By Carole Reedy
In hindsight, the stories told of revolutions often seem thrilling. Revolutions themselves are frequently portrayed as virtuous, noble, moral, and/or ethical, and they usually make for exciting reading. In the details, however, lies the reality, which often doesn’t bear out the romance of our perceptions.
Heroes emerge, but there are also the stark realities of revolution, explored in the books selected here. Looking in depth at significant revolutionary figures, famous or not, offers a fresh take on the subject of revolution and those who voluntarily or involuntarily dedicate their lives to a cause.
These highly respected authors have penned unique and well-researched books that mutually illuminate via their distinctive perspectives.
Ireland: A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle (1999)
Doyle’s historical novel is set in Ireland during the 1916 Easter Rising, culminating in the eventual truce signed with the United Kingdom in 1921.
Swashbuckling young Henry Smart tells us his story, from his birth to a poor Irish family through his 20s as a member of the Irish Civil Army. Doyle’s colorful fictional characters are intertwined with the real strugglers for freedom, such as Michael Collins.
This is the first of a trilogy in which Henry escapes to the US in the second book, but returns to Ireland in the third.
Doyle received well-deserved praise for his lyrical composition, though the novels have been criticized for being overly graphic. Personally, I find this exactly the attraction: Doyle’s staccato style full of colorful imagery is the element that not only moves the story but reveals the conjugations of revolution.
Readers can’t help but experience a range of emotions while Doyle enlightens us on Irish history.
France: A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel (1992)
The grave. That is the place of greater safety to which Mantel refers in the title of her all-encompassing 872-page-turner about the French Revolution. She tells the story of the Revolution in the late 18th century through the lens of the three major players, coincidentally all lawyers and friends and all executed by guillotine in the Place de Concorde, Paris, in 1794. At the time of their deaths, none had reached the age of 40.
George Danton was the ambitious young lawyer who has been described by several historians as “the chief force in the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic.”
Camille Desmoulins, the charming conspirator and radical pamphleteer, is best known for his role that led to the storming of the Bastille. Although a schoolmate of Robespierre and Desmoulins as well as Danton, Desmoulins and Danton later distanced themselves from Robespierre, criticizing the excesses of the Revolutionary Government.
Danton and Doumoulins were executed side-by-side on April 5, 1794.
Maximilian Robespierre, slight of stature, diligent, and ironically terrified of violence, is often thought of as the “brains” of the Revolution. His role was complicated, as is the entire period of this history.
Mantel has taken a complex series of events and used these three major figures to weave a cogent and satisfying tale. Instead of simply viewing these powerful intellectuals as revolutionary figures, we see them as men in their relationships with others and among themselves.
Most readers are familiar with the late Mantel’s Wolf Hall series, the trilogy that tells the tale of Thomas Cromwell and the beguiling story of England in the 16th century, complete with the colorful Henry the VIII and Anne Boleyn, just two of the starring personages of the series.
For my part, A Place of Greater Safety is the crème de la crème of all of Mantel’s varied and intriguing novels.
Mexico: The Death of Artemio Cruz, by Carlos Fuentes (1962)
We often think of Fuentes’ masterpiece as a novel of the Mexican Revolution, 1910 to 1921, although dates for revolutions are arbitrary since the reverberations seem interminable and unremitting.
The timeline of the novel runs from 1889 to 1960 to give the reader a perspective on the Mexican character. Fuentes uses rotating characters to demonstrate “the complexities of a human or national personality.”
Carlos Fuentes is to Mexico what García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Mario Vargas Llosa are to Colombia, Argentina, and Peru, respectively. He was, and still is, one of the most admired writers in Mexico, with distinguished recognition worldwide.
It was often thought he deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature, but like so many venerable writers (Philip Roth, Javier Marías, Salman Rushdie) he was somehow overlooked.
Women: Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018)
This daring story, based on fact, tells of the courage of women in a Mennonite community who decide to determine their own future and that of their children after suffering abuse from the men in power. The actual incident took place in a Mennonite community in Bolivia.
The novel was transformed into a successful and tense movie (2022) despite the fact that the action is solely women talking. The detailed depiction of the women is at the core of the book, and the perfect and precise casting contributes to the success of the movie. Directed by Sarah Polley, Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Clare Foy dominate the screen with their superb skills.
India: Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie (1981)
After a hundred years or more of struggle for independence from Britain, India was partitioned into the new states of Pakistan and India in 1947, a haphazard and tragic map devised by the British. While the former “colony” was finally free from British rule, in the years that followed perhaps even more blood was shed amongst Muslims and Hindus in the chaos that ensued after partition.
Enter Salem, a boy born with a powerful gift of telepathy at the precise hour in 1947 that India was freed from British rule. Thus another surrealistic tale from the master of storytelling begins.
With magical realism, the formidable Rushdie gives us a history of family and country during the havoc and muddling of the authorities in the years following 1947.
Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981. In addition, it was awarded the “Booker of Bookers” Prize in both 1993 and 2008, celebrating the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the Booker Prize. Unfortunately, Rushdie was once again overlooked for the Nobel Prize this year.
Next month: My favorite reads of 2023.