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All the King's Men

Robert Penn Warren <em>Prion, 438pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 1853753483

To describe All the King's Men as "a great political novel" is as condescending as calling Moby Dick "a great fishing novel"or Middlemarch "a great West Midlands novel". Perhaps it is better to say that, along with Henry Adams and Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren is one of the few American writers to have produced a novel about politics which has survived and deserves to prosper.

In the opening chapters, modern readers might fear that a plot which seemed original in 1946 has been reduced to cliche by subsequent imitations. Willie Stark is a petty official in an unnamed southern state. He loses his job for exposing the local cabal, but earns belated recognition when his warnings about a fraudulent contract to build his town's school are vindicated by the deaths of children. Flatterers from the state capital persuade him to run for governor. Stark takes the campaign and electorate seriously, but pulls out when he discovers that he's been put up by the city boys to split the opposition vote. We meet Stark again four years later. He has secured the governorship by turning himself into "the Boss", a vicious populist who can cover up embezzlement and worse while earning the adulation of the red-necked mob.

The danger of being instructed yet again that power corrupts, and that youthful idealism must give way to hard-headed pragmatism in the real world's university of life, moves closer by the page. But All the King's Men avoids platitudes, in part because it is a political novel with peculiarly apolitical obsessions. Stark is a caricature of Huey Long, the grandiose and depraved governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, who nevertheless revived his state with Keynesian deficit financing and public works. Yet Warren mentions the Great Depression just once - and then in passing. We are given a discourse on ends and means, but no understanding of why the end of relieving the deepest slump in the history of capitalism might justify many means. Like Primary Colours, Joe Klein's inferior substitute, All the King's Men does not discuss the gushing source of American corruption - campaign financing. Rather, Stark's vice is his belief that anyone who crosses him can be brought to heel by the exploitation of sex, money, flattery or fear. In a passage that is repeated like a chant, Jack Burden, Stark's morally blank aide and the novel's cool narrator, is told to find the secret of a judge who won't get into line.

"But suppose there isn't anything to find?"
And the Boss said, "There is always something."
And I said, "Maybe not on the Judge."
And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

The dialogue is saturated with biblical fatalism. There are lyrical passages on highways and landscapes, and confident assertions on the human condition, which can all sound archaic to a cramped and ironic postmodern sensibility. But then, if you were to give many contemporary writers Warren's themes, they would babble something about the ends never justifying the means and leave it at that. Warren's strength is that he sees ends and means, pragmatism and utopianism, as a dialectic in which the roles of man of action and man of ideals swap and collide and transform the combatants into unexpected forms. Finding the judge's dirty secret brings disaster to Burden and to many who love him, but it also forces him to come to terms with his life's failures. Stark is brought down not by his contempt for decent means - which will clearly take him to the Senate, and perhaps the presidency, if he has the courage to stick to his lack of principle - but by his love of his son and mistress, and by his desire to leave one unsullied achievement for posterity. There is a marvellously drawn female politico, of a type you bump into daily at Westminster, who is determined to be as mean as the boys, but is undone by customary ruthlessness provoked by unaccustomed sentimentality.

There may always be something, but it may not always be predictable.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Tony Blair is a Bobo

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis