We're going to blast our way through here
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here, and you know its right." Thunderclap Newman
For many the revolution of the 60s (such as it was) was played out in song. Whether the Beatles, the Who, or Thunderclap Newman, there was a lot of talk, a lot of song, and plenty of demos and marches. But for the most part talk about revolution was just talk. There were some notable exceptions. Paris, Mexico and the Prague Spring in 1968 were a few. In the U.S. some elements of the anti-war movement, most notably the Weather Underground morphed into violence. The U.K. had the "Angry Brigade" and it is that group that provides the historical background for Hari Kunzru's new work, "My Revolutions".
"My Revolutions" takes us back to a time when something was in the air, but makes the reader question what that something actually was. Kunzru takes us down this path with one Mike Frame, a man approaching 50, leading a quiet, comfortable suburban life with his partner of 16-years, Miranda. We soon discover that Mike Frame is not at all what he seems to be. Rather, his real name is Chris Carver, a radical in the 60s who went underground after a series of robberies and bombings at the height of the anti-war movement in the UK. After a vacation on the continent Frame's life begins to unravel. He spots a woman there who appears to be one of his old comrades in arms. He is then approached by a second old comrade, one who seeks to blackmail Frame/Carver into revealing that yet another comrade, now a highly placed government official, was once part of the violent fringe of the anti-war movement in the UK. The novel alternates between the unraveling of Frame's life and the back story of Carver's. Kunzru does an excellent job in keeping the narrative going while jumping between Carver's story and that of his alter ego, Frame. Each story is laid out in such a way that the book's climax arrives just when the old and new identities are fully revealed to the reader.
Kunzru, who is too young to have lived through this time, gets the details perfectly. His description of the social and political life at University during that time was spot on. (Carver was at the London School of Economics at around the same time I was in Manchester.) The endlessly morphing student political groups, each a variant of the other, each claiming to the true interpreter of the genius of Marx and Lenin (International Marxist Group, International Socialists, the old-line CP, etc.) and each peopled by earnest students eager to change the world. The dead seriousness was matched by the same sort of endless conversations, the self-critical examinations and random anger set out perfectly by Kunzru. So to were Carver's recollections of random couplings as a political act, as a way of distancing oneself from the mores of the bourgeoisie. The book is filled with little snippets that really capture the time and Kunzru had me nodding nostalgically (if ruefully) time and time again.
At the same time, though, this spot-on accuracy did have one unintended side effect. Kunzru not only got the atmospherics right, he got the personalities right. As much as the characters made me wax nostalgic for the days of free love it also reminded of just how utterly self-important and devoid of humor this all was. The International Marxist Group and all its various and sundry splinters would never be confused with International Groucho Marxists. Consequently, Frame/Carver and his contemporaries are not exactly the sort of people a reader is likely to feel any great deal of empathy for. While Kunzru treats his characters' underlying idealism with no little bit of respect the sheer utter futility of their efforts marks them come across as little more than amateur, middle-class nihilists earnestly trying to make the world a better place by convincing themselves that destruction is a prerequisite to building a just society. That is not to criticize the book or the story in any way, I very much enjoyed the characters for the flawed, once-well-intended beings they were in their callow youth. But a reader who needs to feel some sort of emotional investment in a fictional character may be disappointed. I don't think that is an essential prerequisite for a successful novel but different readers may not feel that way.
"My Revolutions" is a worthy successor to Kunzru's earlier book, Transmission.