It’s funny (that’s funny-peculiar, not funny-ha-ha) the way things conjoin sometimes. Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about two books by writers that I know personally and whose work I find interesting.
On Thursday, Danny Morrison did a reading of his most recent book Rudi: In the Shadow of Knulp. It’s a novel that draws its inspiration from an earlier novel by the German writer Herman Hesse. But Morrison’s book is set in Ireland and follows the central character through the post-war period and then the 1960s and 1970s. After the reading I asked the author how was it that, as a committed republican, he had made the Troubles a sketchy background and the central character Rudi an apolitical being. The answer I got was that there is a great deal more in life than politics or even political conflict, and besides as a writer he Morrison had learnt that when you write from a political perspective, you risk producing something closer to propaganda.
The second writer is David Park. A friend today emailed me an interview with the author in the Guardian newspaper. In it Park talks about his latest book, The Light of Amsterdam, and how although his eighth novel, it was his first truly post-Troubles work. In other words in this novel, like Morrison, Park doesn’t allow politics a centre-stage place. I’ve read earlier works by both authors and I think these their most recent - Rudi and The Light of Amsterdam - are emphatically their best.
So is that what makes them good and is Danny Morrison right - to give politics or political struggle the foreground is to risk damage to the quality of the work? His book and Park’s most recent would suggest that that is the case. I’m not so sure. While it may be harder to successfully include politics or political struggle in a novel, it can and has been done. For example, an early work by another Belfast writer, Ronan Bennett, Overthrown by Strangers, gives centre stage to political violence. So too does his award-winning novel The Catastrophist. Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve-up is another case in point, and of course George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are classic examples of the same thing.
It’s a fascinating issue. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that most people largely ignore politics, except as a kind of beauty contest: which candidate looks best, which would you like to have a beer with, which caters to your prejudices. And maybe that’s why most novels by-pass politics. Perhaps if we taught our young people that politics is something which everyone has an obligation to be interested in, even to be involved in, there’d be less room in politics for phony smiles, back-stabbing and failure to deliver on promises. And more room in fiction for politics.