Swinburne satirised the later novels of Wilkie Collins with this rhyme:
What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition? Some demon whispered — ‘Wilkie! Have a mission.’
Despite Swinburne’s cynical rhyme, I think some novels that ‘have a mission’ work well and Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone (beautifully translated by Susan Bernofsky) is one of them. It proposes an idealistic, even utopian solution to a political problem. Richard, a retired academic who lives alone in a large house in the suburbs of Berlin, invites a group of African refugees he has made friends with to share his house. It’s probably significant that Richard, like Angela Merkel, grew up in the GDR and socialism is in his bloodstream. In this novel we are constantly reminded that there are parallels between the way Hitler treated Jews and Roma and the EU laws that ‘[Protect our] European way of life’ (Daniel Trilling) against migrants. I think this passage in Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel brilliantly sums up the grotesque inequality of our world:
His own to-do list would look something like this: Schedule repair man for dishwasher Urologist appointment Meter reading The to-do list for Karon, on the other hand, would be more like this: Eradicate corruption, cronyism and child labor in Ghana
Should fiction be didactic? Actually I believe you can put absolutely anything into a novel, and there’s no ‘should’ about it. Each novel works, or doesn’t work, on its own terms. It seems that more political novels get written, published (and translated into English) during insecure times. In the 1930s, another politically fraught period, the idea that writers should be socially committed was widespread. To give a few examples: Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March (1932) was first translated into English a year later. We see the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire through the eyes of three generations of the Trotta family. Roth, who was Jewish, also shows us horrible scenes of antisemitism in the Austrian army. Shortly after it came out, he was forced into exile by the Third Reich; Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which describes the suffering of migrant workers in California during the Great Depression, had a huge political influence. Steinbeck received death threats, the FBI put him under surveillance, his novel was banned in many libraries and copies were symbolically burned in towns across America; Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was published in 1940. A Bolshevik, Rubashov, is arrested and tried by the authorities. He eventually ‘confesses’ and is killed. Koestler wrote that Rubashov’s story is based on the lives of some of the men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Show Trials.
The other two recent novels I want to consider don’t propose solutions to problems but they both made me feel that I understood points of view that had previously been alien to me. The unnamed teenage girl in Anna Burns’s Milkman is growing up in Belfast in the 1970s. In fact, Belfast and the Troubles, like the characters, are never named and somehow this anonymity gives the novel a universality it might not have otherwise. As readers, we are all ‘beyond-the-pale,’ the expression used to condemn the thousand things her closed and traumatised community disapproves of. We see the insanity of the conflict and tribal hatred and intolerance through her eyes as she walks the streets reading nineteenth-century novels; that is her escape from an impossible situation and her refusal to hate is a subversive gesture of courage. Her voice is witty, original and constantly surprising. I know I will want to reread this novel and will never read news stories about Northern Ireland in the same way again.
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is loosely based on Antigone, Sophocles’ play about a sister who defies the authorities to give her dead brother an honourable burial. Twenty years ago this might have seemed safely in the remote past but after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 the city’s Central Mosque declared, ‘We cannot offer prayers over someone who has committed such an act.’
Aneeka and her twin brother, Parvaiz, have grown up in Wembley. They are very close but Aneeka is more studious and ambitious. She is horrified when she discovers that her brother has left London to work for the media arm of Isis. The sophisticated psychological techniques used to recruit him made me realise that almost any idealistic and frustrated young person might be attracted to jihad. The deciding moment, for Parvaiz, comes when he learns that his absent father died en route to Guantánamo. Filial piety again, that ancient instinct, mixed up with the terrorism we all hate. One of the many strengths of this novel is that the brother and sister are both sympathetic characters and so is Isma, the older sister who has brought them up and only wants a quiet life, which is horribly disrupted when the authorities raid their house. Another testament to Shamsie’s political shrewdness is that she predicted the appointment of a Muslim Home Secretary.
It’s interesting that all three of these novels were written by women. All of them, deservedly, won prizes and attracted a lot of attention at a time when fiction is decidedly overshadowed by nonfiction. They are political in the sense that they deal with the structures of power and personal because they are written with great compassion and sensitivity. For me, this is far more satisfying and thought provoking than novels about politicians and the inner workings of the House of Commons — by Jeffrey Archer or Michael Dobbs or even Trollope, for example. Such novels always seem to be more about masculine power games, involving characters who are doing so well out of the status quo that they feel no real need to change it, rather than about the way ideas transform the lives of ordinary people. So a novel that is about politicians would not necessarily be more ‘political’ than one about two struggling lovers, for example Love on the Dole (1933) by Walter Greenwood, which made middle-class readers more aware of poverty during the Depression.
Well, parallels between the 1930s and the present are probably unhelpful. We are in a unique mess of our own making now. Writers can’t predict the public reaction (if any) to what they spend years privately writing. When she was interviewed after being longlisted for the 2018 International Booker Prize, Jenny Erpenbeck said of her novel, ‘It’s a book about transition and loss — and about an encounter between two parallel worlds that share the same present.’
When Anna Burns was asked whether writing was a political act, she was taken aback. ‘Honestly? This is the sort of question I don’t know what to do with. It’s not how my brain works.’
In an interview in the Scottish Review of Books Kamila Shamsie said, ‘My starting point was how the British state is responding to radicalization. If you grew up in a dictatorship [Shamsie grew up in Pakistan] and your dreams were a democracy with civil liberties, one of the most distressing things to see is how, in the last seventeen years, those democracies have been giving up civil liberties, rule of law, equality of citizens, to fight this thing.’
I would conclude that a good political novel involves readers in the lives and emotions of the characters and does not usually point to an obvious moral. A film or TV programme can be a more effective way of telling us what happens but only a good novel can draw us inside the heads of the characters so that we can feel like an African migrant desperate to make a new life, a brave young woman defying her community, or a young terrorist. In A Defence of Poetry (1821) Shelley claimed that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Would novelists be allowed to crawl in under that fence too? Sometimes they do and I think their work should be celebrated and widely read.