Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Street Fighting Years


Hari Kunzru is like Vikram Seth in that each one of his novels is quite different from the other. His latest, My Revolutions, is that rara avis in today’s skies: a political novel. It details the life of Michael Frame, a.k.a. Chris Carver, facing the spectre of his 50th birthday. His wife Miranda, an incipient Anita Roddick, is becoming too marketing-oriented for comfort and it’s when Michael catches sight of a person he recalls as Anna, as well as bumps into Miles, another character from his past, that he decides to flee from his life in provincial England.

You see, Michael wasn’t always a working-in-a-used-bookstore kind of guy: in his earlier avatar in the late 60s, he belonged to a radical group in London – a fictional counterpart of the Angry Brigade, as they were known. The activities of Michael’s cohorts become too extreme for his liking, and he flees to Asia, ultimately finding refuge in a Thai Buddhist monastery. There’s just no place for a street fighting man, as the Stones asserted. Years later, he comes face-to-face with the consequences of his past and the manipulations of the present.

The revolutions of the title are spatial and temporal as well as political. Michael circles between locations as well as his past and present and the structure of the novel mirrors this, oscillating between the clever and the vertiginous.

The first-person voice is nicely judged: sometimes bemused, sometimes na├»ve, sometimes angry and sometimes just tired. Kunzru paints a vivid picture of the youthful protestors – the debates, the violence, the rallies, the sexual standards, the living conditions -- and though he isn’t artless enough to spell it out, there’s a clear parallel to be drawn between extremism then and now.

Worth your while? On balance, yes. It’s intelligent and accomplished, even though it tends to compress too much into too little, and the narrative runs out of steam towards the end.

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