Coruscating look at the world of politics. If you’ve ever looked at the politicians in your country and wondered why they’re all so bad, this novel goes a long way to explaining it. The book is set in a Caribbean country as it gains independence (it seems like Guyana, but it’s never named). The main character, Jack Lalbahadursingh, grows up poor in the country before being taken to the city by a more well-to-do schoolteacher, Mr Farrington. When he grows up, he decides he wants to become a lawyer helping the poor. His aim in life is to “stamp out penury and injustice.”
He discovers, however, that many of the poor don’t want his help. They mistrust him for marrying someone of a different race, and prefer to save up their money for the big-name lawyers who fleece them. He still harbours the idealistic dreams of his youth, but is stuck in a provincial town achieving little.
An old friend offers him the chance to get into politics, something that will really help him achieve all the things he wants, to represent the poor and improve their lot. But something goes wrong – again, the poor don’t want to hear his prescriptions for them. He has no support.
Gradually over the course of the book he learns to say what people want to hear, not what he believes. He learns to play dirty tricks, to inflate the numbers of his followers, to write letters to the editor in multiple names either supporting him or attacking his enemies. He learns to evaluate people and situations according to political self-interest rather than principle.
Jack rationalises each step by saying it will help him achieve his goals – effectively, the end justifies the means (although he never puts it in those words). And yet it becomes clear that his goals are further away than ever. He is more and more successful and gains more and more power, but it’s based on so many lies that he can’t ever enact the changes he’d once dreamed of. He becomes a demagogue, preaching racial hatred, the exact opposite of what he believed in. It’s the most effective way of getting support.
He ends up as a kind of machine, existing purely for the acquisition of greater success and power. It’s a powerful lesson, and an enjoyable read. Sadly this book appears to be out of print and hard to find, but I’d recommend it if you can track it down anywhere.