Boyd Tonkin: Author, thinker – prime minister?

The week in books

Since historians enjoy counter-factual games, let's play one with a literary spin. Imagine that, in 1990, the writer-turned-liberal politician Mario Vargas Llosa had kept his first-round lead into the run-off election and become president of Peru instead of the populist charlatan Alberto Fujimori. Within months, Vargas Llosa, always branded as the out-of-touch patrician, would surely have slipped into hot and deep water over the country's economic gridlock and vicious guerrilla insurgency. Besieged by one scandal after another, lacking a base among the masses, the author-president would sooner or later have fallen from power, damaged goods for ever.

So what really happened? Canny, crooked Fujimori outsmarted the high-minded literary gent. Vargas Llosa stormed back to his desk. There followed an exuberant apologia for his campaign, A Fish in the Water, and a succession of novels that switched between the merely good (The Road to Paradise) and the blazingly great (The Feast of the Goat). Last October, he became one of the most widely popular and uncontested Nobel laureates in literature for many years.

I wonder whether Michael Ignatieff has had any time to ponder the Vargas Llosa path. On 2 May, the writer, broadcaster and academic will lead Canada's Liberal Party into a federal election. If he can stitch together the expected post-election coalition, he could well emerge from it as prime minister. Yet Ignatieff is no scholar-statesman in the old Gladstonian mould, twin-tracking the study and the hustings over long decades. Neither does he belong in the Vaclav Havel camp: an artist-activist closely bound up with a national movement for change.

No: the historian, philosopher, novelist, BBC2 and Channel 4 presenter, Cambridge research fellow and Harvard professor only took up full-time politics five years ago. In 2006, he won election as MP for a Toronto lakeside constituency. Pre-selected as a star turn by Liberal grandees, who lured him back to Canada, Ignatieff rose at rocket speed to gain the leadership of his party in 2009. If the Liberals do head the next government in Ottawa, a leading developed nation will have as its premier a Booker Prize-shortlisted front-man for The Late Show who once lived on Chapel Market in Islington. Not too many people know that.

Ignatieff is no hack who barged into the limelight when the writing and teaching racket began to pall. Quite a few books from his eclectic 17-volume shelf belong to the first rank in their fields. I admire his fiction, especially Asya and Scar Tissue (the Booker contender in 1993). The history of prisons, A Just Measure of Pain; the memoir of a Tsarist family in exile, The Russian Album; the treatise on togetherness in an atomised society, The Needs of Strangers; the biography of Isaiah Berlin, and later studies of human rights, ethnic conflict and military intervention such as The Warrior's Honour: all earned their plaudits. Yet in today's rough politics such a glittering cv tarnishes fast. Enemies routinely label him as an airy-fairy egghead of dubious loyalty. And his stiff-limbed campaigning style will need to loosen up pretty soon.

A cynic might propose that a gold-plated record as author and intellectual will do nothing to boost a political career, although it might give rise to a classier kind of memoir after the fall. Of course we have no objective reason to believe that a former professor will make a finer servant of the public than a former postman (such as the estimable Alan Johnson). Many voters might suspect exactly the opposite. Still, I'm encouraged by the frequency with which Ignatieff (wearing other hats) has dwelled on just those issues of dignity, respect and equality that divide people in democracies. Thinkers in politics often come to grief. But then so do lawyers, bankers and journalists. At the very least, anyone of Ignatieff's pedigree who attains power should grasp the value of investment in education at all levels; in culture, science and research.

It may never happen. The polls look flaky. For all his TV studio experience, the Liberal leader fails to radiate charisma to most Canadians. He could well share Vargas Llosa's nearly-man fate. If so, he should quit at once and rush back to the keyboard. What would persuade readers abroad to tackle a first-person account of Canadian politics? Perhaps only Ignatieff's name on the cover.

Farewell to a mistress of magic

As the Harry Potter cult swept the planet, many children's authors who had enlisted magical themes were cited as possible forerunners or inspirations. Although this source-hunting soon got pretty silly, it did have one positive outcome. Many young (and not so young) readers rediscovered the fabulous Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones, creator of the suave sorceror in 1977. She died at the weekend after a richly inventive career that left a legacy of 40-plus books. Among its other highlights, the incomparable Howl's Moving Castle (above) became a bewitching animated film directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli in Japan.

Saying no to prizes, and Gaddafi

Ever the dark horse, John le Carré has said that he wishes to have his name removed from the final list of 13 writers under discussion to follow Ismail Kadare, Chinua Achebe and Alice Munro as winner of the £60,000 Man Booker International Prize. The judges will clearly not select him, but refuse to strike his name down - a little like the way HMS Victory still appears on the Royal Navy rolls. This is all suitably murky. Le Carré has said that "I do not compete for literary prizes". So presumably the "John le Carré" who won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1964 for The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was someone else entirely? No matter: the dozen writers left – from Amin Maalouf to Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson to Philip Pullman - shine just as brightly. I'll be carrying a flag for another contender, the veteran Spanish maverick Juan Goytisolo. In 2009, this lifelong friend of the Arab world refused a lucrative Gaddafi-sponsored prize in Libya. Maybe he has some time free to give the LSE lessons in integrity.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat