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

Contributions from Jess Phillips, Jason Cowley, Andrew Marr and Neel Mukherjee.

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Following on from part one, more New Statesman friends and contributors recommend their favourite political novels.

Andrew Marr
The Changeling (1958)
by Robin Jenkins

For me, the essence of politics isn’t anything to do with Westminster or climbing greasy poles. It’s to do with difficult moral dilemmas about the most important political issues – democracy, fairness, empathy, and so on. So no Trollope. I could make a stronger case for Dickens, or for John le Carré. But I’m going to go for a scandalously neglected Scottish writer of genuinely political books: Robin Jenkins, the great if torturedly socialist and democratic 20th-century novelist.

There are two books I find very hard to choose between. The Awakening of George Darroch (1985) is about the democratic schism in the Church of Scotland in Victorian times, which sounds dull but reads like the very best kind of thriller. But in the end, my choice is The Changeling, about Glasgow schoolteachers – well meaning, socially progressive – who take a boy from the slums with them on their family holiday. It’s a book about good people trying to do good things and coming up against the thrawn and cussed nature of humanity. It is poignant but also, at times, agonising. If you are at all interested in politics, read this book!

Erica Wagner
The Man in the High Castle (1962)
by Philip K Dick

Amazon’s adaptation of The Man in the High Castle left me cold, so there was nothing but to turn (belatedly) to the novel that was its source. Philip K Dick’s tale is set 15 years after the end of the Second World War: German and Japanese victory over the Allies was secured in 1947, and the United States has been carved up between the powers, with a neutral zone between the two. But where Frank Spotnitz’s admittedly atmospheric adaptation relies on the tropes of the counter­factual thriller, Dick’s original is a subtle, disturbing game that plays with reality. Its characters live in a world that is all too believable, especially in 2017. The Japanese and German overlords continue to vie for supremacy and personal loyalties trump (pun intended) political process. The conquered can only escape their conquest through an act of imagination – and perhaps even that is impossible.

Howard Jacobson
Little Dorrit (1855-57)
by Charles Dickens

No novelist more conscientiously took the temperature of his times, or surveyed society with more urgent comprehensiveness, than Charles Dickens, and in that sense no finer political novelist ever lived. If Little Dorrit pips Bleak House as the greatest evocation of Victorian England, it’s because it’s more scornful; and if it pips Our Mutual Friend, it’s because it’s more compassionate. Told with enormous comic zest and a near-despairing melancholy, Little Dorrit sets itself the task of winkling out small pockets of honour and disinterestedness from the dark prison shadows of greed and self-delusion that engulf London.

Whether it’s the “Circumlocution Office”, whose science of government is to obfuscate and delay, or the banker whose name is a play on the French for “shit” but who could not have amassed his wealth without the gullibility of ordinary, everyday investors like you and me, the objects of the novel’s satire are uncannily familiar to us. Only Dickens’s superabundance of creative energy is not of our time. The novel ends with the “noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain” fretting and chafing and making “their usual uproar”. We call them Tories and Corbynites. Otherwise nothing much has changed.

Jason Cowley
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)
by John le Carré

John le Carré has a more acute sense of English disappointment than any other postwar British novelist. His Cold War thrillers – most notably A Perfect Spy and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – are works of profound moral complexity. For le Carré, who was influenced by Conrad and Graham Greene, political and personal betrayal are inseparable. His most celebrated character, the spymaster George Smiley, is a cuckold. Humiliated in love, he seeks honour in his work. But frauds and double agents surround and enmesh him. I read Tinker Tailor after I had watched the celebrated BBC adaptation, which was first broadcast a few months after the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. So the central mystery of the novel – the identity of the Soviet mole – had been removed. Yet one reads on all the same, compelled and fascinated. The great theme of Tinker Tailor is English decline. Le Carré’s perfect spies are disenchanted. They were, as one character says to Smiley, “trained to empire, trained to rule the waves”. But that’s “all gone. All taken away.” They must live with the consequences of their loss.

Jess Phillips
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982)
by Sue Townsend

I’ve read this book every year since I was 11 and imagine I will for the rest of my life. It is deeply political and tackles the Thatcher years directly. However, it is the perfect skewering of class politics that makes it as relevant today as when it was written. The Mole family were a working-class tribe with all the trappings of what is now considered an underclass – but Townsend allowed them to be more than one-dimensional characters. A politically literate, intelligent, curious and above all wildly funny and painfully sarcastic working class is what I grew up with, and so rarely is it portrayed with accurate depth. For this reason, Adrian Mole (or Pauline Mole in my opinion) is more important now than ever.

Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

Kamila Shamsie
The Neapolitan Novels (2012-15)
by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is rightly lauded for its depiction of female friendship, but the books are also masterful in revealing what it means to live in violent societies – not places of war in a conventional way, but societies in which blood and fists are commonplace. Ferrante is particularly impressive in writing about the effect that violence has on women – how it curtails their freedom, poisons their imaginations, coarsens their attitudes and makes them dream of escaping without giving them the tools to do so completely.

Alan Johnson
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck believed in “the perfectibility of man”, which can sometimes make readers feel as if they were being preached at. This was undoubtedly why the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to him in 1962 was so controversial. I have an aversion to books by writers “on the left” that I am supposed to revere; I had to force myself to complete Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, for instance. But Steinbeck’s masterpiece is a mesmerising novel that fully deserved its Pulitzer.

Seventy-eight years after its publication, this portrayal of the hardship encountered by migrant agricultural workers during the Great Depression resonates down the ages. The Joad family was only trying to move from one state to another but its plight is comparable to migrants we have seen more recently attempting to cross continents. The characteristics of such people – a naive belief in the benevolence they will find when they reach their destination, a dignified response to the prejudice and discrimination endured on the way, and a fierce, almost fanatical desire to work and earn – are captured perfectly by a writer determined to put his eloquence at their disposal.

Alan Johnson’s “The Long and Winding Road” is published by Corgi

Olivia Laing
Three Month Fever (1999)
by Gary Indiana

If I had my way, no one would read anything but books by Gary Indiana, the Alexander Pope of our fake-news era. In 1999, Indiana wrote a non-fiction novel about Andrew Cunanan, the man who killed Gianni Versace. But fashion hardly gets a look in. What Three Month Fever is really about is money, power and a celebrity-obsessed culture – the forces that got a morally bankrupt reality-TV star elected president of the United States.

“As a magic charm against death,” he writes, “the rich fill their houses and private airplanes and seasonal hideaways with incredibly precious and intimidating versions of the everyday objects ordinary people have… creating an aura of awe and grandeur around the invisible Freudian fecal pile that makes it all possible.” I hope Gary is sitting in a bar in the East Village, writing a novel about the Trump years. From pee parties to the dismemberment of Obamacare, he’s the only novelist alive who could do it justice.

Olivia Laing’s latest book is “The Lonely City” (Canongate)

John Burnside
The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975)
by Edward Abbey

Though he is probably better known for other things – the novel that inspired David Miller’s film Lonely Are the Brave, his sometimes controversial activism in the Utah and Arizona deserts and the Thoreau-moves-to-Utah bestseller Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey sits high in my pantheon of 20th-century writers for his anarchic eco-activist novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. The book follows four likeable, no-nonsense and very funny nature lovers as they blow up any number of billboards and bridges, sabotage logging equipment and generally buck the system, while planning their ultimate strike against what they deem most unholy: the massive Glen Canyon Dam. It’s a book about serious matters – the wholesale de­gradation of the natural order, not just in the wider environment, but in the human spirit – but it’s also funny as hell. Look out for the scene in which one of the four, Doc Sarvis, pithily refutes Marshall McLuhan.

Peter Wilby
Embassytown (2011)
by China Miéville

The science-fiction and fantasy writer China Miéville once stood unsuccessfully for parliament as a Socialist Alliance candidate. Embassytown, set on a remote planet, is his masterpiece, a rich exploration of power, colonialism, cultural dominance, ecological collapse and urban immiseration. Above all, it is about language, how it frames our thinking and how it can control and subjugate.

Embassytown’s indigenous aliens – a weird cross between horses and flies – have two mouths that speak different words simultaneously. The only humans who can communicate with them are identical twins, laboratory-engineered to talk in sync. The aliens’ language demands perfect correspondence between words and what they describe: they cannot lie or use metaphors. As one character says: “How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language?” Their human guests introduce what is presumably intended as a more efficient means of communication. Once exposed to it, the aliens become addicted. Their civilisation, based on biotechnology, falls apart and a previously peaceful race turns aggressive.

Miéville has a riotous imagination and a beautiful writing style. Nothing I have read comes close to Embassytown in the subtlety, scope and daring of its subversion of conventional thinking.

John Gray
Darkness at Noon (1940)
by Arthur Koestler

Darkness at Noon has become part of a literature of disillusionment with communism. But far from being a Cold War relic, the book is an exploration of the perils of political faith that has acquired a new relevance. The central characters are Rubashov, an old-style Bolshevik who is in prison charged with counter-revolutionary activities, and Ivanov, his friend from the time of the Russian Civil War. It is Ivanov who conducts much of Rubashov’s interrogation and Gletkin, a younger officer of the GPU (later KGB), who uses more brutal methods and breaks Rubashov, who confesses to the false charges and is then shot.

Commentators have focused on Rubashov and Ivanov, but Gletkin may be a more interesting figure for present-day readers. Reviewing the book in these pages when it was published in English in 1941, George Orwell wrote: “Gletkin’s strength lies in the complete severance from the past, which leaves him not only without pity but without imagination or inconvenient knowledge.” At present, conventional politics is discredited and the idea of revolution is once again in the air. It is not hard to imagine the rise of a new generation of Gletkins, utterly convinced that their vision of a better world can be realised by the use of ruthless methods that have always failed in the past. In an irony that Koestler would have appreciated, Darkness at Noon can now be read as a premonition of the future.

Margaret MacMillan

The Plague (1947)
by Albert Camus

Oran is a dull provincial city of no particular distinction. Its inhabitants are busy with their daily lives. They do not bother much with emotions or ideas. When the first rats stagger out from their hidden crevices and die, people are perturbed but agree with the local officials that there is no need to make a fuss. Step by step, Camus shows the dawning recognition that Oran is in the grip of a plague and its citizens are trapped by a quarantine imposed from outside. Many simply acquiesce in what is now the new normal, some profit from it and a few soldier on heroically in what seems an unwinnable struggle.

First published in 1947, The Plague is an allegory of the collapse of France in 1940, the acceptance by so many French of the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators and the resistance of the few – but its meaning is timeless. “Other men will make history,” says Jean Tarrou, one of the few decent characters. “All I say is that on this Earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.” Indeed.

Hari Kunzru
The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1948)
by Victor Serge

Victor Serge’s life was more action-packed than most novels. A teenage anarchist in pre-First World War Paris, he was involved with the so-called Bonnot gang, which robbed banks to finance revolution. After serving a prison sentence, he joined the Bolsheviks in Russia but later fell foul of Stalin and had to flee. His experiences of the Stalinist terror form the basis of his masterful novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which tells the story of the assassination of a high government official and its ramifications in the febrile, paranoid milieu of 1930s Moscow. The investigation destroys one innocent person after another, and the novel’s mix of horror and absurdity makes it one of the great artistic responses to Stalinism.

Jim Crace
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959)
by Alan Sillitoe

I was brought up in a socialist household. Nearly all our books were of the left. Many of them influenced what I have taken as gospel ever since, especially Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, that sentimental clarion call to “organise”. But the work of fiction that affected me the most politically and still bears rereading for the boost of bloody-mindedness it provides was one I bought myself in about 1960, when I had just joined the Labour Party, was active in various peace movements and was discovering, as a timid teenager, the thrill of street demonstrations. It was Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, which rejoices in the power of the individual rather than of the crowd.

Sillitoe’s borstal boy protagonist lands an insolent, gleeful blow on the chins of his masters by refusing to excel. His politics is too spiteful, sullen and unbending, perhaps – but there is a dignity and glory to be celebrated, I think, in finding triumph in defeat and, therefore, never being cowed.

Linda Grant
The Plot Against America (2004)
by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s counterfactual novel looks back at the fictional election of the real-life Nazi appeaser and isolationist Charles Lindbergh as president of the United States. Roth begins, “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.” It is a novel about anti-Semitism and its collaborators among the duped who like to cosy up to authority, and those who defy them. It’s one of the great political novels for its depiction of how alterations in power affect ordinary men and women, and how obedience brings disaster.

When it became possible that Donald Trump would be elected US president, I reread – and others read for the first time – this novel of “It could really happen here”. As Roth explained in an interview, it had happened: to the Jews of Europe. Perhaps the novel’s only weakness is how it disposes of the Lindbergh presidency, so it simply disappears and liberalism is restored. We are waiting for Trump to decide that he prefers the toadying on the golf course to perpetual ridicule.

Roy Hattersley
The Prime Minister (1876)
by Anthony Trollope

Trollope’s Palliser novels hardly mention the policy of either government or opposition and can be easily mistaken for romances set against the background of parliament. But politics has a human aspect and Trollope had a unique ability to reveal glimpses of life in the two Houses that are as typical of members’ lives today as they were of the lives of their Victorian predecessors. Hard work on speeches that are destined to be made to an empty House. Promotion to silence dissent rather than to reward merit. Men (and now women) who are unfitted to the high office that by chance they achieve. They appear in all the Palliser novels. But The Prime Minister – because it includes the Silverbridge by-election – tops the poll.

Neel Mukherjee
Khirbet Khizeh (1949)
by S Yizhar

Published first in Hebrew in 1949, Khirbet Khizeh by S Yizhar (real name: Yizhar Smilansky) is an anguished look at the human costs of nation-building – specifically, the state of Israel in its nascent years. Israel had just declared its independence when the Arab-Israeli War broke out in 1948. Smilansky served as a soldier for the Israel Defence Forces and the experience forms the backbone of this searing little book. Sent to expel the inhabitants of a Palestinian village and appropriate the place for use by Jewish settlers, the narrator finds that his conscience gradually militates against his complicity, from its slow beginnings to the sudden descent of thunder in the word “exile” when he realises that what they are doing to the Arabs is exactly what the Jews have been at the receiving end of for centuries. This is a harrowing book, its morality agonised, its prose, aligned to the Old Testament, a torrent of feelings and images.

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