My Revolutions, by Hari Kunzru

Twenty years after going underground, a radical activist is forced to confront his past
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The Independent Culture

Hari Kunzru's third novel can be seen as a departure. While his glitteringly impressive 2003 debut The Impressionist and the follow-up, Transmission, both took race as central themes, this novel is ostensibly about politics. It's already been noted that there's not a single Asian character in My Revolutions.

Look deeper, though, and this story marks not a radical break, but an intelligent development of Kunru's abiding preoccupation with the making, and dismantling, of personal identity. Mike Frame leads an anonymous late 1990s existence. But Frame is really Chris Carver, a former member of an underground far left group that, in the 1970s, advocated violent action against the state (the real-life Angry Brigade casts a shadow here). Now a mysterious figure from those days has reappeared. Miles, once a fellow communist, wants to dig up Mike's past for his own, substantially revised, political ends. The subtle, looping, thoroughly gripping narrative that follows is a triumph.

We join Mike on the eve of his 50th birthday, ruminating on life with his lip-service- liberal partner, Miranda, and step-daughter Sam, neither of whom know about his past. Soon, and seamlessly, Kunzru whisks us back to the 1968 Grovesnor Square protest, and on to London squats where Mike (then Chris) and other middle-class communists – led by the charismatic Anna – storm unused flats to house the homeless, and issue "communiques": "Chose your target! Act Now!" Harmless enough at first, the group increasingly lurch into paranoia and violence.

My Revolutions is clearly the result of much research, combined with an artistry that allows Kunzru to see his subjects as simultaneously noble and absurd. At a party we cringe as they triumphantly "perform small acts of transgression, scream obscenities, break things". In group sessions, they perpetually accuse one another: "I think you're a theorist," Anna snarls at Chris. All this is rendered in Chris's restrained first-person, a voice at once conversational and hypnotically propulsive.

As 1990s Miles increasingly threatens Chris's anonymity, Kunzru moves between past and present, often with little more than an associative sentence – "An orange bloom on my closed eyelids. Orange wallpaper in a hotel room..." – until his narrative has come to resemble the circular, self-reflective movement of a remembering mind itself. We are spiralled into Chris's consciousness: misgivings when his 1970s peers start to plan bomb attacks on London; disillusionment with his boring, 1990s provincial life; fear of Miles, from whom he is now on the run.

In the final pages, past and present collide. These passages combine suspense – how much longer can Mike hide? – with the essentially Kunzruic question: what makes us who we are? Who is real, Chris Carver, or Mike Frame? Kunzru is perpetually fascinated, and terrified, by the frailty of personal identity, by "how easily the whole charade of Mike Frame and Miranda Martin could be torn down".

It's a climax made possible only by his wonderfully fluid structure, which is hospitable both to narrative tension and to meditation. It's also Kunzru's most accomplished work so far: the sound of an important novelist in the first bloom of maturity.

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