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A Small Revolution in Germany by Philip Hensher – review | Books

It’s sometimes hard not to picture Philip Hensher’s non-writing hand stroking a cat as he comes up with sly ways to throw shade. Here’s Spike, the narrator of his new novel, who has nothing to read on holiday: “The only books on the hotel’s meagre bookshelf were tawdry German thrillers and the equivalent of joke books for children, and the teenage love story someone had left on the reception desk, the book that was everywhere this year.”

So much for Sally Rooney, but let’s not get distracted, despite Hensher’s evident fondness for drive-by scorn. As Spike says, “this is a story about politics”: specifically, about the hard left in early 80s Sheffield, where he falls in with sixth-form radicals who graduate from showing off about reading Das Kapital to dropping fake bombs through letterboxes. Now he’s a middle-aged lecturer, quietly awaiting revolution while others in his set – including the Tory home secretary and a prominent rightwing journalist – have long dropped their ideals, if they ever had any.

The opening third has a comic air. Spike is reading Ibsen alone in a classroom when he’s buttonholed by a Marxist (and future high court judge): “What are they, plays? That’s the industrial system, buy tickets and sit in order in some kind of class hierarchy, rich there, bourgeoisie there. Agree to sit silently for three hours, yeah?”

“We’re anarcho-syndicalists,” says another pupil, later shown as a socialite meeting an untimely death. “She took a black marker pen. She wrote ‘ANARCHO-SYNDICALILISM NOW’ on the board.”

Seriousness comes from Spike’s reciprocated love and lust for Joaquin, the son of a Chilean leftist disappeared by Pinochet, but also from Hensher’s familiar icy tone, which keeps us nervously on our toes – not least during the 100-page midsection in East Germany, where Spike is briefly jailed after a run-in with a Stasi informer, and there’s a moment of sexual violence all the more unsettling for how it’s swept under the carpet.

By the final third, with the narrator in his 50s, living with Joaquin, still ready to put a brick through the window of his flashy local estate agent’s, the story morphs into a machiavellian whydunnit; or at least to Spike it does, as he speculates about how far the home secretary might have gone to protect his designs on the top job. When Spike boasts that, in boyish middle age, he and Joaquin “have the same teeth, and the same trousers, that we had 30 years ago”, you can’t help but wonder if all his teenage posturing – about, say, how the Soviets should send troops into Poland pour encourager les autres – represents some kind of symbolic picture in the attic; it doesn’t help that on the facing page Spike pointlessly describes a passing woman as “slab-bosomed in a Slipknot T-shirt”.

That line isn’t meant to tell us about Spike’s character; it’s more that Hensher simply can’t help himself. He relies on his reader staying tuned to the bigger picture, which he as a writer can’t or won’t do: from a description of a girl who enjoys shitting on the floor of Spike’s school to a friend’s depressed mother who does nothing but watch Eartha Kitt videos, via a fat man Joaquin spies sitting naked alone every Sunday afternoon from his balcony, the detail risks blurring the novel’s basic point – that you can grow old without compromising your beliefs. Yet even here the narrative logic raises an eyebrow: it’s not enough to portray Spike positively, it seems – his former associates must also be shown (in one case) as a rapist and (in another) as a murderer.

Asking hard questions of what it might mean to “grow up”, politically speaking, ought to be fertile ground for fiction, especially with the left currently on the floor. But you sense ideas matter less here than score-settling – which may be the last thing any of us needs right now.

A Small Revolution in Germany by Philip Hensher is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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