In the land of Utilitaria

The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat by Stephen Lukes Verso, pounds 12.95; Mrs Thatcher and Michael Foot crop up in a clever Voltairean fantasy. By Hugo Barnacle

Enlightenment is the key word, since Steven Lukes, himself a professor of social and political theory, has framed his novel as a homage to Voltaire's Candide. He makes his hero, Nicholas Caritat, an academic philosopher in the imaginary land of Militaria. Caritat gets arrested by the authorities, losing his specs in the process. "They strengthened their control over reality by weakening his control over appearances". Sprung from prison by the Optimist freedom fighters, Caritat is given new rose-tinted glasses and the cover name "Pangloss" and is sent abroad on a mission to find "the best of all possible worlds". He visits the welfare state of Utilitaria, multicultural Communitaria and free-market Libertaria, finds them all pretty ghastly and reaches the end of the book still searching, wandering in a dark wood like Dante at the start of the Divine Comedy: not a very Enlightenment image, but one meant to suggest that, despite everything, the modern ideal of reason is no worse than the old ideal of faith. "Isn't fanaticism a human trait that will seize on whatever ideas are at hand in pursuit of its victims?"

Militaria, where death squads in Ford Falcon cars wage a dirty war against liberal students, seems to be based on Argentina under the generals. The mention of the junta's favourite vehicle for secret police work is an oddly specific detail for an allegory of this kind.

The dissonance between fantasy and reality becomes more awkwardly noticeable in Utilitaria. Though admittedly run on Benthamite principles according to "the greatest good of the greatest number", the place is not very British. Horribly hygienic and efficient, it is a classless world obsessed with the future. Only the rebel Bigotarians (i.e. the IRA) keep on about the past. There are nut cutlets with grated carrot for all, euthanasia for the old, Scandinavian furniture everywhere and relentless cost-benefit analysis by officials with calculators.

Yet Michael Foot pops up, white hair, hornrims, displaced pauses and all, in the guise of Opposition leader Eustace Legge, and the Prime Minister is one Hilda Juggernaut, husky, blue-suited, over-coiffed. She uses the term "one of us", as an extra hint, but she is a devotee of big government and "bodies of qualified experts", the very things Lady Thatcher claims to hate. Although Lukes presumably means that those claims are misleading, the effect is rather strange.

Communitaria is a version of America, where the old ruling class, the Better Established Elements or Bees (i.e. Wasps), pretend they no longer dominate a society divided into separate, mutually suspicious ethnic and religious groups. Everyone demands "respect" and leaps to take offence. There is a huge furore over a rock opera which allegedly insults both Malvolians (who wear cross-gartered yellow stockings) and Stalactites (who worship standing on their heads), even though the composer is a Malvolian Stalactite who meant no harm. Again, the specific references make an awkward match since the Rushdie Affair was not an American phenomenon. By contrast the militant campus feminists and anti-racists of whom Caritat innocently falls foul are all too typical in their Americanness. The trouble with this area is that the reality has gone beyond satire.

In Libertaria, a tawdry post-industrial wasteland of privatised squalor, Caritat is short of cash and gets a job as a psychiatrist, reasoning that any fraud can do it, but a "shock of quasi-recognition" hits him (and us) when the Prime Minister Jugula Hildebrand appears. She announces the closure of all mental wards to make way for more profitable enterprises like cosmetic surgery. Redundant and finally homeless, Caritat is saved by the windfall profits on his National Library shares: they've shot up because the books are all being sold abroad for a killing. He splits the money with homeless friends, buys a ticket to the border and walks through the wood towards Egalitaria, which may not exist.

For all its wobbly moments the book is written in a beautifully clear, even style, and if the jokes are sometimes obvious or off-target the crisp philosophical debates that Caritat has with himself are full of a keen, serious wit which compensates handsomely. Lukes achieves both lightness and weight in a way many novelists might envy.

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