With London experiencing its first heat wave in recent memory, members of the Department of Politics at Birkbeck write about their favourite summer fiction with a political theme. Recommendations range from Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup to Don DeLillo’s Mao II.
Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck
While some political fiction ages quickly, George Orwell’s 1984 only gets more relevant. Orwell’s classic story of the ‘last man’, Winston Smith, rebelling against an all-embracing dictatorship has many themes that still resonate – from endless mysterious wars and terrorism to intense surveillance of all we do and think (sales of the book have gone up again in the wake of the recent PRISM revelations). Some of my students at Birkbeck read (or re-read) it during my part of a course on democracy and authoritarianism. What shocked them (and me) was how vividly it creates a world, like Stalin’s Russia or North Korea, where manipulation of language and history means it is almost impossible to establish an objective truth (Orwell himself said ‘Freedom is the right to say 2+2=4. If granted, all else follows’). It also contains one of my favourite scenes in modern literature: Smith, trapped and brainwashed by Big Brother’s propaganda, dreams of freedom and wakes up with the name ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. I’d also recommend the book that inspired Orwell, We, which was written in 1920 by Russian Bolshevik Yevgeny Zamyatin (see Orwell’s review here, where he says he will write a similar book). Set in the 26th century, the themes of 1984 are all here – Big Brother (the Great Benefactor), an all-embracing ‘one state’ – but in a bleaker and odder form. The protagonist, D-503, is a mathematician building a spaceship who begins to realise that the universe and the regime are not, as they claim, infinite.
Dr Edwin Bacon, Reader in Comparative Politics at Birkbeck.
As we do most summers, we’ll be heading to the beautiful island of Jersey in a couple of weeks. On an unusually rough crossing a few years back, as various members of the family turned a queasy green and counted the nautical miles to St Helier, I found myself engrossed in Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup. Mullin is perhaps better known now for his extremely readable diaries of life as an MP, junior minister, and Select Committee chair during the New Labour years, but A Very British Coup caused quite a stir back in the day. Published in 1982, it appears to be very much of its time plot-wise. A left-wing labour MP, Harry Perkins, suddenly finds himself not only party leader but Prime Minister. Imagine a different history where the Falklands War didn’t happen, the economic recovery of the 1980s tarried a little, and Labour had a more electable leader than Michael Foot. It wasn’t too ludicrous back in 1982 to predict a Labour government coming back to power and enacting something like their 1983 manifesto, ridiculed these days as the longest suicide note in history. Perkins becomes PM, and starts throwing the US armed forces off their UK bases, nationalising banks (imagine!) and tackling the media barons. The plot of A Very British Coup sets out the establishment’s reaction. There’s no need to issue a spoiler alert because the title is spoiler enough. In so many ways, A Very British Coup is of its time and could only have been written in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A similar theme is dealt with in the long-forgotten and now out-of print A Spy At Evening by the late, too little known, Donald James (the author of the most accurate fictional prediction of the collapse of the Soviet Union, 1983’s Fall of the Russian Empire). Both A Very British Coup and A Spy At Evening were made into TV series in the 1980s, and you can watch the former on Youtube. Then last year A Very British Coup was remade, after a fashion, as a mini-series called Secret State, set in the present day, with Gabriel Byrne as the unexpected PM taking on the establishment. So although A Very British Coup drips with the atmosphere and politics of the 30-year distant and very different Britain in which I became politically aware, its themes of power and principles remain as relevant as ever.
Prof. Diana Coole, Professor of Political and Social Theory at Birkbeck
Ian McEwan and William Boyd are probably my favourite two authors. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan is a cold war story – ostensibly an autobiographical account told by a young woman who moves from Cambridge to MI5 in the early 70s, where she’s recruited into a project – ‘sweet tooth’ – designed to support young writers and academics whose fiction supports the West’s self-image of happy outcomes and pleasurable lives. The twist at the end is so-so clever but I found the story leading up to it engaging – and it left me wondering afterwards how many of the intellectuals we’ve admired might unwittingly have been funded by the secret service (and whether this is why even my most radical American friends don’t seem to be able to think beyond individualism and the travails of the self…). I read Boyd’s latest novel, Waiting for Sunrise, afterwards and enjoyed that too but I think he left too many loose ends and forgotten leads (not in a good way) so I felt rather dissatisfied with it. I’m enjoying one of his earlier novels more. The New Confessions is structured rather like his wonderful Any Human Heart – as a fictional autobiography (this seems to be my genre for the summer) that spans momentous events in the twentieth century. This one is loosely based on Rousseau’s The Confessions, a book that has a massive impact on the main character when he first encounters it as a German prisoner of war, whose own life runs along roughly similar lines to Rousseau’s and seems to have similar character flaws, and who makes his name filming Rousseau’s work (I’ve not yet finished reading it so I don’t know whether the project for three three-hour films about the Rousseau of The Confessions reaches fruition or dissipates when he finally manages to have sex with the lead actress).
Dr Rosie Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is, in my view, a classic dystopian novel that adds a significant gender dimension to the genre. Atwood considers a politics of sexual reproduction in a context where children have become a scarce resource as a result of environmental damage. The themes are perhaps even more pertinent in the 21st Century than they were in 1985 and, like all well conceived dystopias, it powers the imagination. I read it for the first time when I was 20 and it’s the only book I have bought as a signed first edition, albeit the British and not Canadian edition (that was out of my price range).
Dr Dermot Hodson, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Birkbeck
I would recommend two summer readings with a political theme. Both were published in 1992 by leading lights in late 20th century American literature; both deal with the relationship between literature and political violence; and both proved prophetic about acts of terrorism in the years that followed. The first is Leviathan by Paul Auster, which tells the story of Benjamin Sachs, a novelist who sets about blowing up small replicas of the Statue of Liberty situated in various parts of the United States in protest against the country’s perceived betrayal of its political values. Auster’s prose here is stark and straightforward but his portrait of Sachs is an extraordinary one. There are parallels here with the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, a mathematician who killed three people and injured many more in a three-decade bombing campaign in support of a paranoid political manifesto. More chilling still is the way in which Leviathan prefigures the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols murdered 168 people in an attack on a federal building in revenge against the government’s handling of sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco.
Leviathan is dedicated to Don DeLillo, the author of my second recommendation, Mao II. Here DeLillo tells the story of Bill Gray, a reclusive writer whose reputation grows the longer he delays publication of his latest novel. Gray is coaxed out of his seclusion by a group campaigning for the release of a writer who is being held captive by a Maoist cell in Beirut. DeLillo, as is so often the case in his novels, puts forward big ideas about politics and popular culture. A recurring idea here is that terrorists have usurped the role once played by writers. ‘Years ago’, Bill Gray says, ‘I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunman have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness’. To my mind, these words foreshadowed the macabre motives of so many terrorist attacks in recent years from the terrible image of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre on 9/11 to the video confessional recorded by the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich earlier this year. In so doing, DeLillo provides a powerful insight into how fiction and politics can inform one another.
Dr Antoine Bousquet, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Birkbeck
My choice is Here, Bullet by Brian Turner. If the First World War had its Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the Iraq War has found in the US veteran Brian Turner its own indispensable soldier-poet. Unflinchingly honest and visceral, Here, Bullet succeeds in rendering the experience of the war through a succession of searing images more affecting and lasting than anything a multi-million dollar Hollywood production could ever conjure.