The New Statesman guide to the best political fiction: part three

Naomi Alderman, Rachel Reeves, Stuart Maconie and Rowan Williams share their picks.

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More authors and public figures recommend their favourite political fiction for the New Statesman. Also, read parts one and two of the series.

Naomi Alderman
The Dispossessed (1974)
by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed is nothing less than a full examination of how a human society could work without capitalism, without buying and selling, without the accumulation of wealth. The novel follows Shevek, a physicist, who travels from his anti-capitalist world of Anarres to its consumerist twin planet, Urras. He decided to leave Anarres because its physics department had fallen under the power of a clique – always the problem with a centrist system. But he finds the Urras system less open than he’d hoped. Le Guin’s subtitle for the novel – “An Ambiguous Utopia” – is wry and accurate. Neither system is perfect, nor could be.

As ever with Le Guin, there are no easy answers, just interesting observations and questions. How do you create a society that does more than mouth the cliché that all of us are equal – a society that actually tries to live up to it? Some of the most brilliant parts of the novel are about the social structures that help children and adults learn to “stop egoising”, casting a bright light on the way that our consumerist society teaches us quite the opposite, day in and day out.

A L Kennedy
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
by Kurt Vonnegut

I read a great deal of overtly political literature in my teens – books such as James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Victor Serge’s Men in Prison – but my earliest contact with political writing was Slaughterhouse-Five.

It dropped me into a former soldier’s view of the dirty, politically popular obscenity we call war. Vonnegut was writing during America’s Vietnam nightmare about an earlier, more morally admirable conflict – and he was saying that conflict is never admirable. A prisoner of war in the Second World War, he had survived the Dresden firestorm by hiding in a meat locker. His protagonist Billy Pilgrim also survives, remembers and is either afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder or abducted by aliens. Why not?

Frail bodies were crushed in insane crusades, while perverse imaginations created profitable destruction. Vonnegut didn’t just condemn it all; he found beautiful, shatteringly funny, creative anger to condemn it. This was fiction with the punch of fact, repeatedly applicable. Vonnegut understood the lunacy of organised murder, obedience and hope. He helped me understand that kindness is imperative because life is, inevitably, unbearable for everyone without it.

Gavin Francis
And the Land Lay Still (2010)
by James Robertson

How did the SNP turn from a “bourgeois pressure group”, as James Robertson has one character describe it, into the Holyrood party of government? And the Land Lay Still goes a long way to answering that question – a magnificent and subtle novel that maps tectonic shifts in Scotland’s political and social landscape over the past six decades. It’s a dense weave of narratives: Highland and Lowland, rich and poor, nationalist and socialist, men and women. The breadth of its characters, too, is panoramic, including an ex-prisoner of war, an Edinburgh photographer, a mining town matriarch and a Tory MP. Robertson shows a nation exploring its identity, testing the strength of its ideas and wondering which of many paths might encourage a politics in which prosperity is shared rather than hoarded.

“Why not be independent?” asks Jack Gordon, the ex-PoW. “Surely that’s the question?” “The question’s no why not,” replies Don Lennie, a self-declared socialist. “The question’s why? Why change things? Why build Hadrian’s Wall again? … I’ve mair in common wi a bus driver in Manchester or a welder in Wales than I’ll ever hae wi the Duke o Montrose…”

Geoff Dyer
A Flag for Sunrise (1981)
by Robert Stone

I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time agonising over my choice. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? I’ve opted in the end for Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise, because it could just as easily qualify as a religious novel as a political one, or as a thriller. But mainly because it is so obviously the work of a novelist, someone whose vision and understanding are inseparable from the form.

Koestler and Solzhenitsyn were able to write philosophy or history. For Stone, it was the novel or bust; any ideas or notions he had could only be glimpsed and realised in fiction. It’s set in the 1970s in an imaginary Central American republic (as dictatorships like to refer to themselves) where the regime is backed, naturally, by the US and where the destinies of a wide cast of characters and vested interests converge. The ghosts of Conrad and Greene are a goading presence and that perhaps explains why political machinations assume the implacable quality of fate.

Leo Robson
No Time Like the Present (2012)
by Nadine Gordimer

There are whole shelves of Nadine Gordimer’s fiction that I’ve never read, so if I haven’t plumped for the wrong author altogether (I’m no expert on Anthony Trollope), I could still have chosen the wrong book. No matter: Gordimer’s final novel, No Time Like the Present, is an extraordinary piece of work. Written in strange, clumsy-seeming English, not the familiar disorder of pastiche modernism but a bespoke emotional shorthand, as in the work of Henry Green, it portrays a mixed-race couple, Steve and Jabulile, active in the Struggle, confronting life after apartheid. The old regime, vanquished and unmourned, inspires a kind of nostalgia for a time when the South African landscape was binary and when it seemed as if the future couldn’t fail to offer something better. The title is partly ironic but also briskly no nonsense – that long-awaited future is here and must be faced. By setting Steve and Jabulile in familiar domestic and professional environments, it assesses as few novels do the human stakes and ends of political resistance.

Ruth Scurr
Les Misérables (1862)
by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s masterpiece is a novel of approximately 1,500 pages, helpfully divided into 365 short chapters so it can be read a chapter a day over the course of a year. The persistence of poverty is the problem at the heart of Les Misérables: why, despite progressive revolutionary ideals and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, are the poor always with us?

The novel begins in 1815, when the main character, Jean Valjean, is released from prison after serving a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. In his quest to become a better man, Valjean is drawn into the revolutionary events of the 1830s. While he was writing Les Misérables, Hugo was affected by the revolution of 1848. The novel was published in 1862. It made a vast amount of money for Hugo, who was paid an advance of £3m in today’s terms, and it has stood as a monument to the misery of the poor and the perils of debt ever since.

Sarah Hall
Z for Zachariah (1974)
by Robert C O’Brien

Before The Handmaid’s Tale and The RoadZ for Zachariah imagined a world brought to its knees by human malpractice and the fight for survival. In the aftermath of an apocalyptic nuclear event, a teenager called Anne Burden is left alone on the family farm, fending for herself. When a man in a radiation suit arrives, she nurses him through sickness, but then must struggle free of his attempts to dominate her, sexually and intellectually. A subversive retelling of the Adam and Eve story, O’Brien’s young adult novel was considered too controversial to be stocked in some US schools when it was published. Today it still resonates, exploring the gender struggles that systematic collapses create and the oppressive regimes imposed in the name of “civilisation”.

Ahdaf Soueif
Prisoner of Love (1986)
by Jean Genet

Invited by a friend to Beirut to witness the Israeli invasion, Jean Genet went into the Chatila camp shortly after the Lebanese Phalangists, in co-operation with the Israeli army, had massacred some 1,700 Palestinian refugees. This was 1982. He wrote a short piece about Chatila. But then he started on the text that had lain within him since 1970, when he spent a year with young Palestinian fighters in Ajloun, Jordan, and fallen in love with the Palestinian Revolution.

It had been more than 20 years since Genet had completed his last work, The Screens, and announced that he had “nothing more to say”. Now, as he worked on his text – clear-eyed, romantic, passionate, cool, prescient – and as he worked once again in peak form on a sustained, literary, politically engaged text, Genet discovered he had cancer of the throat. Treatment and even pain-killers dimmed his vision. He rejected them and worked. When he died, they found the proofs of Un Captif amoureux corrected and neatly stacked. On top of them he’d left a note, a last word of advice: “Search for the image.” In Captif, Genet creates profusions of imagery and delivers a masterclass in the fusion of art and political engagement.

Ahdaf Soueif co-edited (with Omar Robert Hamilton) “This Is Not a Border: Reportage and Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature” (Bloomsbury)

Rachel Reeves
North and South (1855)
by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South is political in three senses: the division between the workers and the owners of the mills and factories; the lack of understanding and sympathy between inhabitants of the “tranquil” south and industrial north; and the inferior role occupied by women in industry and politics.

Although written more than 150 years ago, the industrial exploitation described by Elizabeth Gaskell is hardly alien to the modern reader – although instead of a textile mill, it would be a tech giant or multinational v the self-employed, non-unionised contractor today.

But perhaps most importantly, Gaskell’s heroine Margaret Hale knew that the personal was political. The story of Bessy Higgins, the young woman whom Hale nurses, dying from a disease of the lungs after working in a cotton mill since childhood, is one of industrial manslaughter. Margaret’s brother being court-marshalled for failing to obey orders is a story of a family torn apart and the unyielding power of the state. And Hale falling in love with the mill owner John Thornton is a love story – but it is also a story of a woman’s position in society and her refusal to obey the rules of gender or class.

Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West

Val McDermid
A Very British Coup (1982)
by Chris Mullin

Chris Mullin’s counterfactual fable of how the establishment conspires to bring down a radical Labour prime minister was as fascinating as it was entertaining when it was first published in the Thatcher era. Because the author was a left-wing Labour politician, it had the ring of authenticity that comes from insider knowledge. But beneath the satire, the power struggle and its outcome were also depressingly convincing at a time when we felt that a repressive right-wing government was there to stay.

Rereading it now, when not even losing a majority will topple another right-wing government, it’s disturbing how much still resonates. A property boom, an overwhelmingly right-wing press controlled by the few, the internment of political “enemies of the state”. And then the astonishing rise of a far-left Labour leader who is idolised by young voters and at odds with many of his more moderate MPs. The key difference between Harry Perkins and Jeremy Corbyn is that Perkins sweeps to power. And that difference may not remain the case indefinitely. If Corbyn seeks a cautionary tale, he need look no further.

Rowan Williams
The Middle of the Journey (1947)
by Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling’s only novel was born out of the Cold War and the inflamed political climate around its espionage cases. The book’s abiding force is in the way that Trilling, one of the greatest literary critics of his generation, depicts the seductive dead ends of both a mechanistic progressivism without the resources to deal with human failure or specific personal suffering and a self-indulgent, passive conservatism, for which failure and suffering become an alibi that permits us to expect nothing and change nothing. It’s a low-key narrative but full of insight and very gentle satire, treading a line between ironic detachment and the sort of conviction that turns out to be emotionally illiterate. Trilling asks: how do you go on acting hopefully when you know you will die? It is a question that insists you identify what you think is worthwhile in and for itself.

Sarah Perry
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

When I was a child, my father spent time in what was then communist Yugoslavia. What he told me – none of it, as I recall, especially harrowing – made me ask for a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It remains for me the perfect illustration that politics is not an abstraction but can become an implacable machinery, grinding individuals into nothing more than expendable parts. My mistrust of political extremism perhaps stems from here. Grand, benevolent, even noble ideas can end with starving men fighting over a single fish eye in a bowl of broth.

Sarah Churchwell
Democracy: an American Novel (1880)
by Henry Adams

Democracy was such a thinly veiled exposé of the corrupt administration of Ulysses S Grant that Henry Adams, a descendant of two presidents (John and John Quincy Adams), published the novel anonymously. A widow, Madeleine Lee, becomes a Washington insider because she wanted to see “the clash of interests, the interests of forty millions of people and a whole continent, centring at Washington”. She is wooed by a senator who admits to rigging elections and allowing a corporation to buy influence.

It is a novel about disillusionment in the American system, respecting the ideal of democracy, while recognising its impossibility. An exasperated foreign minister, asked what he thinks of Washington, gives vent to his irritation: “You Americans believe yourselves to be excepted from the operation of general laws… Rome, Paris, Vienna, Petersburg, London, all are corrupt; only Washington is pure! Well, I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States.”

Most of Adams’s insights into the vicious circles of American political life remain as applicable as ever: “Democracy, rightly understood, is the government of the people, by the people, for the benefit of senators.”

“Are we for ever to be at the mercy of thieves and ruffians?” Madeleine Lee demands at one point. “What is to become of us if corruption is allowed to go unchecked?” What indeed.

Hedley Twidle
No Cold Kitchen (2005)
by Ronald Suresh Roberts

If many 18th- and 19th-century novels took shape as fake biographies, can biographies be considered fake novels? I came across this idea while rereading Ronald Suresh Roberts’s life of Nadine Gordimer, No Cold Kitchen, and revisiting the controversy that surrounded its publication in South Africa. Having given Roberts privileged access to her papers, Gordimer withdrew authorisation at the last minute. A highly enjoyable (for onlookers) literary scandal ensued. International publishers bowed to the Nobel laureate’s wishes, and this 700-page baggy monster only appeared on a small Johannesburg imprint.

Now that it is available online, I recommend it to anyone interested in novel-making and politics – from interpersonal power relations to vast socio-political forces. A detailed, opinionated, uneven, often brilliant and sometimes scurrilous piece of work, it tracks the complex gestation of Gordimer’s novels and follows the trajectory through which she migrates from the anguished white liberalism of her early work to solidarity with the liberation struggle from the 1960s – a solidarity that is nonetheless refracted and complicated through her subtle, ambivalent and dangerous prose.

Robert Macfarlane
This Blinding Absence of Light (2000)
by Tahar Ben Jelloun

This novel, translated from French by Linda Coverdale, recounts the experiences of a prisoner in Morocco’s notorious Tazmamart jail, a specialist incarceration facility deep in the desert, designed to destroy the body and spirit by increments. The story that unfolds is one in which determined cruelty and determined hope keep company, and in which the only possible counter to brutality is something close to mysticism. The voice that speaks to the reader offers a scoured, scarred testimony that is hard to hear but impossible to abandon. The book as a whole seems to me a terrible, triumphant vindication of the novel as a political form: proof of what prose fiction can still achieve that campaigning journalism, reportage and even film still cannot.

Stuart Maconie
Animal Farm (1945)
by George Orwell

Shamefully, I still have the first copy of Animal Farm I ever read – the slender, grey hardback doled out to me on my first day in English at grammar school, so crammed with spidery pencil notes that I was instantly in Mr Charnock’s esteem for knowing that Napoleon was Lenin, the dogs were his NKVD secret police and that Animal Farm was no Black Beauty. Rather, it is the darkest, saddest, most penetratingly intelligent work ever written about politics and people. Even aged 11, I realised that people were the subject here and we were a long way from Johnny Morris’s amusing Bristolian ostriches on Animal Magic.

Once read, it’s never shaken from the mind. When I think of the best qualities of the British working class – fortitude, loyalty, fairness – I think of Boxer the horse, endlessly exploited by the slippery and shifty of both the left and right. When some fresh-faced youth (of any age) is evangelising about a new messiah, system or path to revolution, I find myself smiling thinly and thinking, just as the stoical Benjamin did, “Donkeys live a long time.” There are better-known lines in this masterpiece, but none better captures its bitter, defiant spirit. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue