Top 10 Books by Neel Mukherjee on Revolutionaries | Books

Jhe naxalite revolution – an ultra-left Maoist movement – ​​in Bengal and elsewhere in India in the late 1960s provides a strand of The Lives of Others. Here are works that I have found useful, over the years, for thinking about revolutions and armed struggles, and the people involved in them, both militants and those who are victims of them. A common theme running through most of these books is that revolutionary action is doomed to failure and that revolutionaries are either deceived or wrong or both; at worst, they are psychopaths and criminals. Idealism seems to be flawed the moment it translates into (usually mistaken) action.

I find this skepticism – and, in the case of VS Naipaul, this open disdain – towards any movement for progressive change fascinating. Is the status quo so appealing? For who? I find Nadine Gordimer’s complex engagement and Mahasweta Devi’s openly (and properly) partisan stance much more appealing than, say, Dostoyevsky’s demonization of anything that threatens hegemony (phew, I used that word) of the Orthodox Church. I have also tried to point out how porous the categories of “revolutionary” and “terrorist” are. Freedom fighters in India’s long struggle for independence from British rule, or members of the African National Congress, were once classified as terrorists. History, as they say, is written by the victors, but history also has many tricky corridors – how long must it be before all those tricky side passages are revealed?

It goes without saying that this is a very selective and subjective list. I had to leave out, for example, The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton, Guerrillas by VS Naipaul and Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (a writer I never liked, I must admit).

I gave the old title – a fake; in modern translations it is the most accurate demons – simply because I read it first, in Constance Garnett’s translation, as The Possessed. I cannot decide whether Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky should be called a true revolutionary in this scathing denunciation of idealistic and utopian revolutions, since the obvious revolutionary, his son, Pyotr Stepanovich, who leads the nihilistic shenanigans in a Russian provincial town, is so markedly influenced by the views of Verkhovensky Sr. This is an intensely political novel, examining, roughly, five different and opposing ideologies, but Dostoyevsky reserves the brunt of his anger for the new-fangled nihilism of Pyotr Stepanovich . Although skepticism is growing, I am not sensitive to Dostoyevsky’s Russian Orthodox Christianity.

This, Turgenev’s latest novel, is a world away from demons in the sympathy and kindness he extends to his revolutionary Despite him, Alexei Dmitrievich Nezhdanov. The illegitimate son of an aristocrat, Nezhdanov is a dreamy romantic. He comes from a class that has always been the target of satire for having spawned so many benefactors and revolutionaries – the wealthy, urban, educated upper classes who champion the cause of the oppressed. Turgenev, however, avoids derision and shows deep compassion. The cause championed by Nezhdanov is populism, which prompted the newly freed serfs to rise up against their landlords. He never really believes in the movement and when disaster ensues from his political action, as he always knew, Turgenev makes sure that our sympathies go entirely to Nezhdanov, unlike Pyotr Stepanovich.

The unparalleled novel about terrorism. The anarchist movement at the heart of the book is a revolutionary movement; Both Bakunin and Kropotkin influenced the writing of the novel. Inspired by the death of a French anarchist, possibly en route to the bombing of Greenwich Observatory, in 1894, the novel centers on secret agent and anarchist, Adolf Verloc, employed by a shadowy embassy to initiate an act of terrorism to provide Britain with a pretext to suppress revolutionary groups. Sound familiar? The novel asks deep questions about the morality of terrorism and how revolutionary ideals and idealism are always already compromised.

4. Aranyer Adhikar by Mahasweta Devi (1977)

The title can mean exactly opposite things, both The Rights of the Forest and The Right to the Forest. In fact, this Bengali novel, written by one of the greatest living Bengali writers, asks both questions. Who owns the rights to a forest that has been home to tribal people since ancient times? And does a forest have rights? It is the gripping and ultimately tragic story of Birsa Munda (1875-1900), the tribal revolutionary who organized a guerrilla army against the mighty British colonial force.

A tribute to Bram Fischer, the defense attorney in Nelson Mandela’s treason trial, Burger’s Daughter is Gordimer’s most immersive political novel, plunging us into the heart of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s. Rosa is the daughter of white Afrikaner anti-apartheid activists (and members of the South African Communist Party), both of whom died in prison. Rosa was raised with Baasie, a black boy the Burgers had adopted, until the family was separated and Rosa lost contact with Baasie. Years later, while living in a kind of exile in London, she finds Baasie, an encounter that will bring her back to South Africa and confront the question of the involvement of white anti-apartheid workers in the black struggle for freedom.

6. The Moro Affair by Leonardo Sciascia (1978; expanded edition 1983)

There are no revolutionaries in this book, only terrorists, but I have included it for two reasons, the minor one being that the terrorists in the book, the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), would have considered themselves communist revolutionaries . But the most important reason is the seminal nature of the book in examining how terrorism encroaches on the state and the complicated relationship of the state with terrorism. Sicilian writer (and politician) Sciascia’s investigation into the very public kidnapping of Brigate Rosse, the secret trial and ultimately the murder of Christian Democratic Party chairman Aldo Moro, reveals a very tangled web of deception, silence, collusion, corruption and vested interests affecting all areas. of Italian public life. Sciascia’s extraordinary book, using the tools of detective fiction, concludes that because the lines between fiction and reality are so blurred in Italian public life, there is no ultimate truth to be discovered.

It’s not a book I like, nor one of Lessing’s best books, but I decided to include it because the spirit that drives this book is a kind of contempt: contempt for the inaptitude and the hopeless immaturity of the middle classes to be (or become) real effective revolutionaries. The novel follows the trajectory of how Alice becomes a “good terrorist” almost accidentally. She walks back and forth through leftist communes until she joins a squat housing the Communist Center Union comrades. There Alice becomes the housewife, cooking, cleaning, restoring the mess the house has fallen into, while the men plan the bombing of a hotel in Knightsbridge. The action, of course, goes wrong. Lessing satirizes revolutionary poses adopted by affluent people living in affluent societies, but the important question to ask seems to me to be: “Why did so many ultra-left movements of the 1960s and 1970s turn to the terrorism?

8. Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising, 1930-34 by Manini Chatterjee (1999)

An eloquent and gripping book about the small group of revolutionaries, led by Surya Sen, who staged an attack on two armories in Chittagong in April 1930 and captured the headquarters of the European Club with a view to assassinating government and military officials of the British Raj. . It is a lesser-known story among the most important and famous stories – the 1857 uprising, the “Quit India” movement, Gandhi’s non-violent movement, etc. – of the struggle for Indian independence. I find it touching because he failed.

9. Magic Seeds by VS Naipaul (2004)

Naipaul’s work has repeatedly engaged with revolutions and revolutionaries in postcolonial societies in a way that very few post-war novelists have. There are several revolutionaries to choose from in his work, including Jimmy in Guerrillas (1975), or the frightening, opaque, absent president (“The Big Man”) in his masterpiece, A Bend in the River (1979). ), but I will choose Willie Chandran, the protagonist of his last novel, Half a Life (2001) and its sequel, Magic Seeds, because Willie, like Supratik in my novel, joins a Naxalite/Maoist guerrilla group in a forest in India (southern India in Willie’s case). But it is the late 1970s and the unraveling of the movement and its inevitable descent into compulsive violence, its corrupted and degraded ideals, is what interests Naipaul. The portrayal is chilling and shocking and makes for an uncomfortable but compelling read.

Well, I had to include a graphic novel and this catchy book, with its irrepressible fiery-haired heroine, is it. It also angularly relates to an intermittent theme on this list—the derision that writers seem to reserve for bourgeois or privileged revolutionaries, who are often seen (for example, by Lessing and Naipaul) as playing revolution. Sally Heathcote, meanwhile, is a revolutionary with a solid working-class background – she started out as a servant in the home of Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Heathcote becomes radicalized after a period in prison, during which she begins a hunger strike and is also subjected to this terribly inhuman treatment inflicted on suffragettes, force-feeding. She joins a secret group of suffragette activists who plant a bomb in Lloyd George’s house. It’s moving stuff, beautifully executed in black and white, with perfectly judged pops of color.

The Lives of Others, which was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, has just been released in paperback, priced at £8.99. Buy it from the Guardian Bookstore for £7.19

Thelma J. Longworth