Stuart Kelly

Philip Hensher’s latest novel is a State of the Soul book

A Small Revolution in Germany is elegant, intelligent and above all observant — whether of small details or of social codes

This is a very nuanced and subtle novel by Philip Hensher, which manages the highwire act of treating its characters with affection and anger at one and the same time. Politically, ethically and emotionally it places the reader in a kind of vertigo by addressing a singular moral question: is it better to be steadfast to your principles or to change tack as history twists?

The narrator is ‘Spike’, whom we first meet when he is 16 at the school assembly — featuring a recruiting officer who is blind-sided by one of the pupils. Spike is invited into a group of idealistic and pretentious people. Whether their politics are classical Marxist, anarcho-syndicalist, Trotskyite or some mishmash of all three is probably even a mystery to themselves. They loathe CND, they flirt with radical action, they are all promises, promises.

Nevertheless, they burn with the hope of revolution. Soon into the novel we realise that, as time passes, some will change and some will persist. It is the 1980s, and revolutions are coming (late Thatcherism, the End of History) but they are not the revolutions the young expect. In a clever fugue of narrative lines, the idea of aspiration becomes central to how the different lives diverge. The story goes on to a trip to the GDR and then a return after the reunification.

One feature of the book which is worthy of notice is its treatment of sexuality. Spike does not conform to the ‘gradual realisation of who I am’ narrative: when love arrives, it arrives as a lightning bolt. Nor does he, as the years pass, become part of a hedonistic culture. He is faithful. It might be possible to have written the novel with a female lover, with no obvious difference; and that is the point — there is no difference.

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