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Adam Thirlwell: Politics

Very self-consciously post-modern, this novel has all the fun features you would expect – considerable detail (à la nouveau roman and Nicholson Baker), fairly vapid main characters, a narrator who jumps in and out to comment or make sly remarks, chunks of knowledge about all sorts of things inserted here and there, amorality/political incorrectness and all the rest. As for politics, it is only about politics in the broadest sense, i.e. the sense that personal/sexual relationships are political or, at least, subject to political processes.

The story is about the rise and fall of a relationship. Nana (real name Nina but she mispronounced Nina as a child) and her doting father go to a play, specifically Oscar Wilde’s Vera or the Nihilists, at the Donmar, where Nina’s father (known only as Papa throughout the novel) is on the board. After the performance they meet Moshe, the actor who played the role of Prince Paul Maraloffski. Moshe, as his name implies, is Jewish or, at least, part Jewish. His father is Jewish, his mother is not. The name Moshe was the father’s only concession to his Jewish origins. Moshe has not even been circumcised (we learn a fair amount about the genitals of the main characters). Nana and Moshe soon start an affair which, initially, seems to go quite well. Indeed, the novel starts with an S&M session they are having (the narrator and Nana both feel that a woman should submit sexually to her man). However, Moshe’s fellow actor, Anjali soon becomes friendly with both of them and she has an affair with Nana but also joins in threesomes with Moshe and Nana.

Like Moshe, Anjali does not identify all that much with her ethnic background. She considers herself English, not Indian, and her only interest in things Indian seems to be in Bollywood films (the frivolous ones, not the serious ones). Moshe does feel mildly guilty (but only mildly guilty) about the threesomes but is happy to go along with them. Thirlwell spares us little detail of the activities – Moshe’s (failed) attempt at anal intercourse, Nana urinating, her thrush and the insertion of the Canesten pessary, as well as comments on how it is often men that transmit thrush without being aware of it, are all grist to Thirlwell’s mill. This leads on to political discussion, with reference to Li Zhisui‘s (Mao’s doctor) memoirs, quoted about how Mao infected the young women he had sex with which he did in order to preserve his potency, how Li Zhisui tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to be treated but how, surprisingly, the young women concerned wore the STD as a badge of honour. Indeed, he makes quite a few political references, using them as comparisons with the Anjali-Moshe-Nana relationship even while admitting that these comparison may not be entirely appropriate. These comparisons range from Bukharin and his trial to the Mandelstams, Osip and Nadezhda, but include others as well.

It is all good fun and added to by the often off-the-cuff comments by the narrator. The slight weirdness – Moshe’s erotic fantasy about the Queen Mother, for example – all increases the enjoyment. His models are clear – he will outline them in his next book – but, at least on the basis of this book, he still has a bit to go to catch them up.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Jonathan Cape