The Republic of Seychelles

The Republic of Seychelles gained independence from Britain in 1976. A year later, on 5 June 1977, Albert René at the head of the Seychelles Peoples United Party, seized power in what was proclaimed, and is still remembered by some activists here today, as a ‘socialist revolution’ in Africa. René quickly dismantled the opposition, and ran a one-party state from 1979 until 1993. He then opened things up for multi-party elections, which he won that year, 1993, and in 1998 and 2001.

René’s anointed successors held onto power after he stepped down in 2004, winning elections for what became the Seychelles People’s Progressive Front and then People’s Front in 2006, 2011 and 2015, apparent clear endorsement of the course of the ‘revolution’. This until 26 October 2020, when, in the midst of the Covid crisis, and disarray and defections from the ruling party, the current neoliberal coalition, Linyon Demokratik Seselwa, LDS, took power, with Anglican priest Wavel Ramkalawan as President.

What remains of the Seychelles People’s United Party, Seychelles People’s Progressive Front and People’s Front is still present in the 35-member National Assembly as United Seychelles, with 10 seats, but the apparatus of the old regime is under investigation for corruption, disappearances and murder. Over a hundred testimonies are now being heard by the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission.

The revolutionary events of 1977 are now officially and mostly popularly regarded as a coup followed by a dictatorship. It is difficult to disentangle what was progressive from what was reactionary about René’s regime, and to find spaces of genuine open resistance. A taxi driver told us that the new government is doing well, but that the opposition were always creating trouble, now objecting to the plan to raise the retirement age from 63 to 65.

Seychelles is, according to polls, still, for the third year running, the most romantic travel destination in the world. There are white powder beaches in which turtles lay eggs, azure clean seas, intense green vegetation that include mango trees around which the giant fruit bats swoop at dawn and dusk. There is even, away from the super-expensive island resorts, a network of bed and breakfast places surrounded by friendly helpful people who seem happy to see you.

But it is not all perfect, beneath the waves are often rocks, sometimes spiny sea urchins, and at 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the morning it is dog o’clock, with the noise of barking and yapping breaking through the windows that you must keep open if you are to avoid using the air conditioning. If you dig deeper, you will learn something about the deep political divisions. I travelled around for three weeks, barely enough to scratch the surface, not enough for the kind of analysis that needs to be developed by those who have lived through the last half a century here, but these notes are reflections on what I read and saw and heard.

Versions of the present I

There are two printed papers. The daily newspaper Seychelles Nation, the 16-page A5-size mouthpiece of the current LDS regime published on the main island of Mahé, carries under the title the words, in capitals, no accents, ‘LIBERTE, EGALITE, FRATERNITE’. About 3,500 copies of the paper are distributed to government departments and state outlets and a few are sold in shops. The November 15 issue carries the main headline ‘Air Seychelles out of insolvency process’, the paper reporting the conclusion of a thirteen-month company reorganisation which will ensure ‘financial stability’; just below that, still on the front page, is good news about funding for ‘capital projects’ in the 2023 budget. There are reports inside the paper on agreement brokered at COP27 for a solar cooling cold storage project off the island of La Digue and a ‘national entrepreneurship strategy’.

There are also reports on a deal with Cable and Wireless, with the hook that live sports will be offered in English. The paper is almost entirely in English, with one small item in French about crowds gathering to watch masses of crabs and tuna on Eden island, another about a special mass held in one of the Catholic churches on Grand Anse in Mahé – the country is over 75% Catholic – to celebrate International Men’s Day.

There is a small item in Seychellois about finance debates in the National Assembly. Seychellois, the local form of Creole, is the official language of the National Assembly, and was promoted in schools – it is the language used by most of the population, more widespread than English or French – but there is now a backlash against this which some supporters of Linyon Demokratik Seselwa, despite its Creole name, is willing to pander to. The leisure page, with a crossword, wordsearch and cartoon, is in Seychellois, and the rest of the paper is pretty-well taken up with job and commercial tender advertisements.

The sports page, in English, reports on hockey and on Everton and Manchester City as winners of the Seychelles Schools’ Premier League. ‘Everton’ and ‘Manchester City’ here are actually Pointe Larue and Belonie; La Digue island is ‘Norwich’, Praslin island is ‘Brighton and Hove Albion’, and Anse Boileau is ‘West Ham’. Among the classified advertisements is one for the Gerard Hoarau Foundation about the Annual Anniversary Memorial Service at St Joseph’s Church at Anse Royale, ‘an invitation to all Seychellois to participate in this moment of spiritual reflection and prayer in thanking God for a patriotic son of Seychelles’.

Reconciliation and National Unity

This is a work of reconstruction, something that one of our hosts describes as the return of capitalism to the island now that ‘the communists have gone, thank god!’, this last thanks is said while crossing himself. For this guy and other members of his family we met in different parts of the main island, the teaching of Seychellois was nonsense, and the communists were at the source of all that is now bad on the island. But then, as you listen more, contradictions open up, and we hear that while he was away from Seychelles the government ‘stole’ some of his land – he waved his arms across a mountainside to show us what had once belonged to him – and refused to mend the roads, ‘jealousy’ said his wife.

Anything and everything, ranging from noise and theft to drug abuse and benefit scroungers is laid at the door of the communists, and this guy, who was in the army when René seized power, and fled for some years to be part of the very large exile Seychellois community, is quick to remind us of the London 1985 assassination of Gerard Hoarau, who led the Mouvement Pour La Resistance, by the regime, ‘probably by Russian hitmen’, he says. It’s possible; it’s true that René had a security apparatus and financial support from the Soviet Union, East Germany and North Korea. Cuba provided ‘advisors’ embedded in the police force.

Again, as for the West, it seems like support for the ‘socialist’ regime from the Stalinist bloc was based on geopolitical calculation, with little care for what was actually going on inside the country. Nationalisations were carried out sometimes to settle scores rather than as part of a democratically-agreed plan of development, and disappearances were engineered to deal with individual troublemakers and, it is true, some sustained military attempts to depose the regime.


These attempts included the farcical ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare adventure in 1981 which was organised by the opposition in South Africa. Mercenaries arrived at the International Airport and almost succeeded in getting the hidden guns through security. Their bad luck was that the guy in front of them in the queue was caught smuggling fruit into the country and so customs police decided to search all the other customers; there was a shootout, and the mercenaries were confined to the airport. René then brokered a deal to release them and, after negotiations with the South African government, got agreement that the apartheid regime would crack down on the Seychellois opposition and pay financial compensation to the Seychelles.

Here is another indication of the paradoxes at the heart of the regime which give lie to claims that it really was ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’. Apart from some military and police support from ‘friendly’ states willing to make the most of a regime that appeared to be breaking from the West, most of the internal and external security – including surveillance of the opposition at home and abroad – was also run by mercenaries; a private security firm, Priority Investigations. This outfit was run by a mercenary, Ian Withers, who was appointed National Security advisor, and who then described himself as a member of the ’Seychelles Security Service’. Withers also ran the ‘overseas unit’, was hired by René to oversee these matters.

René made little reference to apartheid in South Africa after the 1981 coup attempt against him, and there was always a cautious shrewd balancing between different international and regional powers. For example, and it is a significant one, there was no support for the Chagossians after the US and Britain seized the islands – geographically and historically part of the Seychelles, though legally under Mauritius administration – and René did nothing to speak out for these people exiled from their own archipelago.

René did not significantly disturb the Brits, the old colonial power, even while he began using French terms to describe aspects of the new state administration – mere symbolic shows of defiance – nor the United States; the listening base that the United States maintained on Mahé was never put in question – it provided money and employment – and it was the United States that finally pulled the plugs on that after 1989, which was also a watershed moment for policy inside the Seychelles.

Now the new government has just brokered a deal with Thai Union which operates a massive tuna processing plant in Victoria, the capital. The factory runs 24/7 with clattering and rumbling echoing up and around the hills, and this operation will now increase, with an expansion of the plant over the next few years. The three main economic drivers of the Seychelles economy are tourism, then tuna and then offshore financial services, all three sectors of which René explicitly and deliberately kept in private hands while using some resources to fund education and welfare, which is still free, but which is under threat from privatisation.

Versions of the present II

The weekly newspaper, the other printed paper, The Seychelles Independent operates as if it is the print voice of United Seychelles now, but is actually the weekly mouthpiece of Ralph Volcere, whose previous political activity was as a 2016 election candidate for the ‘Legalising Cannabis in Seychelles Movement’. Volcere was allied with the LDS but broke with them several years back, now occasionally carrying pro United Seychelles pieces. The United Seychelles paper The People is available online, and they have a Facebook page.

Below the main title of The Seychelles Independent is the legend ‘Sesel avan tou’, though all of the paper is in English. I picked up a 9November copy at a supermarket in Anse Boileau where there had been a recent United Seychelles rally, an event reported in the paper. It is impossible to know how many copies of the paper are printed and sold. The front page of the 12-page A4 paper carried three stories about LDS mismanagement and corruption, an important pitch now by United Seychelles in the face of the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission, TRNUC, testimonies and investigations that are basically targeting the party.

The LDS 2023 capital investment budget story is given a quite different twist from The Nation, claiming that there is lack of attention to the ‘ordinary citizens who carried the burden’ for the economic sacrifices that are being made. These stories run over the first four pages, and then there are two stories on page 5 that run in stark contrast to each other, stories that point to some contradiction in the paper’s attempt to wrongfoot the government. The main story on page 5 with a full-colour photo of a rally at Anse Boileau is topped by the headline ‘Red revival is a reality!’.

The United Seychelles local rally on the West coast of Mahé shows, the story claims, that United Seychelles is ‘still a force to be reckoned with and even that it is well on the road to recovery’. ‘Despite the revelations of the TRNUC’ it continues, and despite the accusations of corruption, ‘the 28,000 plus followers saw no reason to change their allegiance’. Impressive though the photo is, in no way are there 28,000 people there, and it is improbable, to say the least, that such a number out of a total Seychelles population of under 100,000 people gathered at the beachside that afternoon. That said, photos from The People show a good crown.

The story also complains that the Seychelles Public Transport Corporation had refused to hire out their buses to take supporters to the rally, so the numbers hinted at in Anse Boileau are even more questionable. Rare graffiti was around in Anse Boileau; an environmental ‘Save Our Seas’ slogan echoing an ecological youth movement developing in Mauritius, and one proclaiming that ‘there is no political solution’, which hints at political disaffection rather than engagement.

The same page sees the second story, and it is a surprise to read the headline for that which is ‘Health Ministry should consider outsourcing ambulance services’, basically a call for privatisation. The following pages complain about increased powers given to the police and string together some quibbles about proposals mooted at a teachers’ symposium; ‘Teachers feel inundated with paperwork’ says a little box highlight in the middle of the article.

Two pages are taken up with an interview with Ralph Volcere about shortcomings of the LDS proposed budget. This, the opening paragraph says, is the first instalment of a two-part series. The article is underpinned, again, by the argument that all real economic success that the government claims is down to the ‘poor working people of the country’. Ralph Volcere is the editor of the paper. There is a reprint of a rather neutral article about negotiations between Britain and Mauritius over the future of the Chagos Islands. Many articles are simply pasted in from different websites.

Later copies of The Seychelles Independent make it clearer where its editor Ralph Volcere is coming from politically. The 23 November issue has the headline ‘The LDS Government is corrupt like the SPPF/PL/US’; that’s a side swipe at United Seychelles. There is a glowing report of a United Seychelles protest in the 30 November issue which also, however, notes along the way that the party’s founders were ‘notoriously against the free press’. That last issue also includes an appeal, in English and in Seychellois, for readers to support the investigation into the murder of Gerard Hoareau, and, in line with the ‘International Men’s Day’ reports in Seychelles Nation, there is an article about domestic violence which is all about violence against men.

The Volcere ‘interview’ in the 9 November issue is followed by a downright weird unsigned piece that looks like it is designed as internal political education for party members. It is titled ‘Do we have the political will to tackle our problems?’, and includes ruminations on the nature of the human being as being ‘the focal point of all forms of motion of matter’. The piece, in a garbled version of good old Soviet ‘socialist man’ pegagogy, contrasts individual competitiveness in present society with the nature of the human being as ‘a subject of historical creativity’. The final paragraph speaks of ‘the spiritual nucleus of the structure of the personality’ and this puzzling article – some indication of the political heritage and line of the paper – concludes with the enigmatic sentence ‘What is it all about?’. Indeed.

Albert René

It does seem that if René had not seized power in what was actually more of a coup than a revolution in 1977, the first elected President James Mancham would himself have shut down opposition parties and ruled through his Seychelles Democratic Party, SDP. René moved fast while Mancham was away in London at a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to which he had been invited as a speaker, an invitation that was rescinded pretty well as soon as the Seychelles People’s United Party was installed.

That rapid recognition of the new regime was a sign that though Mancham was the preferred choice by the old colonial powers, Britain and the United States reckoned they could live with René. In fact, both Mancham and René, both trained as barristers in London, had been groomed as future leaders before independence, with paid visits to London and the US. In some respects, with the geopolitical location of Seychelles more important than internal administration, this hedging of bets in René’s favour, was the safe and rational option for the West.

René clearly had support in the country, and attempts to depose the new ‘socialist’ regime would, in the view of imperial and regional powers, cause more chaos and uncertainty than was worth it, but the problem was that in no ways was the Seychelles People’s United Party a mass party, even less so a democratically-structured organisation, and the coup was carried out by tens of people, most of whom had no idea about what they were involved in when it happened. That contradiction – a single individual attempting to construct a socialist alternative in a country of less than a 100,000 people in a 115-island archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean – haunted the regime from 1977 onwards.

It is easy to reduce what happened in 1977 and since to the personality of the single individual at the head of the regime. There is a thorough, and thoroughly partisan account of what happened in the just-published book by Ashton Robinson, René and Postcolonial Seychelles: An African Chameleon in the Indian Ocean, which does exactly that. Robinson writes for the neoliberal Lowy Institute, and it is clear where he stands in his reports on the island.

You will learn from Robinson’s hatchet job that Albert René was a thoroughly bad sort who treated his family badly, duped the Church into providing sponsorship to train as a priest, dropped out and trained as a barrister and then plotted a path to power with a ruthless determination to drive out the West and let in the reds. All of the errors of the regime are reduced to deliberate behind-the-scenes machinations by René, something which obscures the very constellation of social forces that made 1977 possible.

For example, the Catholic Church was and is a powerful cultural and potentially powerful political force in Seychelles, but one of the dominant orders – the one that René was initially sent to train with in Switzerland as a novitiate priest – was the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. The Capuchins were not at the forefront of liberation theology, but there were plenty of local priests in Seychelles in the order who were sympathetic to it, and this, according to Robinson, gave encouragement and licence for René to engage in the coup. The Church did not know the coup was going to happen, did not support it, but they did not, as they could have done in other circumstances, condemn it. In Robinson’s book, the reds in the Church effectively egged evil René on.

Also significant, and noted by Robinson, was the determination the British Callaghan government in the 1970s to implement its ‘East of Suez’ policy, to divest itself of the old colonies. Joan Lestor and Judith Hart, among others, are leftists blamed for lack of oversight for what was about to happen in the Seychelles after independence. This, for Robinson, was disastrous and so the British Foreign Office bears some responsibility for letting René in. There may well be some truth in this specific play of circumstances, but the political slant Robinson gives to it is quite reactionary.


A supporter of René’s regime said that the revolution in 1977 was, for all of the problems, and it was by no means perfect, ‘necessary’; it was only with the land reforms that were promised and then delivered that slavery in Seychelles was finally ended. Up to that point the ‘moitié’ system that effectively prolonged slavery after its formal abolition gave former slaves only the right to ‘half’ of their freedom and kept control of the land in Seychelles in the hands of 9% of the population. This was definitively ended by René, to the anger of many of the old landowners and their descendants who provided financial support to the different iterations of the ‘opposition’.

Slavery, and the legacy of particular forms of patriarchal oppression that issued from it, structured Seychelles as a newly independent country in 1976 and set particular kinds of tasks for a progressive regime. This history set in place specific kinds of intersection between class, ‘race’ and gender. This was a revolution in Africa – the bulk of the Seychelles population are black, descendants of slaves – with René and his close circle of supporters intent, in the early years, on reorienting the country away from Europe to Africa. Seychelles is still a member of the African Union.

René had close links with Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, who ran his own ‘socialist’ one-party state, before the revolution, and Tanzanian troops were present at key points in the island during the coup. Relations with Tanzania cooled later on. A leader of the then-radical Mouvement Militant Mauricien, Paul Bérenger, was photographed with René on the island very soon after the coup – he was apparently there at that time by chance, it was claimed – though links with the MMM were not maintained for long after the revolution. It was, however, independence as an African nation that was crucial to René, and one supporter said that it was only with the 1977 revolution that the Seychellois were able to begin constituting themselves as an independent nation.

Even the most hostile accounts of the René regime, with Ashton Robinson’s book a prime example, had to acknowledge that there was a legacy of racism from slavery, this in a country that was governed by a self-proclaimed African liberation movement headed by Albert René, a white man who combated racism. It was difficult to instrumentalise racism by opponents of the regime, even if that was a sub-text of some hostile comments against the old regime. One older man we spoke to claimed that the country under the ‘communists’ was taken over by Whites, Russians and, more latterly, Indians who run the supermarkets.

The government did, and still does, take efforts to represent Seychelles as an inclusive family; the faith of the President, Anglican, and the Vice-President, Muslim, is of little interest in an overwhelmingly Catholic country where it is the political history that counts. That said, there is a legacy of racial divisions, and of racism. One guy we spoke to who was obsessing about the ‘communists’ switched tack at one point to say that it was the ‘blacks’ who supported United Seychelles, and things were messed up under that regime because of the kind of ‘mindset’ that you see in other corrupt African countries. A taxi driver who was, he proudly told us, one of the first group of rebels imprisoned by René, referred disparagingly to the ‘black communist’ regime.

Women, we were told, formed the active support base of the movement, insofar as it could be said to be a movement, and United Seychelles is in the process of recomposing itself following the 2020 election defeat, including a women’s wing and youth wing. There are very good detailed accounts of the position of women here by Penda Choppy who is Director of the Creole Culture and Research Institute in the University of Seychelles at Anse Royale of the forms of family that gave women certain forms of autonomy and power in Seychelles. United Seychelles beat the LDS in Anse Royale, as it did in La Digue and the very small nearby ‘Inner Islands’ (and it is location of one of the best beaches we found in Mahé, by the way).

The 1994 Termination of Pregnancy Act which loosened control of reproductive rights was a blow to the Catholic Church, probably René’s revenge against the Church that had, with the rest of the opposition, effectively blocked his referendum over the ratification of his new constitution two years earlier. Nevertheless, abortion is still illegal in the Seychelles, and there is no publicly visible women’s reproductive rights movement or, for that matter, visible feminist movement.

Most of the population are descendants of slaves, many of whom had been freed from bondage by anti-slavery activists who impregnated many of the women they left on the island. No European hands were clean during the history of slavery and its aftermath. Women were then forced to take charge of family finances and the care of children, independent and, in some sense, powerful in relation to men, men who were, as a function of slavery and racism, emasculated. That history of women’s power carried through in the allegiance they showed to radical movements, even movements like René’s that were run by men.

A youth wing of United Seychelles is a difficult, touchy, subject, for some of the first public mobilisations against René in 1979 were actually by school and college students protesting against the formation of a National Youth Service and, a disastrous mistake in hindsight, the closing down of football clubs and the incorporation of sport into the same administrative apparatus as that which was responsible for imposing a two-year spell of national service. The Rovers FC was politicised as a side-effect of it being disbanded by the government, and the opposition later on included many past Rovers FC players or officials. The National Youth Service was a typically top-down initiative, designed to bring the nation together, and, predictably, it failed.


One thing is for sure, that ‘socialist’ rule in Seychelles from 1977 to 1993, and for some time after that even while there were multi-party elections, was a form of dictatorship. It was René who called the shots, perhaps, according to Robinson’s book, also present during some of the police and army interrogations of arrested opponents, and it was René who saw which way the wind was blowing after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Just as he had been able to balance between East and West up to then, playing Soviet against US support while developing an offshore banking system that had links with organised crime, after 1989 and the effective end of the Soviet bloc, he put all his bets on the West again, and that required shifts in policy and significant shifts in forms of rule; now there needed to be elections in order to secure legitimacy from his primary investors. These shifts saw a more explicit emphasis on external capital investment, something he had always anyway courted.

From then on, it was a downward slope towards neoliberalism, first under René and his successors, and now under the LDS. The regime came to an end during the Covid pandemic after some missteps, but that situation of intermittent lockdown and closure of the islands – something that badly impacted tourism, of course – cannot be blamed for the final election defeat for Danny Faure, educated at the University of Havana and from 2016 President as appointed heir of René’s chosen favourite James Michel, who ruled from 2004 to 2016, and successfully fought elections until he stepped down mid-term.

Faure’s gambit was to call for a government of national unity to tackle the crisis, but by that time the opposition was well-organised and the ruling party was in tatters. Other contenders for a ‘national unity’ coalition were better placed, more credible. When the left plays this tune of ‘national unity’, it is usually the right who benefit. One member of United Seychelles we spoke to even admitted that perhaps it was right that the party lost power in 2020 and maybe it was not yet in a good enough condition to be able to govern after the next election. Covid or not, Faure was going to lose.

Nonetheless, they reminded us, Wavel Ramkalawan, current President at the head of the coalition, is not suited for power either, with a history of personal and public violence, and in his past and broken promises, which include opposition to the army when in opposition and support for increased army presence on the streets now he is in power.


One could say, in fact, that the ‘socialist’ revolution of 1977 was, with added progressive land reform, education provision and welfare benefits, not so much a proletarian revolution of the kind that Marxists looked to in order to bring an end to capitalism as a very radical bourgeois revolution. To say this is not to subscribe to a crude linear ‘stage’ account of political-economic systems, but to situate Seychelles history in the twentieth century in the context of a process of globalisation, of combined and uneven development, in which as an isolated island state it could not build socialism. Socialism is necessarily international; Seychelles had to settle for national development, capitalist.

That is exactly what the Stalinist states René traded with would also prefer. Now, in December 2022, United Seychelles calls for a ‘general strike’ against the LDS and, in the same issue of The People, praises China’s Belt and Road project. Despite the claims by some of the old United Seychelles cadre – a very small group of people at the head of an apparatus and then electoral machine – there was very limited collectivisation of production and, instead, the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a new elite at the helm of the state.

From that kind of bourgeois revolution, one would expect, if there was no active democratic socialist movement, a degeneration, bureaucratisation and then exactly the kind of abuse and corruption that the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission – a commission that was referred to as a ‘circus’ by one United Seychelles member – is homing in on. A woman described her sense of fear when she heard reports of the Commission and remembered being watched by men she now thinks could have been from internal security. This circus, if that what it is, has material effects on the memory of those who lived through the last half century here.

This was, at first sight, a ‘socialism’ betrayed, mislaid and unmade, this time almost all at once, unravelled by the concentration of power in a few hands right from the start, impossible to carry through without a mass movement and without any democratic accountability. That pattern seems to be replicated now in the ‘United Seychelles’ movement, even if there are claims that many local branches are led by women, and it is an open question as to whether a new opposition that is not trapped in the false choice of having to decide between or balance between different international blocs – East or West – can develop inside United Seychelles or must begin from scratch outside it.

This is a corrected version of an article published on the Anti-Capitalist Resistance site.


Free Albania (not)

Ian Parker reviews Lea Ypi’s Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History

This book strikes some personal chords. I nearly joined the Communist Party of Britain Marxist-Leninist in the mid-1970s, a time when they had broken with China and thrown in their lot with Albania, which they described, in the title of one of their pamphlets, as ‘the most successful country in Europe’. This was the group that Alexei Sayle was once part of. We read Lenin, and long-haired scruffy comrades came back from visits to the most successful country after being shorn short at the border. You would have believed that they had visited heaven, but they had not.


This book gives us a striking child’s-eye view of the transformation of the country in 1990, when Lea Ypi was 11 years old, through to the ‘civil war’ of 1997. The years before 1990 are, in the eyes of this child, a time of hope, of the possibility of transition from socialism to communism. After the Enver Hoxha regime broke from the Soviet Union, and then from China, to be all the more isolated, those years of her life, from 1979 to 1999, were in some ways confusing times and in some ways certain about what was to come.

All of that certainty was to fall to pieces after the fall of the Berlin Wall, even though the regime was convinced that this defeat of the ‘revisionists’ would have no real consequences for them, but in 1990 the ‘democratic’ transition hit them too. It was a transition from socialism not to communism but to brute neoliberalism, with privatisation of enterprises and services leading to mass unemployment and precarity, and with pyramid schemes scamming large numbers of people. A consequence of that rapid escalation of exploitation from 1990 through to 1997 was bloody conflict and attempted coups that led to thousands of deaths.

The image that was fed to well-meaning political tourists as well as sun-seekers, was that this was a haven, but Lea Ypi as an insider unravels that image neatly in detailed description of the separation of the population from the outsiders. The book is beautifully written, with a compelling motif structuring each chapter; for example, the purchase of a Coca Cola can by a member of the family and its disappearance is the occasion for vitriolic accusations and the breakdown of relationships between families and neighbours. The picture we have is very different from the ideological framing of Albania as descending into chaos because of the flaring up of old tribal rivalries.


The conflicts are structured, as social conflicts always are, and it is crucial to understand how they have a historical genesis as well as how people try to overcome divisions that enable those in power to retain their grip. Ypi shows us a world before 1990 that is structured by lies and self-deception, those of her family included, and by the painful attempts to speak about oppression without actually naming it in front of the children, something that would put the whole family at risk.

Most painful are the revelations that come as 1990 unfolds; we learn that the family discussions about who has ‘graduated’ and who has been ‘expelled’ from this or that university, for example, are really about who has been arrested and imprisoned and who has been executed.

And then, with the arrival of full-blown economic ‘shock therapy’, comes ‘structural adjustment’. The mother becomes an activist in the Democratic Party, an opposition group that is closely tied to Western NGOs keen to fight ‘corruption’, while the father is reluctantly caught up in new managerial practices. He must fire workers at the company he has been hired to make efficient, and does not want to; he points to them assembling outside the building and says, with anguish, that those people are being turned into objects; look out there, he says, there is ‘structural adjustment’.


Those who were linked to the old regime before Enver Hoxha’s gang came to power are trapped in their ‘biography’, assumptions about who they are and where their loyalties lie that effectively operate as a form of divide and rule. There is division, but there is also, Ypi shows, much solidarity that is destroyed, deliberately destroyed, after 1990 in order to allow capitalism to run rampant.

The ‘Free’ of the title is ironic and sarcastic. Some in the family embrace this freedom and the language of socialist struggle is wiped away from their speech. Some engage in hopeless nostalgic searches for freedom that existed before the regime was installed, and end up disappointed. And some come to realise that freedom is something very different from how it is painted, either by Hoxha or by new false friends from the West.

The grandmother, a supporter of the French Revolution as the best example of the struggle for liberation, tells the young author this; Freedom is being conscious of necessity. And now Lea Ypi, able to write this biographical account which reworks ‘biography’ not as a trap but as a space for critical reflection, takes this seriously. The book is about how we become conscious of necessity, but also how we live it. It poses choices about how we will be free.


Lea Ypi, now a respected academic in the London School of Economics, is writing this account from the left, and the book includes some reflections towards the end on the way some on the far left reacted to her ‘biography’ which make for uncomfortable reading. She clearly had to deal with some crass assumptions about the failure of socialism in Albania, including the claim that the country was backward or that bureaucratic mistakes were made that simply would not be made by an enlightened Western left vanguard.

Publication of the book in the UK last year – this US edition has been published by Norton this year – embroiled her in further problems. It was lauded in the liberal press, and read as if it was testimony of the necessary failure of Marxism, not a lesson she herself subscribes to. And there were some nasty reviews by quasi-tankie critics who were too quick to point to the honest revelations about the complex family history she herself is clear about in the course of the book.

The book needs to be read by the left, addressing misconceptions both about Albania and about the nature of ‘actually-existing socialism’ in general. It is a generous open account, and needs to be read by us revolutionary Marxists generously too, learned from and responded to as in debate with a comrade. She was a comrade there in Albania, related to others as such, and she has made the best she could now of that bitter history. That history is ours too, and now we must know better what to make of it.

This review appeared on the Anti-Capitalist Resistance site

Postcard from Mauritius

Ian Parker travelling east in the Indian Ocean

Mauritius is an African country, but Hinduism is the most widely-followed religion, one of the legacies of enforced travel to the island as indentured labour – debt bondage with promise of release after the cost of travel has been paid back, usually a scam. The arrival of indentured labourers is commemorated each year on 2 November. Creole, Kreol Morisien, is most widely spoken, but signs at the airport on arrival are in English, French, Hindi and Chinese.

Arab traders knew of it and then the Portuguese and then the Dutch had their fingers all over the island before the French moved in. The Brits ran Mauritius as a plantation economy from 1810, when it took it from the French, until independence in 1968.

Mauritius is often touted as a successful capitalist economy after independence (and a counterweight to the horror stories sold to Réunion about what would happen to them if they broke from France). It is about the same size as that island to the west, actually a bit smaller with a larger population, despite what taxi drivers tell you. They insist, indignantly, that their island is much larger than Réunion.

Unemployment now runs at about 8%. A B&B host complained that Réunionese on unemployment benefit (with unemployment over there at over 40%) come to cheaper Mauritius on the 45-minute flight east to holiday here.


Among many of the dominant Hindu population, a strong work ethic, tuned-in now to contemporary neoliberalism, is seen as the way out of poverty, and so racial divisions function to divide and rule, and also to often marginalise Afro-Mauritians. They are part of the ‘General Population’, which is one of the four official categories used to balance representation in parliament, the Assembly; the three specific designated groups are Hindu, Muslim and Sino-Mauritians.

Gandhi stopped in Mauritius in 1901 on his way to South Africa, and he sent an envoy back to represent Indo-Mauritians in court still battling over their indentured status. Our Hindu host in one place said her family had been here for five generations, lured here by the British with the promise of gold, but she was glad she was here; she was not Indian, she said, but Mauritian. It was then clear, as she spoke about her neighbours, that lines of heritage among different Indo-Mauritian groups, Marathi, Telugu and so on, was keenly felt.

Discussions at dinner among host and visitors included trading of stereotypes followed by a caution; that it is fine to say such things in private, but if you post anything negative about another group on social media you will be visited by the police. During a minor robbery here in the centre of the countryside one night – three youth were caught by a German tourist running off with some electrical equipment – the B&B host, Hindu, asked if the miscreants were African (they were not).

Some Afro-Mauritians turn to Rastafarianism. Dope was criminalised here though there is still widespread use, with a crackdown in 1999 leading to mass arrests and then the death in custody of a well-known local musician Kaya. Kaya, Joseph Reginald Topize, had been one of the founders of Seggae, a blend of Reggae and Sega music. One of his concerts was followed by arrests and imprisonment, and claims by police that he had suffered concussion after banging his head against jail bars during withdrawal from drugs. There were riots, including against exclusion and pathologisation of Afro youth.

We were told that there are no Jews in Mauritius, but there is a Jewish cemetery in Saint Martin. The British diverted a ship carrying refugees from Nazi Germany during the Second World War to Mauritius and Jews were then contained here, dying here or leaving as soon as they good after the war.


There were no indigenous people here on the island prior to colonisation. Slaves were transported from Madagascar, and then augmented by import of more slaves and then indentured labour from the Indian subcontinent. Sugar-cane was developed as the main crop. Chinese labourers were also brought across, the descendants of which are now part of the ‘Sino-Mauritian’ community.

40% of the land is agricultural, with 90% of that still taken up with sugar cane plantations, but that is much less than the old colonial days, and the government is keen to move into finance in which India is a key player. Mauritius the main provider of Foreign Direct Investment, FDI, to India through the so-called ‘Mauritius Route’. India is second largest FDI provider to Mauritus, after the US (then it is the UK, Cayman Islands and Hong Kong). Most of this investment now goes into tourism. Most real estate investment, including hotel complexes, comes from France, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

The decline of the sugar industry and the interplay of different racial stereotypes, including of Chinese as shopkeepers and docile manual labourers, is evoked well in the 2014 film Lonbraz Kann. The title of the film is in Kreol Morisien. You can get an idea of how Kreol transforms the language of the colonialists to find a voice for the people if you say the title of the film and then the title in French, “A l’ombre de la canne” (or, in English, “In the Shadow of the Sugar Cane”).


There is an active local feminist movement, and also a backlash here from men who throw the phrase ‘cultural Marxism’ around (and the unspeakably reactionary British Home Secretary Suella Braverman, known for repeating this far-right phrase, is daughter of a Mauritian mother who herself was a Tory councillor and parliamentary candidate in north London). So, resistance and reaction of different kinds abounds here, ideological confusion and internalised oppression. Feminism is present in politics and culture, with some writings by feminists initially banned.

Ananda Devi’s 2014 Eve Out of Her Ruins is a case in point, and it captures something of this context for women, and the way their lives operate at the intersection with other forms of oppression. The book published originally in French, and then made into a film before it was translated into English, is set in a deprived part of the capital, Port Louis. The fictional name of the suburb is Troumaron, which will serve for Kreol and French speakers to convey that it is a shithole.

In the course of the story the four teenage characters encounter sexism, racism and poverty. There are passing references to French Johnny Hallyday, to conflicts between Hindu and Muslim youth, and to the scapegoating of Afro youth by the police. The core of the story, however, is the plight of Eve and her relationship with her lover Savita and sexual exploitation by a school-teacher. Desperation and power drive the young women, and the young men are torn between violence and solidarity.


The second largest political party in the National Assembly is the Mauritian Militant Movement, MMM, which is now an affiliate the (Second) Socialist International. There is a Hindu-dominated ‘Labour Party’, also a Socialist International affiliate, and a local party representing Rodrigues island, and fighting for autonomy. The largest party is the misnamed Militant Socialist Movement, a split from the MMM, and governing in an electoral alliance with the Rodrigues Island representatives and the Muvman Liberator, another MMM split-off following a spat about MMM support for a Labour Party Prime Minister.

There is also a far-left local party, Lalit, which split from the Mauritian Militant Movement in 1981, and which defines itself as feminist as well as environmentalist and internationalist. Lalit, “struggle” in Kreol Morisien, campaigns against the presence of British and US military forces on Diego Garcia, land which is historically part of Mauritius. Ecology is also a key issue here, with the fate of the dodo, native to the island, seen as emblematic. Other species are set to go the same way.

Bats with a wing span of up to 31 inches, Flying Foxes, are endemic, but with deforestation driven from rural areas into the cities. They can be seen swooping down at dusk to eat lychees and mangos in gardens. Viewed as a pest by many people, they have been wiped out in Réunion, and are now under threat here. Macaque monkeys, introduced by the Dutch, roam wild in some parts of the island, and are then harvested and contained and exported; Mauritius is the biggest exporter of monkeys for research, the rate now is over 10,000 a year.

Lalit has not bad positions on most international questions, and activists have worked in the past with Fourth International comrades in nearby La Réunion (and I saw a copy of a Kreol translation of a book by Ernest Mandel published in Port Louis). There is also a smaller ecosocialist breakaway group called Rezistans ek Alternativ that has been in active contact with the Fourth International in the last few years. A former government minister from the MMM told me that they were still in friendly contact with Lalit and Rezistans ek Alternativ. This is a small place, about 1.3 million people in total, and in radical politics circles people know each other well.

Current Rezitans ek Alternativ mobilisations have been around the case of Bruneau Laurette, arrested for drug-dealing. There have been protests and a strong police presence against demonstrators outside the court in Moka, just south of Port Louis. This is a test case for civil liberties connected with environmental concerns, but difficult. Laurette emerged as a problematic populist leader following the Wakashio oil spill off the south coast in July 2020. He raised questions about failure to clean up after the tanker burst open on a coral reef, and about corruption. There were significant demonstrations with an ecosocialist dynamic.

Capital accumulation in Mauritius is no longer directly colonial, but the ruling class is busy investing the fruits of the labour of others overseas, with the finance sector operating effectively as a site of money-laundering. The future of an opposition movement is intimately linked to what is happening in the region, and internationally. Much of the left is caught in electoral politics, but there are repeated attempts to break out of that, and as activists do so they are linking different forms of resistance to envisage a real alternative to the form capitalism has taken here.

This is a corrected version of an article that appeared on the Anti-Capitalist Resistance site

Postcard from La Reunion

The flag on sale in the local Chinese-run multi-mart is for La Réunion, with the number 974 displayed in the red triangle. There should be a point in the number, for this island is a French département, sending representatives to the mainland from around 900,000 inhabitants, and it is at the bottom of the list with the other overseas territories. It is not even marked with a full number; it is just the number 97.4.


There is a history of struggle here, against colonialism and the forms of sexism that link racism with capital accumulation, and also a vibrant radical history. Activists who built anti-apartheid movements against the South African regime, a regime that the local politicians were willing to back, are still around, some standing for the far-left in the recent elections. Support for the left is difficult to harness, however, either to elections or to popular struggle. Many local votes for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round then went to Marine Le Pen in the run-off with Emmanuel Macron.

There are strong institutional connections to France and attempts to resist that. During the May 1968 events, travel from the mainland was temporarily stopped altogether, but many of the images of what was happening in Europe were of the inexplicable chaos there. It was and still is localised action that counts, action that addresses immediate exploitation and oppression.

Recent protests Fifty years later, in 2018, gilet jaunes protests were massive in La Réunion, bringing the island to a standstill. The movement was quickly bought off, with leaders of the movement being given jobs and housing. The movement is still alive and well, though those involved no longer refer to themselves as gilets jaunes.


When we arrive at the ‘Qj des zazalé’ old gilets jaunes encampment in Le Tampon in the ‘sud sauvage’, the wild south of the island, accompanied by a long-standing militant and local candidate in the recent elections, we are met with friendly banter that marks us as ‘zoreilles’, old whites from La France.

Why ‘zoreilles’? Possibly from ‘les oreilles’, and that may be because you have to be careful what to say in front of the whites, or it may be because the whites arriving from mainland France had red ears from the sun and stood out to the locals, or it may be that they cupped their ears while getting the incomprehensible locals to repeat what they were saying.

At the same time, whites are still very much in command, and class politics is refracted through racial domination and anti-racism. Those who travel from mainland France, the zoreilles, are given additional salaries, with the ‘correction’ adding a sizeable amount as well as tax concessions which enable them to buy houses, sometimes two or three extra houses, which can then be leased to the locals. This is settler colonialism in practice.

The ‘Qj des zazalé’ camp (General Headquarters of the Azaleas camp) was attacked by the police two weeks ago and has had to be rebuilt after the cyclone. Land nearby in a ravine that was used to grow food has been seized by the authorities. They are under pressure, but a small group keeps the place going, which includes a garden area, “guest quarters”—that is, a small hut—and a café. There are open meetings every Monday to which everyone in the local community is welcome.

These are the remains of the gilets jaunes, and the radicals involved have taken on a new autonomous movement form. Many of the old activists, those who were not bought off, got caught up in anti-vaxx conspiracy stuff during the pandemic, and there are still posters on the walls in nearby Saint Joseph for a mobilisation against the authorities wishing to impose on their right to refuse vaccination passports. The poster carries two flags, those of France and of La Réunion, a sign that this movement is now run by the far right.  

Here, as on the mainland, the left has had to be careful around this because these documents pose a real threat to civil liberties. During the pandemic, there were a lot of conspiracy theories, and people didn’t know if deaths were caused by COVID or by dengue, which was a real threat.


If ‘zoreilles’ are the privileged, and the term used as an insult, if sometimes affectionately so, the ‘kafs’ are those most subject to exploitation and oppression, with ‘kaf’ a racist term that is also designed to infantilise those who are black. A child might also be referred to as a ‘kaf’.

There are local organisations that reclaim the term, one of which, ‘Association Rasine Kaf’, was set up with the help of local comrades building a section of the Fourth International in the 1970s. Comrades then hoped for the island to be another Cuba, allying with Mauritius and Madagascar. Today, anti-racist activists tend to move away from Marxism and only talk about slavery and the fight against colonialism.

There is a focus in these movements on racism and on the interiorisation of colonialism, the way that it becomes embedded in everyday relationships, and that is also a necessary response to the way that French colonialism has operated here. Slavery may have been formally abolished in 1848, but it took many years for it to be effectively put an end to.

Some local cultural practices of ‘maloya’ music, for example, were prohibited until 1981 with the election of François Mitterand. A maloya event was broken up by the police on the day of the election and took place successfully two weeks later.

Internal colonisation proceeds alongside obvious state control from Europe. There is a mural on a wall in Saint Joseph’s for Raphael Babet, for example. Babet was a deputy from La Réunion to the mainland from 1946 to 1957. One of Babet’s big ideas was to found a white-governed enclave town in the middle of nearby Madagascar, also a French colony at the time. The town was founded and named ‘Sakay’, later ‘Babetville’, with La Réunion as a local staging post for the colonial administration. “Colonialism” replicates itself inside each of the colonial possessions.


The local press systematically misrepresents what is happening on the ground. The right-wing daily newspaper Le Journal d’île de La Réunion carries a scare story today over the front page and the first two inside pages about the dangers of prostitution. The centre-left Le Quotidien de la Réunion et de L’Océan Indien fills these three pages of its issue with photos and reports of the run-up to the 11 November celebrations of the end of the war, the First World War.

The local communist party was not a branch of the French Communist Party, PCF, but was Réunionaise and was a mass party that fought for independence (against the PCF) and so the shift to the right during the 1970s, formalised in 1981 with election of Mitterand (when it concluded that independence was unnecessary because it could fight inside the system) was all the more dramatic (and it finally lost all electoral influence in 2012). One result was a lingering hostility among the social movements towards political parties, a suspicion that was present in the gilets jaunes protests. Leftists were welcome, but as individuals, not as representatives of organisations.

Before Macron abolished the wealth tax, the disparity between rich and poor was more visible, with the highest proportion of high taxpayers to those living below the poverty line – now running at 40% – of any other French département. Réunion also scores the highest in whisky consumption. The island imports pretty much everything and exports very little, except some sugar cane. Lifting the wealth tax was a win-win for the super-rich here, whether they are white or not. They kept their privilege, and it was hidden from the official figures. Power is sometimes very obvious here, but the material conditions that make power possible are often hidden. As a concept, poverty is used to put current struggles in context and connect different progressive moments. Everywhere is a function of class position, and the left has a hard struggle ahead to reorganise.

This is a corrected version of an article that appeared on the ACR site

The Autism Industrial Complex

Alicia Broderick’s book is reviewed by Ian Parker

This book grounds the emergence and possible radical responses to autism in political economy, and sets the groundwork for discussion among revolutionary Marxists about how they might engage with one of the new identities that both hinder and mobilise people to think critically about the nature of capitalism. Alicia Broderick’s 2022 The Autism Industrial Complex carries the ambitious subtitle ‘How Branding, Marketing, and Capital Investment Turned Autism into Big Business’. It promises a lot, building on a very interesting and well-received co-authored article published last year.

What it is

The book refuses to go down the rabbit-hole of asking what ‘autism’ really is, with a neat overview of the way that the category emerged pretty-well simultaneously in the 1940s in Nazi Germany and in the ‘democratic’ United States. You will find plenty of descriptions of what autism ‘is’ online. The descriptions seem certain and ‘scientific’. They are not. The phenomenon emerged at a certain point in time in a certain context; it is historical not biological.

There is a misstep at this point in the argument, though, with the claim that there was a fundamental difference between the Nazi State ‘ablenationalist’ agendas of Asperger and the free-market context of Leo Kanner’s work. There is a risk then that the Asperger studies, which were explicitly linked to brutal eugenic policies, are treated as quite different from Kanner’s descriptions of 11 children who were, he says, very ‘intelligent’. The similarities of context, both capitalist states, would help us to ask in a more thorough way the kind of questions Broderick is concern with.

One of the peculiar things about the book, and it is a limitation of the analysis, is that the argument is geared to exactly the kind of ideological context – that of the United States – that it intends to critique.

One example is in the attack on the branding and marketing activities of the behavioural scientists, and the role of ‘applied behavioural analysis’ in claiming to define, manage and even, perhaps, cure ‘autism’. The critique is, in most parts, correct, and Broderick is right to say that it could also have been cognitive-psychological or psychoanalytic approaches that played the same function. There is, as she shows, a hugely profitable industry in the ‘treatment’ and ‘prevention’ of autism, and all of that relies on marking out the category as significantly different from ‘normal people’.

However, she repeatedly puts the blame on what she calls the ‘plutocrats’ of the applied behavioural analysis organisations, as if there were some deliberate conscious manipulation of the population. This conspiratorial account is worst when she affirms the analysis of some critics of the so-called ‘Education Industrial Complex’ – Broderick is a professor of education – that there are ‘shadowy elites’ behind the complex. Come on, please.

This individualist motif is also present in the detailed and otherwise useful analysis of the kinds of ideological discourse that is used to frame ‘autism’. There is analysis of the themes of ‘hope’ and ‘fear’ and ‘science’ in the Autism Industrial Complex, but this is discussed in terms of who is pulling the strings, which rather misses the point, or, worse, leads into places we should be careful of treading into. The rhetoric of the Autism Industrial Complex is managed, Broderick says, by, wait for it’, ‘rhetors’. The danger here is that attention is displaced from the ideology to a search for those who are responsible for producing it. This is unnecessary and misleading.

If we really want a political-economic analysis of autism, we need to think about it as embedded in the kind of social relationships that capitalism replicates, not in a search for individuals who are engineering things to their own advantage, even if that profiting from autism is, indeed, part of the problem. What the book does quite well is to show us how definitions of autism have shifted since it was first named. The question, as Broderick says, is not what autism really is but what the label does.

There was an ‘epidemic’ of autism that gave rise to much fear and then promises of cure precisely because of the increase in funding of organisations charged with diagnosing it. We need to step aside from those kind of assumptions in order to be inclusive, not reinforce labels that mark people out and confine them in the identities that are generously marketed along with the labels.

Queering Autism

There is useful discussion toward the end of the book about how the arguments around autism intersect with LGTBQI+ movements, and what the implications are of the identity, along with the ‘treatments’ and ‘prevention’ developments, being sold to those who are labelled as well as their families. There are shifts now from pathologizing autism – the main concern of this book – to embracing it, with the inclusion agenda also serving to reinforce the idea that this historical phenomenon is a biological bedrock abnormality.

Resisting the Autism Industrial Complex, for Broderick, means not only challenging the way the label is branded and sold, and what a juicy investment opportunity it is for big players in the diagnosis and management markets, but also how those who are subject to the label may themselves escape and organise themselves. Taking a cue from neurotypical and ‘neuroqueer’ initiatives, that radical activity of escape and organisation comes not only from reclaiming what ‘autism’ is, but also from opening the way to questioning what it has become, how it functions, what the label and identity does to people.

The kind of resources the left should be arguing for should not lock people all the more tightly into pathology, but enable us all to rethink what is pathological about a political-economic system that divides those who are good workers from those who work differently. Creative labour, as far as revolutionary Marxists are concerned, comes in many different forms, most of which are excluded from the matrix of the kind of workplace that is geared to the production of surplus value.

Broderick returns time and again through the book to the point that the main problem with autism is not autism as such but capitalism. The Autism Industrial Complex, for her, is now a necessary part of neoliberal capitalism. So, it is an urgent task now to not only acknowledge the claims of people who embrace the label to live their lives against and outside the Autism Industrial Complex, but also to create the kinds of spaces – including in our organisations – in which the label can be questioned and even refused.

Just as queer politics disturbs taken-for-granted ideological common-sense categories of gender and sexuality, so a queer twist on autism may enable new alliances between those who separated into ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, recognising that we all suffer in our own usually private way from the way that capitalism demeans and divides us.

This review appeared first on the ACR site

Booker Prize Books 2022

Ian Parker has some reading recommendations from the Booker Prize for your holidays

The Booker Prize process has seen some rocky times since it began in 1969, ranging from controversies over the composition of the panel to hissy-fits by authors imagining they should have won it. The scope of the entrants has expanded over the years, and that, along with a greater sensitivity to various dimensions of oppression, has given rise to some interesting long and short lists. This year’s crop gives us some good interesting work, books that raise political questions from different contexts in an interesting way.

The prize is now supposed to be ‘international’ in scope, though still listing only books published in the English language. This year we have five books from the United States, two of which explicitly tackle racism, and one of which tries to take a long view of the history of racism in the US. There are two books from Ireland, one of which is concerned with colonisation. There are two books from further afield, one from Sri Lanka and one from Zimbabwe. There is a continental European book written by a US author, and there are three home-grown English books. So, some openings, and some restrictions.

The short list

This is my order of preference from the short list, and I’ll try to give you an idea what you are letting yourself in for without unnecessary plot spoilers, and I’ll try to be clear about what I liked and didn’t like. These may be idiosyncratic choices by the panel, of course, and you may well like the look of some of the books I was less keen on, but here goes.

Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Sevens Moons of Maali Almeida is a real book; long, well-structured, a compelling ghost-perspective on a time of many deaths in Sri Lanka. I’m not into supernatural stuff, but this works, having been written and rewritten for different audiences, now with some explanation of what the different local and international players are in Sri Lanka. It is by turns horrific and funny. At times it seems to be too balanced, throwing a plague on all parties, but it has its soul in the right place, raising questions about the role of a gay photo-journalist in times of war, and what hopes for redemption there might be for those who collude and those who resist.

Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker is a disconcerting and downright weird tale of someone, we don’t know their age or who they live with, though they seem young, or when it is set, or where they live – though we guess it is somewhere up north of England. Garner is an old hand at mystic stuff written for young adults, and I’ve avoided his work up to now. At some point characters bleed out from a comic the main character is reading, and there is a chase through mirrors out of this world and back into it again. It is cryptic but intriguing, and I really liked it, thinking about it a lot afterwards and wondering about what it was supposed to mean.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory is set in Zimbabwe, a surreal satire on the Mugabe regime that is configured as a cast of animals, with dogs, the ‘defenders’ as the shock troops of the state. The word ‘tholukuthi’ appears again and again scattered into the text as if at random. I found that very irritating. It means something like ‘and so we see’ or ‘you find that’, and the phrase has become a trademark of the book. The corrupt viciousness of Mugabe is captured well, and no opportunity for scorn at him or his successors is lost. We have a window into the history of anti-colonial struggle that eventually, and unsatisfyingly, in my opinion, tries to end more hopefully than Orwell’s Animal Farm, a book it deliberately alludes to more than once.

Percival Everett’s The Trees conjures up the world of benighted white hillbillies in the US, and they are made to seem all the more backward and ridiculous viewed from the perspective of some black cops brought in to solve some bizarre murders. The plot builds and the deaths accumulate. I liked this a lot, but puzzled over where it was going. This is about slavery and its aftermath, about society haunted by its past, and the failure to acknowledge and resolve racist trauma. And then, perhaps this was inevitable, there is no resolution at all. Unkindly, perhaps, I felt that the author had a great idea, and started writing and then didn’t know how to click things into place. 

Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William is based in the US, musing on the nature of character and relationships, and eventually successfully draws us into the little lives it describes. It is also often annoying, too-cutely written from the perspective of someone who is barely aware of what they are tangled in, written so well that one suspects that the writer herself is as naïve as the first-person viewpoint character they inhabit. None of the characters are really likeable, and there is a quasi-reflexive aspect to the book that is also annoying, but finally it works out, with threads surprisingly tied together.

Claire Keegan’s Small Things like These is very slight, a novella. It’s not bad, but it’s too brief, set in Ireland in the aftermath of the Magdalen laundries scandal, with an afterword about the thousands of young pregnant unmarried women confined and exploited by nuns. The writing is fluid and – like her Foster which was made into a film as The Quiet Girl – it homes in on family life, in this case contrasting that with what is going on behind the convent walls. It sets the scene well, but does not pull together, leaving us rather hanging, wondering about what all this might mean for the characters and for the society that allowed this to happen.

The long list

Some of these lower down in the top thirteen are very good, and I would bump some of them up into the short list, while some of them are so-so. For the moment, let’s just take these seven that did not make it into the short list. Again, roughly in order of preference, here they are.

Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho patches together in a really neat way the queer lives of a network of women – mainly literary types and mostly very rich – who disturb given categories of gender and sexuality from the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1930s. Many of them idealise ancient Greece, and ‘Sappho’ here is a potent signifier, exciting and inspiring them to live way beyond what they are told they should be. This is fiction and history, beautifully written and exhaustively researched, with a detailed account after the end of the book telling us what was adapted from what.

Maddie Mortimer’s Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is a weirdly-formatted book, and that’s something that disrupts the text – words are compressed, split, and wound round each other, and images complement the narrative. This makes it difficult to read on an e-book, and I converted it into simple text to read. The typographical image work is actually unnecessary, and that makes it feel overworked. But this debut novel is a surprisingly engaging moving story of a family ravaged in different ways by cancer told in fragments; the family fragments and we watch them fall apart.

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study is, at times, very funny, crafted as a kind of elaborate spoof of the life of a radical psychiatrist – it’s clearly based on R D Laing, with that character appearing at other points to give some Zelig-style real-feel to the book. It rattles along through the voice of a relative of a patient out to outwit the shrink and revealing something weird about herself in the process. At some farcical moments I pictured it as a song-spattered Dennis Potter TV series. There is nicely-observed stuff about people pretending to be clients of therapy, as well as ‘untherapists’ critical of their own institution, and unwittingly getting drawn into what they think they are setting themselves against. It’s a good long joke.

Leila Mottley’s Nightcrawling is a painful journey with a young black woman in Oakland. This debut novel just about escapes cynical charges that this is poverty-porn, and it hits some predictable buttons around the contradictions of sex-work and the intersection of racism and sexism among the exploited and oppressed. It feels at moments like different kinds of sexual lifestyle are pasted in, playing to an audience. There is good stuff here clearly schooled from creative writing class, with lows and highs, moments of desperation and then heart-warming bonding, and some legal tension and police violence. Written from the heart, but formulaic.

Audrey Magee’s The Colony is set on a remote Irish island 1970s, and the intrusion of an English painter – symbolic violence – is interleaved with a sequence of sectarian killings in the North. There are some clunky explanatory facts about language and colonisation inserted through the research writing of a French visitor who, for his own complicated reasons, wants to save the language. Despite some nicely observed scenes, the real menace and violence seems always to be located on the side of the Irish, and so some kind of journalistic ‘balance’ ends up betraying whatever positive critical points that are being made.

Hernan Diaz’s Trust is structured around the conceit of ‘perspective’, with four different books in this book giving different viewpoints on the economic success of a US businessman centring on the 1929 Wall Street Crash, from which he benefits. There are more red herrings than solutions, and what is revealed in the fourth book – and that, and this is a heavy clue, is about the Wife – is not the most interesting answer to the most pressing questions that are raised and forgotten as we go through the thing. The book displaces attention from who labours to create wealth to who is creative enough to calculate and invest wisely.

Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth is a rather tiresomely padded-out family story about the life and crimes of the guy who killed Abraham Lincoln in a theatre. It is a mythic narrative of interest, maybe, to US-Americans, and I remember seeing images of John Wilkes Booth pop up in DC comics stories and puzzling as a kid then about what was going on. It is too long and, infuriatingly, much of the life and family is fabricated. You won’t learn much, except that the good guy in the story, Lincoln, was himself a dodgy character who hedged his bets on whether or not to actually end slavery, so I didn’t care so much when he meets his maker at Booth’s hands.

The top three

The books are pitched in very different ways to different readers, and perhaps it is stupid to rank them. Different styles make for real difficulty in imposing criteria. I have two criteria here that clash against each other. There needs to be a political sensitivity that makes me feel that I’m immersing myself in something of the real world and getting a different, progressive, vantage point on it; there should be critique. And there needs to be an enjoyable flow so that I feel that I am finding a way out of this world, stepping out into a quite different landscape, of the world and characters; there should be escape. 

So, bearing that in mind, if I had to choose, I would select the following as the top three from these thirteen listed books. First place to Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (which beautifully and horrifically combines escape with critique), so I agree with the final Booker panel verdict. Then, second, Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho (for progressive historical critique in absorbing vignettes). Then, third, Maddie Mortimer’s Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies (for taking us into some surreal places to examine our mortality). In different ways, these works of ‘fiction’ are also, as all good fiction should be, windows back on the real world.

This article appeared first on the ACR site