Book review: A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher is an engaging writer, always readable, even if you may sometimes wish that the word “economy” was to be found in his lexicon. Lacking it, his novels move slowly. Scenes go on too long. Detailed description is piled on detailed description, and yet he holds the attention. “There is no there there,” wrote Gertrude Stein , speaking of her home town Oakland. There is always a “there” somewhere in Hensher’s novels , though you may have to wait or search to find it.

Philip Hensher PIC: Pako Mera/Shutterstock

Revolution – or the need and absence of revolution – is the theme of his new novel, though the title is deceptive, the revolution longed for by his narrator, Spike, never comes. In the first section he is a schoolboy in Sheffield, reading Marx, and a member of a group of Trotskyists, anarcho-syndicalists, Spartacists etc.There is argument and talk, much of which reads ridiculously now. They still believe in the Soviet Union and think Brezhnev should send in tanks to crush the Solidarity trade union in Poland. They oppose CND because the Soviet Union needs nuclear weapons to deter the Americans. They also engage in futile acts of protest, occasionally violent. For Spike this involvement gives meaning to life. He also falls in love with Joaquin, the Chilean refugee son of a Leftist father who was “disappeared” by Pinochet’s regime. They will remain together, unchanging in their love and opinions to the end of the novel, and, one assumes beyond it.

The second and best section of the book, set some years later, recalls a visit made by Spike and the erstwhile leader of their group, Percy Ogden, to the workers’ paradise of East Germany. Ogden has already compromised; he is a political adviser to a centrist Labour minister in the Blair Government. That the DDR – splendidly depicted – is the corruption of everything Spike has believed doesn’t disconcert him, even though he spends three days in prison being interrogated after Ogden has had dealings with a black marketeer. Ogden is, amusingly , in a grumpy temper through the visit, his frustration provoking a sexual assault, described rather too graphically.

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The third section moves on 30 years. Joaquin and Spike (now a lecturer in a university) still pride themselves on their unchanging political commitment. They take a walking holiday in Germany, evocatively described. They happen on a lonely hotel kept by an Englishman who turns out to be the younger brother of a former comrade. In conversation the brother’s story is told and the compromises made by their old associates discussed. One, a bright girl who turned from socialist to socialite at Oxford, died long ago in mysterious circumstances. One is a High Court judge. One has become a right wing journalist. Another is a Tory cabinet minister. Their trajectories are fully credible. They have betrayed their youthful ideals. May one of them have done worse, even murder? It’s an interesting possibility, though the reader may with reason think that, in their idealistic youth, approval of murder, if only as an abstract idea, was scarcely excluded.

The question of how people change opinions and their way of life is certainly a good subject for a novel. Hensher’s ability to examine it is, however, limited by his choice of narrator. Spike and Joaquin may congratulate themselves on their steadfast loyalty to the old cause and their refusal to cut their cloth to suit the fashions of the day. Some readers will be with Hensher in admiring them. Others may simply see them as incapable of self-examination. Undying loyalty to the idea of revolution is not very difficult if you refuse to engage with the world as it actually is. It may even be a cop-out which enables you to live in self-admiring complacency. Moreover, Hensher loads the dice against the former comrades who have turned careerists. The suggestion that one of them may have smoothed his path to the top by murder when still a very young man is a novelettish idea, all the more so because the suggested motive seems inadequate; it is unworthy of a novelist as intelligent as Hensher.

Plato had Socrates say that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This novel, admirable and enjoyable as it is in many ways, might have been better if the narrator had been capable of examining his own life with even half the attention he gives to the lives of the comrades of his youth. 

A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher, 4th Estate, 324pp, £14.99