Saturday, February 25, 2006

 

Top Ten Political Novels

Nick Hornby has a lot to answer for with his novels encouraging us to create lists of favourite things. Paul Linford in his blog Paul Linford's Top 10 Political Books succumbed to the temptation recently by publishing two lists: best political books and best political speeches. To show my craven imitative tendencies I'm doing one myself: top ten political novels. I realise the category is a bit vague- when is a novel a 'political' one? Very subjective I know but my following list makes it clear, I hope, why each book is in it.

1. Arther Koestler Darkness at Noon
Wonderful account of old Bolshevik Rubashov being 'persuaded' by Stalinist interrogators-principlally Gletkin- to 'admit' his non-existent crimes- not necessarily because he committed them but because doing so would objectively assist the cause of the revolution. The best account of the clash of Marxist versus liberal values I've encountered and gripping from start to finish.

2. George Orwell Nineteen Eighty Four
Dystopian projection of totalitarianism worldwide, it pits Winston Smith against the invincible all seeing Big Brother- a clear version of the propoganda created version of Stalin. Animal Farm maybe should be in the list too but 1984 is the novel which most entered into mainstream culture in my view with its horriffic vision and gave the keener critique. Truly a book which helped prevent his awful predictions coming true.

3. Aldous Huxley Brave New World
Sort of science fiction dystopia which explores the downside of being perpetually happy. People at some time in the future live idyllic lives where all is provided throughout life including a wonder drug- a kind of ecstasy called 'soma' - which always provides a happy state of mind. The book ilustrates, beyond doubt that without some suffering, we would be even more miserable than we are and that overcoming obstacles is an essential part of the human condition.

4.Joseph Heller Catch 22
Ultimate anti-war novel which pokes brilliant fun at its absurdities through highlighting the poor bureacracies of armies- a soldier called Major Major being given the rank of ...? Major- and the ubiquity of the profit motive even when nations are seeking to destroy each other.

5.Charles Dickens Hard Times
Not an obviously political novel, maybe, but to me its message is explicitly so. The arid values of capitalism are wonderfully lampooned in what is possibly one of the two or three best novels ever written in English. Dickens' genius gift for characterisation has seldom been shown to greater effect.

6. David Mitchell Cloud Atlas
Another dystopian view of the future cleverly created via a number of intertwined tales. Here we gain a glimpse of what the world might be like once the energy has run out; once scientific irresponsibility has created rogue species and humans have been forced to live in backward societies dependent on primitive technolgies and methods of food production.

7. Orhan Pamuk Snow
Am just finishing off this outstanding book and can see that already it has become a classic analysis of Huntingdon's 'Clash of Civilisations', that is to say western values pitted against those of Islam. A Turkish poet, Ka, visits a remote town called Kars in eastern Turkey and becomes involved in a semi-absurd local coup by pro-secular forces against fundamentalist Islamists. All of the action and the characters are clothed in the numbing, overpowering, all purpose symbolic winter snows. The passions and strength of argument on both sides are vividly expressed. A book for our times.

8.Margaret Atwood Oryx and Crake
Another dystopian vision occupying similar ground to Mitchell above, but in Atwood's singular and inimitable style. This concerns a man called 'Snowman' who was once a key person in an earlier version of a crumbling future stage of society who retreats and retreats and eventually lives in a tree wrapped in filthy bed sheets. He sustains a dialogue with Oryx, a woman whom he once loved and who now is no more. A tour de force of imaginative writing- but the doom laden vision is not especially uplifting, even if the prose is.

9. Philip Roth The Plot Against America
A fantasy based on the idea that Roosevelt did not win the presidency at the outbreak of the second world war but that Charles Lindbergh did; on an isolationist and implicitly anti-semitic ticket. Roth bases his book in his personal family and social enviroment in New Jersey around that time and creates a wonderful kaleidascope of an emerging Jewish American identity, forged in the crucible of powerful yet covert racism.

10. Anonymous Primary Colours
We later found out the author was Joe Klein, a Clinton aide who was well qualified to clothe his experience and views on his former boss in the form of a rather well written novel. At once it was hailed as the definitive portrait of the best political communicator since Churchill and Roosevelt(Oh Lor, I feel another list coming on...) who was also beset with human frailties and obsessions which eventually overwhelmed his political career.

Comments:
A few you could have included:

'What a Carve Up!' Jonathon Coe
'It's a Battlefield' Graham Greene
'Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' Robert Tressel
'Gulliver's Travels' Swift
'Iron Heel' Jack London
'Farenheit 451' Raymond Bradbury
'Lord of the Flies' William Golding
'To Kill a Mockingbird' Harper Lee
'Cry, the Beloved Country' Alan Paton
'Life and times of Michael K' JM Coetzee
 
All good choices, Steve, especially Coetzee and Golding. Didn't like Coe book though for some reason. Maybe I should have extended my list to a top 50- but it would take too long to draw up.
 
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