There is precious little revolution to be had here from a title promising at least some degree of drama. Philip Hensher’s work, instead, focuses on the ideological changes experienced by its core characters; yet, even these changes do little to satisfy and reward a reader for the time invested in the reading. A plot line only really emerges in the latter stages, in respect of one character in an erstwhile group of friends: having risen to the rank of Home Secretary in the UK, one of this group is depicted in manipulative self-service, lest his teenage politically Left activism be discovered in his current right-wing Cabinet position, thus harming his career ambitions. Hensher seems to be at pains to outline the Left-Right swing, the discarding of former ideology by his characters, and the juxtapositional stance of his first person main character, as central vehicle on which to place his narrative arc. The flesh around the bones is, however, a turgid affair.
A Small Revolution in Germany (4th Estate, 2020) spans a period between the early 1980s and the present day and begins with a set of militant Left activist school students who adopt the narrator, nominally nicknamed Spike, into their band of misfits. From the outset, there is a kind of off-kilter arrangement at play in the simple choice of some of the character names: nothing seems to really fit. Percy Ogden is, at first perhaps, the group leader, standing up as he does to interrogate an army officer who visits the school with what transpires to be a rehearsed questioning; James Frinton is the quiet, observant boy who later switches political allegiance and becomes the Home Secretary; Mohammed and Eric are minor characters who, we are told, are Muslim and black, respectively, and their inclusion reads as a token one (late on, we discover that Hensher has indeed brought these two into the fray, amongst others, to satisfy the political optics of Frinton’s former days); Tracy is a hollow, shallow supporter of anarcho-syndicalism, who winds up a drunkard. Spike falls in with Ogden and then with another group known as the Spartacists: one of whom, Joaquin, a Chilean refugee, becomes his life-partner. Nothing is written of the fact that Spike is underage as this sexual relationship begins to form.
Throughout the book, Hensher takes us back and forth in time and slowly exhibits a cast of thoroughly deplorable core characters. It isn’t the nocturnal escapades of vandalism and youthful righteousness, the display of political extremism, that renders the merged groups as such; it is, rather, that the reader can stretch to no degree of empathy for any one of the characters in question. There is nothing close to likeability in any of the people the author paints and they variously fall away from the pages in a purge of time without the least of the reader’s concerns. A cover blurb point of note suggests that Hensher’s work is ‘a meditation on youth and constancy and reinvention’: there is a meditative quality here, but there is no richness of texture to pore over.
In the second section of three, Hensher has Spike and Ogden taking a trip to what is now the former East Germany, in 1987, to experience the German Democratic Republic (DDR) as part of their socialist calling. The trip does not go to plan and, after a lengthy episode in the Reisebüro in Berlin, seeking permission to enter the DDR amidst the pointless petty beauracracy and political posturing of its officals, the two travel farther into the country, whereupon they are arrested in Weimar: Ogden sees it fits to burn banknotes in public and the authorities, who have been conducting their own surveillance all along, do not take kindly to this escapade. It is with regards to Spike’s days-long internment in a police cell, suffering repeated interrogation after interrogation, that Hensher writes: ‘Those hours were my revolution in Germany, the revolution without which, Lenin tells us, we are lost. I understood at the end of them what politics did, and the narrative it imposes on us.’
Joaquin arrives to save the day, pulling strings, and takes Spike back home whilst Ogden is left to fester. In fact, Ogden disappears from the pages, making only a brief return some time later in review of the fact that, in the present day, he is now a journalist, claiming also to be homosexual, which does Frinton’s sleazy ‘man of all people’ act no harm at all. It is Frinton (who the author insists on repeatedly and irritatingly referring to for the majority of the time by use of his full name, James Frinton) who Spike’s thoughts increasingly turn to in the third section (as he and Joaquin take a walking holiday in the former DDR) and who, it seems, Hensher has had his focus on the whole time. He takes us back to the now-Home Secretary’s University days at Oxford, where Tracy (then known as Alexandra) also studies (in the loosest sense), as well as Spike. Tracy is in possession of a number of incriminating letters sent by Frinton to her in the years just previous: letters that are the only evidence of the now right-wing minister’s former Left-activist days. For obvious reasons, it is alluded, Frinton would like such evidence to disappear. Hensher, however, is somewhat unsubtle in his unravelling of this unsavoury episode.
A Small Revolution in Germany is occasionally salted with references to literary sources, which are presumably flavourings for additional authenticity. However, the overall effect is one of trying just a little too hard. The sleeve notes of this offering inform us that Hensher is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Bath Spa and so, in context, the above literary reference-making does not appear at all out of sorts; yet, it does not result in an authentic fictive flow. What is also particularly troubling about such credentials is that someone with such a position ought really to be aware of what a first person narrator can and cannot reasonably be expected to know: Hensher regularly has Spike musing on matters he has not been party to, with the justification that he supposes it all went such way, or that he (the character) does know (or did once know) the other characters after all (this, despite the fact that Hensher’s central theme appears to be that of change), or that he, Spike, has seen a couple of the letters (unspecified) that Frinton once sent to Tracy.
A Small Revolution in Germany ultimately concerns a small group of headstrong but irksome young left-wing characters who mostly grow up to be equally irksome right-wing characters, or they simply just fall away from the pages. Hensher sprinkles the first sections of his work with tiresome dialogue such as: ‘But how can a bourgeoisie even function in a free-floating way outside the paradigms of a society?’; he concludes it in the present day, in the former DDR, with passing references to the UK’s exit from the EU, with the fifty-something Spike and Joaquin appearing to be the only ones to have held onto their youthful ideals. Change happens, Hensher seems to say, but some things remain. There are, however, not always small revolutions, revelations in understanding, in certain works read.