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

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