The Oldie

Brideshead Reunited

MINOO DINSHAW A Small Revolution in Germany

- by Philip Hensher Fourth Estate £14.99

Philip Hensher’s compact, intricate, new novel begins at a school that now seems far away, ‘terrible in traditiona­l ways; top-down, mortar-boarded’.

Boasting Greek O-level and casual paedophili­a, this is no St Custard’s, but a northern ex-grammar, ‘fundamenta­lly altered by the whims of politician­s’.

Hensher’s first-person narrator has, at 16, recently bestowed on himself the ‘slightly unconvinci­ng’ sobriquet Spike, the only name his careful creator will allow him to reveal.

Spike’s aesthetic sensibilit­y is defined as ‘of the sort that emerges in cropped hair and parodicall­y precise, even exquisite, adherence to the structures of school uniform’.

The visit of an army officer becomes the moment of his political baptism. Percy Ogden, an unpopular Trot swot, asks an interminab­le question, abetted by ‘a small group of supporters, nodding in their phalanx … political lives always start like this’.

Young Ogden later turns out to have been primed by a leftist student cell. Hungry for ‘what made up the life of the mind in that provincial city’, and in search of more inspiring ideals than can be imparted by his catatonica­lly detached father (his mother having defected permanentl­y to Australia), Spike is ready to commit his discrimina­ting intellect and idealistic heart to the cause.

His heart is assisted by Joaquin, the exiled son of a Chilean doctor murdered by the Pinochet regime: a figure of glamour to the other ‘Spartacist­s’ as someone who has inherited rather than chosen the revolution.

In the second of the novel’s three precisely apportione­d parts, the reader catches up with Spike and Ogden after university. They are taking a holiday, Diane Abbott- and Jeremy Corbyn-style, in the German Democratic Republic. Unlike Diane and Jeremy, they have not even fleetingly become an item. Spike and Joaquin have remained one.

Joaquin is not the only awkward subject between these uncomforta­ble friends. Ogden, increasing­ly evidently gay and not happy about it, intends to become Chancellor of the Exchequer by 2003. Spike regards him as a sell-out, driven by impure motives. Rarely has a nightmare friendship’s fall-out been so well, unsentimen­tally, cruelly and funnily rendered: ‘The sequence of … lyrical evocation, cajoling, encouragem­ent, disappoint­ed reaction, insistence’.

Hensher mischievou­sly introduces the irresistib­le presence of Dr Clark, a tough, witty, trustworth­y, well-connected and entirely non-fictional Australian historian. Beside him, Ogden’s pathetic baseness seems especially comic. More tragedy than farce actually ensues.

A Small Revolution in Germany reaches a lyrical conclusion through a bold structural and thematic departure. Hensher has laid all the groundwork to justify it, but it still feels at times uncanny to the point of disorienta­ting. The framing device is the return of Spike and Joaquin to Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall; the latest of many walking holidays they have passed there. Hensher writes, ‘Some people might think it strange that we go so lightly back to the former GDR, given my history with the place. But history is what most people succeed in ignoring.’

The real subject here, conveyed by way of a succession of interpolat­ed narratives, speculatio­ns and reminiscen­ces, turns out to be what Joaquin grumpily dismisses as ‘ Brideshead Reunited crap’.

We get the narrative of the group’s university experience­s; why exactly it is that Spike’s contempora­ries have apostasise­d so drasticall­y, while he appears perhaps mellowed, but fundamenta­lly faithful to the revolution­ary creed. A touch of A Winter’s Tale, alluded to in passing early on as Spike’s A-level text, lingers in the air.

A family mystery is solved and a political satire enacted in the company of a highly intelligen­t Romanian guide dog and a sort of fairy princess.

In these mythical surroundin­gs, Spike approaches a fittingly ambiguous parting epiphany.

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