic Miles cuttingly tells Chris/Michael, “Let’s say I don’t believe in anything. Well, one great advantage of that is not wanting to blow anything up...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.”
However, Miles underestimates the persistence of the radical stance, for he says during the same conversation, “In a couple of years it will be a new millennium and with luck nothing will happen anywhere.” Kunzru doesn’t underline the point, but it’s impossible not to think here of 9/11 and of a different kind of terrorism, also built on the principle of eliminating anything that doesn’t fit one’s vision of “a perfect world”. Despite the specificity of its time and setting, My Revolutions has much to say about the forces acting on our world today.
"Jack Straw was a radical!"
(Kunzru answered a few questions about the book on email)
You’ve captured the Zeitgeist of the late 1960s with such intensity, it’s easy to forget that you didn’t experience the period firsthand. What kind of research was required for this book?
My Revolutions is a strange mixture of personal experience and library research. I’ve been on many demonstrations, including some which have turned violent. I’ve participated in political meetings and the culture of British dissent, which stretches back to the sixties and beyond. But most of my research consisted of an attempt to familiarise myself with the various political currents around at that time. I read widely - Herbert Marcuse, biographies of activists, leaflets put out by groups and sects at the time. I also went to Thailand, to write the scenes set there.
Have you personally been interested in 1960s radicalism for a long time?
I have always been interested in that period - probably since I first heard the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper LP as a child! For some years I’ve been more interested in the currents of political thought than the music and fashion. I think we’re living in a very conservative time, where alternatives to the current world order aren’t being seriously explored. So it’s instructive to look back at a time when many people were convinced the world was on the cusp of radical change.
Did you speak to people who were part of the counterculture? Have many lives seen the kind of trajectory that Pat Ellis’s does in your book - from being a revolutionary to becoming a cog in the state machinery?
I’ve met many people who played their part. They range from those whose lives have been entirely defined by actions they took in their twenties - people who have served prison sentences, or have “enjoyed the attentions of the security services” - to those for whom their 1960s activities had few consequences.
In the UK, several government ministers were once young radicals. An amusing moment came when I found a yellowing Leftist newspaper with an article by a young writer “In Praise of Mao”. That writer, Jack Straw, became Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair!
You don’t make any overt connections, but in the activities of Chris’s group there are hints of the fundamentalist terrorism facing the world today. Do you believe there is a natural progression from idealism to terrorism?
I deliberately set the “present day” of the novel before 9/11, because I preferred to allow readers to make their own connections with the current situation. I do think that idealism is dangerous, whether it’s political or religious. Trying to make the world fit the shape of an idea is always a mistake. I think good politics always arises out of an appreciation of the real material conditions, the actual problems and possibilities.
Does the word “revolutions” also imply moving in circles? Is a revolution doomed to disappointment?
The book is full of thoughts about circularity, you’re right. I don’t think history is doomed to repeat itself exactly, but then neither is it a linear, progressive thing. One of the undercurrents in the novel is the contrast between a Buddhist perspective and a political revolutionary one. Renunciation versus engagement, repetition vs progression.
When your first book came out, there was a rush in the Indian media to categorise you as an NRI writer. Was My Revolutions a deliberate decision to write a novel with no Indian connection?
I probably would have done it anyway, but it is also a way of stating my intention to write about whatever I feel like. I think the publishing industry in the UK is beginning to accept that “Asian” writers are exploring territory that has nothing to do with race, culture or tradition - but I think we could go further with that. Similarly, I think it’s too simple to categorise writers from the Indian diaspora as “NRI” or proper desi or whatever. India is resonating throughout the world, in different ways for each person.
The Booker longlist this year has been described as a giant-killer. Does this suggest a changing literary scene in Britain?
There are some good new names on the list, and I just read two surveys – one saying that being a novelist is the favourite “dream career” of British people, the other saying that most novelists earn much less than the average wage! I think there’s a great future for fiction in both Britain and India.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing short stories and cooking up a couple of novel ideas, one of which is a large historical novel set in India, the other which is perhaps a piece of science fiction. I’m not sure if either will come to fruition.
(An earlier post about Kunzru at the 2006 Jaipur literature festival here, and my review of Noise, a collection of his early short stories, here.)