My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru
One of the characters in this novel asks Mike, the narrator: “What would freedom look like?”
The following is from page 2:
In the sitting room there’s a photo of Miranda, which I took on a cold weekend walk at the Norfolk coast. She’s standing with her back to the camera, looking out to sea. The light is coming straight at the lens, and she’s little more than a silhouette: big boots, narrow shoulders wrapped in an ethnic something-or-other, hair streaming in the wind. Somehow that’s the image that comes to me, frail, romantic Miranda, rather than the arranger of breakfast meetings, the recipient of local chamber-of-commerce awards, the Miranda of the last few years. Soon a wave is going to break over her: police, maybe the media. How will she cope? I wish I could feel optimistic, but Miranda isn’t a person who deals well with the world’s unpredictability. She’s always fought hard against randomness, with all the weapons in the stationer’s: a little arsenal of agenda and diaries and wall-planners dotted with coloured stars. Poor Miranda, no amount of Post-its will ward off what’s about to happen to you. You’re utterly unprepared.
The stairs creak as I climb up to the bedroom. I have to duck my head to go through the door, I’ve never found the low ceilings and narrow corridors of country cottages quaint, at least not straightforwardly. They’re scaled to the small stature of poorly nourished people; an architecture of hardship and deprivation. Of course I’ve never said this to Miranda. Irregular walls and creaking floorboards please her. I think she’d like to forget she was born into an industrial society. I can’t, at least not in the same way. That kind of mystification has never seemed right to me. It’s so incoherent, for one thing. A country life, but with plumbing and telecoms and antibiotics. A rich person’s fantasy.
But this is our house, or rather Miranda’s house, the house she allowed me to share and always wanted me to love as she did. I realize I’m standing with my fists clenched, glaring at the William Morris wallpaper, the patchwork cushions of the armchair. Above our bed, hanging from the oak beam, is a dream-catcher. I tug at it, breaking the string. I’ve wanted to do that for so long. Such an absurd, out-of-place thing. Our house is filled with these objects – tribal, spiritual, hand-crafted little knick-knacks that are supposed to edge us nearer to Miranda’s wish-fulfilment future of agrarian harmony. There are corn dollies and old glass bottles and prints of medicinal herbs with quotations from Culpeper printed underneath in calligraphic lettering. ‘Only from lucre of money they cheat you, and tell you it is a kind of tear, or some such like thing, that drops from Poppies when they weep.’ That’s outside the bathroom. Culpeper is natural, and natural is the flag Miranda waves at the world, the banner standing for righteousness and truth.
Why am I doing this, breaking her things? None of it’s her fault. She’s worked hard to make the life she wanted. She’s tried to be a good person. And she has loved me. I know that will be the most terrible thing – the look on her face, the gradual opening of the abyss. Everything she has known or believed about me, her lover, her partner for sixteen years, the man who has been a stepfather to her daughter, is untrue. Or if not untrue – for I’ve tried no to tell unnecessary lies – then partial, incomplete.
Listen to me. Partial, incomplete. I’m even lying to myself. It could hardly be worse; she doesn’t even know my real name.
Hari Kunzru published this memory or time novel in 2007. A memory novel is when a narrative of now interchanges with a narrative of then, and the problem is usually that the ‘then’ narrative is more colourful and vibrant than the ‘now’ narrative. I should add that this wasn’t the case, at least for me, with My Revolutions.
Fifty-year-old Mike Frame has a past that his partner, Miranda and step-daughter Sam know nothing about, lived under another name amidst the turbulence of the revolutionary armed struggle of the 1970s.
He’s been on the run for a long time, from the authorities and from himself, but now, inexplicably he glimpses an old comrade and lover while on holiday in France; and back in England a friend from the past turns up on his doorstep, looking to reminisce, and to blackmail. It seems to Mike that he has to face up to the contradiction between who he is and who he once was.
Mike’s story brings to mind the work of groups like The Baader Meinhof Gang, the Weathermen, and the Angry Brigade. It is the journey from political radicalism to armed terrorism.
But in Kunzru’s hands the narrative isn’t allowed to descend into a right-wing nightmare. He is concerned to contrast and compare the political idealism and naïvety of the sixties and seventies with the bleak compromises of the nineties and the opening years of the present century. And at the same time, though as sub-text, he is concerned with personal psychology, particularly in the making and dismantling of identity. How identity is put together piecemeal, collected on the run, so to speak. And how easily it is torn down.
This is an enjoyable novel, probably suffering from a little too much research. But there is much to be admired in it, and I’ll certainly look for more from Hari Kunzru.