MINOO DINSHAW A Small Revolution in Germany
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.