A Small Revolution in Germany traces by what can look like a principle of novelistic clairvoyance the trajectories of Spike’s school mates as they evolve or devolve from comrade to careerist, into Tory Home Secretaries, slipshod journalists, socialites, High Court judges with peerages.
Spike tells us early on that this is a story about politics (and it is) but A Small Revolution in Germany is also a novel about friendship, with its weird intensities and fallings off. Part Two, which begins with a marvellous passage riffing on and extending Dr Johnson’s remark that friendship is a stuff in need of constant repair, takes us deep into the East Germany of 1987.
Spike and Percy want to experience a socialist state first hand. And so they do. In Berlin, in Weimar and in Leipzig they find themselves lying to the authorities, running into trouble with a Stasi informer, even getting locked up – none of which quite succeeds in making a dent in Spike’s political convictions. (Percy, who has become an adviser to a Labour MP, is already fatally compromised.)
This extended, brilliant and sometimes maddening middle section details with great vividness and accuracy of evocation the contradictions at the heart of the DDR and points to the ways in which friendship might sometimes manhandle its way beyond repair.
By Part Three, Brexit is being debated. Spike and Joaquin, still a pair, enjoy Childish Gambino and walking holidays – one of which furnishes a superbly realised set piece that yields up further narrative surprise, further disquiet.
Hensher’s way with coincidence, here, delights rather than dismays. And the threads that connect up the narrative throughout its three parts are a marvel of calculation and instinct.
In fact, A Small Revolution in Germany is formally a huge coup because what appears to be utterly traditional is compositionally, word for word, comma by comma, a tour de force outshining most experimentalism. There are, it’s true, dreamlike sections – printed in weird typographic swirls – but the upshot is to create the uncanny feeling that apparently traditional narrative can read more freshly than any self-conscious push towards innovation. Nothing in this novel feels conventional. No character is minor. The dogs become as memorable as the people.
This is a political novel driven by neither program nor paradigm but by an avid curiosity. Spike, whose self-satisfaction is only occasionally assailed by self-doubt, is set brilliantly against those who have developed or forgone their own ideals. But A Small Revolution in Germany is above all a technically astonishing novel that, with its arias of speculative reconstruction and its manipulation of a complex and unpredictable time scheme, extends (or feels as if it does) first-person narration beyond its established limits.
That Spike’s small, internal revolutions should compel us as much as any bloody and tumultuous uprising and that a self-declared “political” novel could – for all its firm assuredness of surface – be so warm, so funny and so human, feels like a small revolution for fiction.