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.

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower