“Trouble” explains a character in Neel Mukherjee’s “The Lives of Others,” is the “vivarium of politics.” In Howard Jacobson’s “J” the past is the most dangerous of countries. These two novels about troubled polities, and the lives of those living in them, are on the shortlist for the Man Booker prize. The winner is announced on Tuesday.
“J” is drawing comparisons with George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Set in a future Britain two generations after an outbreak of ethnically motivated violence, the novel centers on the love story of Kevern and Ailinn, nervous protagonists who can’t quite shake the feeling that someone is coming to get them.
Years earlier, the state had tried to cover up the violence through “Operation Ishmael,” renaming the entire population to obscure the perpetrators and victims of the mass murder. “Moby-Dick,” whose famous first line gives “Operation Ishmael’ its name, is one of the few novels still read, its theme of the vengeful destroying themselves fitting the mood of this future society.
The violence had been fueled by electronic communication, now severely out of favor. Ailinn remembers vaguely that her grandparents had phones that could send and receive short “letters,” but people would write such horrible things that the technology was phased out. The terror was organized on social media: “Twitternacht,” some called it.
Jacobson’s distinctive contribution is to limn a new kind of dystopia, one not of mass repression as in Orwell, nor of chemical and biological engineering, as in Huxley. Jacobson’s horror is of that of the general consensus, a groupthink of the masses.
This Britain of the future still thinks of itself as a free society. There are no explicit rules against reading freely and talking openly. Instead, a consensus has formed to let sleeping dogs lie. Jacobson’s is a totalitarianism of the sensibilities.
The population says sorry to one another constantly, but for nothing specific. There is no apology to the descendants of the victims: no one knows who to apologize to in any case. Instead everyone apologizes to everyone for everything, in the hope that mouthing the words will create a nonthreatening present-without-a-past.
Yet the past is not so easy to erase, and Kevern and Ailinn don’t feel secure. Kevern asks Ailinn why she always drives so fast, as if they were the white whale and Ahab himself was tailing them. “Ahab’s always tailing us,” she tells him. “That’s what Ahab does.”
Neel Mukherjee’s “The Lives of Others” is set in the changing economic and social world of late-1960s India. Mukherjee takes us into the home of the bourgeoisie Ghosh family, where multiple generations bicker under one roof amidst the decline of the family’s paper mill empire.
Punctuating the family drama are excerpts from a letter home written by Supratik, the son who has dropped out of college to travel India agitating for violent revolution. Toting Mao’s “Little Red Book” around the countryside, he is an intellectual figuratively and indeed literally out in the field, trying to explain revolutionary theories to starving farmers.
Family, class, and violence intertwine as Mukherjee dramatizes the ideas of some titanic figures of the modern age: Marxist, Freudian, and Maoist thought pops up throughout the story.
Having sloughed off one kind of domination by achieving independence from Great Britain, poorer Indians discover little has changed two decades on, only the skin color of the bosses. Landowners and the indigenous commercial class exploit laborers, taking advantage of their illiteracy and the corruption of the state. Supratik sees a “great magnetism” at work, where wealth and power attract more wealth and more power from the poorest and the most disenfranchised.
The novel becomes even more appealing as we become acquainted with the sprawling cast of characters. Generations of the Ghosh family deal with new realities as power structures change around them. In a delicious irony, the family’s key paper mill is laid low by union unrest, and the leader of the union turns out to be the son of a Ghosh family servant.
Patriarchal authority is crumbling in all spheres of life as the base of the economy shifts. “From what you’ve told me about what’s going on in your home,” a friend tells one of the younger Ghosh men, “we have living proof of Marx’s theories.”
Indeed, personifying the abstract is fiction’s great gift to political thought. Howard Jacobson’s warning about the future and Neel Mukherjee’s epic of the past offer rich rewards, whatever the final decision of the Booker judges.
Stephen Benedict Dyson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. Follow him on twitter @sbdyson.