For the Review of African Political Economy, Colin Stoneman praises An Ounce of Practice, which he commends as a story of ‘British socialists wishing to fight the impact of neo-colonialism and neoliberal economics on Africa.’ The review can be read in full here.
Why does anyone write a novel? Why does a political person write a novel? Why does a political person write a political novel?
I ask these questions because I think that novels are important, not just as entertainment to pass the time in an airport, but because, better than non-fiction, they can also inform and make the reader reassess their lives, maybe even change their minds. Or can they?
Bertrand Russell, most famous for his mathematical and philosophical work and his political activism, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 ‘in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought’. Towards the end of his life he wrote that if he had his time again he would devote it to writing novels, believing them to be more effective at changing minds for the good than anything else he had done. Unfortunately, even his greatest admirers would not accept this on the basis of his two volumes of short stories (Satan in the suburbs and other stories, Russell, B. 1953. Satan in the Suburbs and Other Stories. London: The Bodley Head and Nightmares of eminent persons and other stories, Russell, B. 1954. Nightmares of Eminent Persons and Other Stories. London: The Bodley Head). As with Robert Tressell’s The ragged trousered philanthropists (Tressell, R. 1914. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. London: Grant Richards), the problem, in my view, is that writers with convictions and a desire to persuade others cannot avoid a tendentious flavour that the reader rumbles almost immediately. The already converted then try hard not to be bored and those who the author thinks need to be converted give up before they run too much risk. This applies both to socialist writer friends of mine and the likes of Ayn Rand on the far Right. Maybe if they were also great writers, we (and they) would go on reading? (Perhaps the most familiar case is that of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, an anti-Semite and supporter of the Nazis – also, according to many, a fine writer – but I doubt that he would convert me or any of us.)
So, pace Russell, should we concede that progressive politics and activism on the one hand, and literature on the other, are separate things and never the twain shall meet?
Leo Zeilig thinks not, and An ounce of practice, his second novel (following Eddie the kid, UK: Zero Books), makes a good case. I don’t much like the title (some will pick up the reference, others will be mystified), but the story the novel tells is compelling and illustrates the dilemma of many British socialists wishing to fight the impact of neo-colonialism and neoliberal economics on Africa. But this is not argued in a tendentious way – it is the accepted background. Although Viktor, through whose eyes most of the novel is seen, plainly draws on the author himself, Zeilig is brave enough to make him vacillating, weaker and less effective than the Leo that we know on ROAPE.
The first section rings authentic, being based on events in 2015 (and still continuing in 2018), involving trade-union and spontaneous protests against outsourced service-worker exploitation in London University. The inadequacy of Viktor’s arm’s-length (if not armchair) involvement is exposed by Tendai, a South African militant (albeit with an adopted Zimbabwean name), who shames him into action, helping him make contact with, and eventually join, a revolutionary group in Harare.
Viktor’s education then proceeds in a page-turning fashion through an affair (political and sexual) with Anne-Marie, a granddaughter of Patrice Lumumba, a member of the somewhat implausibly named ‘Society of Liberated Minds’. Other members include her ex-lover, the idealistic, if cautious rebel, Nelson, and the reckless Biko (most have such pseudonyms). They are equally opposed to the ruling party ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change, contemptuously referred to as ‘Party X’ and ‘Party Y’. Vivid depictions of demonstrations and police brutality in Bulawayo and meetings in Harare alternate with stages in Viktor’s personal and political education.
The personal element, however, assumes increasing importance as Viktor, separated from his wife, is also thereby separated from his daughter Rosa, although he maintains Skype contact with her back in England. The question as to how political is the personal is also given a surprising twist by Viktor’s adoption by Louis, an appalling white-Rhodie racist, who is nevertheless a deeply humanitarian man, helping Viktor and Anne-Marie in their campaign to get Biko released from detention. Both Louis and the Society are animated by opposition to the incompetent authoritarianism of Mugabe’s dictatorship; would Louis be less racist if confronted with a decent, competent government? ‘Probably not’ seems to be the message – Zeilig, unlike bad novelists, offers no easy answers. Nor does he have an easy answer to the central question as to whether a white middle-class outsider like Viktor can have a meaningful role in African (or trade-union) politics.
But this is not all: yet another element is one of Viktor’s peculiarities (shared by this reviewer) in an obsession with opera, especially political opera, or at any rate opera in which political duty conflicts with personal love, as in many Verdi operas. These, partly through wonderful heart-searching music, can tell us more about what it is to be human, and how to act politically and personally, than any other art form (or political handbook). Viktor’s obsession manifests itself in dreams (nightmares?) in which he and Rosa become characters in a drama, acting out Verdi’s two main preoccupations: the love/duty conflict and the father/daughter relationship.
So it all ties together. But if I have a criticism, it is that maybe it is all a bit too much! Although the editing is good (much better than in Zeilig’s previous novel Eddie the kid), some further cuts (in particular a scene in which Viktor and Anne-Marie witness a dog being run over) could have provided a sharper, more satisfying ending. There is material here for more than one novel, and we are left wanting answers to questions that have been raised at various levels, but never fully answered. Maybe I am asking too much, as that could easily have led back to precisely the worthy, tendentious type of novel I stigmatised above! Maybe instead, I, and I hope you, will turn out to have been reading the first volume of a trilogy!
Russell, B. 1953. Satan in the Suburbs and Other Stories. London: The Bodley Head.
Russell, B. 1954. Nightmares of Eminent Persons and Other Stories. London: The Bodley Head.