Power to the people

Power to the people

With his first two books, Hari Kunzru established himself as the king of fictional cool. For all their distinctions, The Impressionist (2002) and Transmission (2004) were wild, satirical romps through different times and spaces, examinations of complex constructs such as colonization and globalization with the tongue firmly in cheek and dark undertones firmly in check. With his third, Kunzru lays claim, simply, to the title of king of fiction.

Shorn entirely of the wry, detached humour that characterized his earlier novels, My Revolutions is a serious, provocative work about the power of ideas. This is also Kunzru’s most cynical book yet, a meditation on the grey spaces between belief and betrayal, confrontation and conciliation.

As with his previous novels, Kunzru’s protagonist this time, too, is a shape-shifter, a man of multiple identities. On the eve of his 50th birthday, as he watches workmen erect aluminium poles for the party marquee, his internal support systems begin to fold in. His first thoughts are of Miranda, his common-law wife: “Everything she has known or believed about me, her lover, her partner for sixteen years… is untrue." Including his name and even his birthday.

Michael Frame leaves behind the half-finished marquee, Miranda and his middle-class life in search of the man he used to be. And in doing so, he takes us on a searing ride into the London underground of the late 1960s-early 1970s when, for a protracted moment, Western European students believed communism would change the world. The CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, was the starting point, perhaps—or maybe it was the Vietnam War—but there was always a new cause related to revolution.

For Chris Carver, of lower-middle-class origin, lately admitted into the London School of Economics, was certain in that summer he turned 20 that he had “had enough of (his) father’s world, enough of the idea that life was a scramble to the top over the heads of those poorer, slower or weaker than yourself… (He) was hopeful—that was how young (he) was—that it might be given to (him), Chris Carver, to smash up the old world and build something new".

From peaceful marches to attacks on symbols of state authority to outright criminality, Kunzru uses his protagonist’s prism to capture the scary, too-familiar free-fall into terrorism with a restraint that, in a lesser author, would have produced an academic treatise. He is helped, too, by Carver’s absolute belief in the cause: There is no room for facetiousness in his character or in the communes, where a bunch of disparate adults come together to feed and house the poor and homeless and to build crude bombs.

The most enigmatic of them all is Anna, whom Carver thinks he first spotted during a protest at Grosvenor Square. But he’s never entirely sure and Anna herself denies her presence. Nevertheless, the image sticks: “She had the clarity I lacked. It had become a fight, so she was fighting back."

This construct—is it Anna? is it not?—bookends the novel. On a holiday in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Garrigue, “a place with a bloody history, the site of a siege during the Albigensian crusade", which Miranda describes as “pretty", Carver/Frame fleetingly spies his partner-in-passion, long believed dead in an action on an embassy in Copenhagen. This vision from the past is followed by another, more unshakeable one. Miles Bridgeman was always on the periphery of revolution, never in its underbelly. Yet he holds the cards to Frame’s existence, Carver’s integrity.

Though Kunzru’s prose can be meandering at times—a shortcoming evident in his earlier novels as well—it is rescued here to a large extent by the “revolutionary" framework of the book. Switching between the 1960s and the late 1990s, the novel retraces Carver’s flight to France, the Buddhist monks’ perambulations around the stupa in a Thai monastery. History, repeating itself.

Despite its determined pre-new millennium setting, My Revolutions is startlingly relevant today, not the least because of its dry-eyed look at the radical idealism of a period that seems to have nothing in common with contemporary times. Frame ruminates on his beloved step-daughter’s ambitions: “We thought we’d stepped outside. We thought it had been given to us to kick-start the new world. Can you understand that? Does wanting to be a corporate lawyer count as a dream?"

The power of dreams. And their pitfalls. Kunzru contains them within the covers of a book that will continue to disturb long after the last line has been read.

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