Angry fictions: "My Revolutions" by Hari Kunzru and "Johnny Come Home" by Jake Arnott [Review]

Kunzru and Arnott base their novels around the activities of the Angry Brigade. Neither is trying to write history, but their inventions take them in opposite directions. Arnott imagines radicals colliding with the sexual underworld, Kunzru hypes them up into London’s Baader and Meinhof.

Kunzru denies My Revolutions is a representation of the Angry Brigade at all, but the bulk of its 1970s events have been painstakingly transcribed from history. Most of his characters’ experiences and actions could come direct from Gordon Carr’s book. When his group begins, their targets and communique style are copied from the Angry Brigade, too. But there are changes. Kunzru misses or ignores the libertarian/ authoritarian division in the new left, so these characters spout Mao and consider themselves a vanguard. They steal cars, not chequebooks. There are borrowings too: manipulative self-criticism sessions from the Weather Underground and a habit of working for the Palestinians from Germany’s Red Army Faction. So inevitably, bodies pile up along with the rhetoric: these are not people who ‘spent a lot of time having a good time’ (in John Barker’s words).

All these changes simplify history and make it more dramatic, more spectacular. It gets closer to the journalistic fantasy of unhealthy, inhuman and doomed (but newsworthy) terrorists. Even after escaping the inevitable apocalypse, the narrator fails to get a life. After heroin and Buddhism, he devotes his life to hiding (which fails). No doubt experts who think there really was an Angry Red Weather Army with a local branch in London will use this book to explain how political violence comes from bad thinking (the old ‘warped understanding of sociology’), emotional problems or is inherent in ‘idealism’. Like James Bond, this is a page turner, but no help to understand the political violence of the 1970s. Try reading Bommi Baumann or Stuart Christie instead.

Jake Arnott has a previous record for reimagining the past: early Class War was on the receiving end of his poetic licence in He Shoots Coppers. This is a fictional aftermath of the Angry Brigade. He could have called it Carry on Bombing: it’s not played for laughs, but it is readable, not trying for the “Serious Novel Effect”.

The main setting is the squat where troubled activists Pearson and Nina collide with rent boy Sweet Thing (“I don’t want to be free, I want to be expensive”). Everyone is the book is fucked up, but they are still human, so amidst all the mess, there is still some hope.

Both writers have done their homework, and Arnott looks comfortable as the story teller of the wicked city. Kunzru may have done too much research, and not wanting to waste it, failed to make his rewritten world autonomous and believable. Or maybe he hasn’t done enough. For someone apparently sympathetic to social change, Kunzru seems sadly unaware that ‘die on your feet or live on your knees’ is rhetoric. Our history is full of people living on their feet. Death and resignation are possible; but not the only options.