Issue 269 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Socialist Review writers on their books of the year
The story of Dublin's Easter Rising has been told many times, but never like this. A huge and absorbing novel, At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill tells of the love between two teenagers who spend months planning a swim out to rocks in Dublin Bay where they will raise the Irish flag on Easter Sunday 1916--also the date of the planned uprising against British rule. The sense of Ireland in turmoil is always there, as is the contest between different forms of Irish nationalism. The Gaelic--speaking priests see a new republic as religiously pure and narrow--a very different vision from the socialists around James Connolly who are fighting for a workers' republic, and so against the Irish bosses as well. The awakening of a nation is echoed in the awakening of gay love between the boys, and wider questions of love and friendship are portrayed in the most moving ways.
There have been rich pickings for lovers of weird fiction in the last couple of years--it's tough to pick only one. But 2002 saw the publication of something that readers of Socialist Review mustn't miss--Michael de Larrabeiti's Borrible Trilogy. These extraordinary books date from 1976 to 1986, but they've finally been reissued in a single package. Ostensibly for children, they're emphatically for adults too. They follow the adventures of a crew of roughneck, punky urban elves called Borribles, feral street kids who never grow old and are several shades more exciting than certain goody-goody boy wizards. A love song for London, a celebration of multicultural youth, a blistering diss of the police and the scapegoating of children, and a superb story. This is the stuff to grow up to, no matter how old you are.
My best read by far has been the Mexican Carlos Fuentes' The Years with Laura Díaz. Like Fuentes' other novels it attempts to capture aspects of the turbulent, tragic and occasionally comic history of a semi-developed country stuck just beneath the world's greatest superpower. But it is much less opaque than some of the others. Once you've picked up Laura Díaz you don't want to put it down. Fuentes uses one imaginary character from a Diego Rivera mural to convey the lived experience of the 20th century--the excitement and violence of the great revolution of 1910-20, the transformation of its victors into a new ruling class, the bitterness of the Spanish Civil War, the horrors of the Second World War, and the massacre of protesting students in 1968. This is the novel as it should be--and a welcome change from the insipid English novels dominating the shortlists of the literary prizes.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a truly outstanding novel, bordering on genius. Told through the diaries of a missionary's wife and three daughters, it spans three turbulent decades in post-colonial Congo (Zaire). Often harrowing, always poetic, the novel challenges every western 'common sense' view of society, and of what is right and wrong.
Almost imperceptibly it mounts a devastating condemnation of the three 'Cs'--Christianity, colonialism and capitalism. Woven in are fascinating insights into the flora and fauna of Africa (Kingsolver trained as a biologist), the CIA's involvement in the murder of Prime Minister Lumumba, apartheid South Africa and the subjugation of women. On top of all this, the book is utterly gripping, and makes you laugh and cry. The only disappointment is that it ends.
Hard to say why exactly, but my favourite book from the past year is probably Travels With a Tangerine, a curious blend of travelogue, historical biography and cultural eye-opener, which traces part of the journey taken by the medieval Arab traveller Ibn Battutah. Virtually unheard of in the West (certainly by me), this legendary figure in Islamic history had managed to cover around 75,000 miles and visit over 40 countries on the modern map between 1325 and 1369--about three times the distance Marco Polo claimed to have covered. In the process he had reached every corner of the Mediterranean and Middle East, had taken India and China in his stride, and got as far north as the Volga and as far south as Tanzania. The author, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, is an adept Arabist whose own journey is a kind of homage or salaam to Battutah. It is peppered with many magical and memorable images, all imparted with wry aplomb.
First published in 1945, Christ Stopped at Eboli is Carlo Levi's account of his banishment in the 1930s by Mussolini from his home in Turin to the Basilicata in the far south of Italy. The title refers to Eboli, south of Naples, where the railroad ended. The peasants of the village where Levi was forced to reside said that Christians came no further south.
The world Levi describes is an indictment of the poverty of the Italian south and the abject failure of the fascist dictatorship to modernise the region. From his hilltop village he looked out over an 'endless sweep of clay, with the white dots of villages, stretching out as far as the invisible sea'. It was a world where emigration meant going to New York more than Rome or Naples.
When his sister comes to visit she has to go to the regional capital. She is shocked by the poverty and the fact that people beg not for coins but for quinine to treat malaria. In one of the best scenes the village mayor, a member of the Fascist Party, calls a rally in the main piazza, addressing the impassive and non-comprehending peasants on the wonders of Mussolini's rule.
The 'What if the Nazis had won the Second World War?' scenario is a science fiction staple, but Philip K Dick breathed new life into it in his novel The Man in the High Castle. If you've seen Minority Report or Blade Runner, both Dick adaptations, you'll know the tense, introverted, paranoid ride you're in for.
The plot, set in a partitioned, occupied US, is a little thin, but the competing narrative voices of functionaries, fascists and rebels make for an intense read. The bizarre ray of hope in a world where the Final Solution has inflicted genocide on Africa is an underground novel describing a strange world in which the Nazis lost the Second World War...
I am a few years late with my choice, Jonathan Neale's Mutineers, which came out in 1998. It deals with the English naval mutinies in 1797. Throughout the novel the attitudes, feelings and actions of the characters, both oppressive officers and rebelling naval ratings, are engendered by their place in this class struggle. This is extremely rare in literature. Jonathan Neale has an extraordinary ability to get under the skin of both the officers and the other men--and women--so that every detail of innermost thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds comes across as utterly real and absolutely true. The remarkable thing is that the story and all the characters are true, except a couple of the women mutineers, who also are marvellous, charismatic characters.
I spend time writing articles about privatisation, which puts accountants in charge of schools and hospitals. In fiction villains can be heroes. John Lanchester's Mr Phillips follows a bored, disappointed accountant into pretend work. The redundant bean-counter, unable to admit to unemployment, wanders the streets in an affectionate, comic study of a middle class cog in the wheel. B S Johnson's Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, now back in print, is more savage. The clerical anti-hero wreaks revenge on the world using bookkeeping principles. BS Johnson committed suicide in 1973, disappointed by lack of success. He was not to know that our current government really would follow his lead and run life by accountancy two decades on.
The novel I enjoyed most in 2002 was The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe. I read his hilarious assault on the Thatcher years--What A Carve-Up!--some time ago, and laughed a lot without really believing the author knew or cared much about the reasons for the Thatcher victories. The Rotters' Club is based in Coe's native city, Birmingham, in the mid-1970s, and the main characters are connected at different levels to the huge British Leyland factories at the centre of the industrial disputes of the time. Very slowly and subtly the novel unveils the collapse of the workers' militancy and confidence, ending in the sacking of 'Red Robbo', the Communist shop steward convenor at the Longbridge complex. Apparently incidental, though in essence quite central, is an account of the pickets at Grunwick's, so brutally beaten back by the police. This was a time when I was working full time for Socialist Worker, and when I stood for parliament for a Birmingham constituency. I never imagined that the loves and hates of ordinary Birmingham working people during that time would make such rich material for a powerful novel but, in spite of going a bit over the top at the end, Jonathan Coe has certainly produced one. The good news is that there is at least one sequel to come.