Monday, 29 September 2014


“Man is a political animal” – Aristotle

Today I am looking at the genre of political novels. These obviously have as a theme politics, but also look at society and the conflicts arising because of a clash of ideas. Sometimes, these novels can have propaganda value, but generally they fall into the group of writing that examines freedom and the price that people pay for attaining it. These types of novel have been very influential as they have often been written in adverse circumstances, sometimes have been banned, frequently have been censored and in some cases have even been made illegal to possess. The list of such novels is huge and I shall only limit myself to a few that I can recall easily as I was impressed immensely when I first read them.

I shall start with a novel that was based on real events and highlights the terrible social evils of totalitarian regimes. It is Vassilis Vasilikos’ “Z”. In Greek, “Zee” means “He lives” and is a monument to the memory of Grigoris Lambrakis, a distinguished athlete, doctor and politician, as well as an active pacifist and humanitarian. He was assassinated by thugs under the control of right-wing government organisations. The book depicts the way para-state and paramilitary mechanisms operated in Greece in the 1960s and the efforts of an honest investigator against them. The book was made into a successful film by Costa Gavras in 1969 (

“All the King’s Men” is a novel by Robert Penn Warren, which won the Pulitzer Prize. It is as relevant today as when it was written in 1946. This novel about American politics traces the rise and fall of demagogue Willie Stark, a fictional character who resembles the real-life Huey Long of Louisiana. In Louisiana, the smart, populist, manipulative Willie Stark is elected governor largely through the support of the lower social classes. He joins a team composed of his bodyguard and friend Sugar Boy; the journalist from an aristocratic family Jack Burden; the lobbyist Tiny Duffy; and his mistress Sadie Burke, to face the opposition of the upper classes. When the influential Judge, Irwin supports a group of politicians in their request for Stark’s impeachment, Stark assigns Jack Burden to find some incriminating “dirt” in the life of Irwin, leading to a tragedy in the end. This novel has also made it into films, once in 1949 ( and in 2006 (, as well as a TV series in 1958 (

“The Manchurian Candidate” is Richard Condon’s controversial 1959 Cold War thriller. It tells the story of Sergeant Raymond Shaw, an ex-prisoner of war (and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honour). Shaw has been brainwashed by a Chinese psychological expert during his captivity in North Korea and has come home programmed to kill a US presidential nominee. The actions of Raymond Shaw are not what everyone believes they are, and the nightmares of a US Army officer, Bennett Marco, leads to the investigation of Raymond that unlocks a stunning political conspiracy that sweeps up Senator Johnny Iselin and his wife, Eleanor Iselin (who is also Shaw’s mother). Only Bennett Marco can possibly stop the plot and there are several people who are out to ensure that he does not succeed.  The 1962 movie  ( was taken out of circulation for 25 years following the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Everyone conversant with English knows and probably often uses the phrase “catch-22” to describe a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions. Many people who use this phrase may not know its origin. It is the title of a brilliant novel, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller that mocks war, the military, and politics. It is classic satire where Yossarian, a bombadier in World War II, desperately tries to be declared insane by the Air Force in order to go home. However during the process he slowly watches each of his friends and crew die off in the horrors of war.  His desire to avoid the dangerous missions is taken to prove his sanity. Once again, this has been made into a 1970 movie ( and a 1973 TV series (

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee explores attitudes towards race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s through the eyes of eight-year-old Scout Finch, “one of the most endearing and enduring characters of Southern literature”, and her father, Atticus Finch. The novel is a powerful document of the tension and conflict between prejudice and hypocrisy on the one hand and justice and perseverance on the other. The 1962 film of the novel ( has become a classic in its own right.

Are human beings inherently evil and destructive, savages that will not heed reason, or are they inherently good and bound by the laws of society whatever context they find themselves in? William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” is a classic novel that shows how thin the veneer of civilisation might be, as it explores what happens in the absence of rules and order. A group of boys are marooned on an island after their plane crashes. With no adult survivors, they create their own society in miniature. Ralph is elected chief and he organises shelter and fire. Jack, the head of the choir takes his boys hunting for wild pigs to feed the community. A bitter rivalry develops between Jack and Ralph as both strive for leadership. The “hunters” become savage and primal, under Jack’s rule, while Ralph tries to keep his group civilised. The growing hostility between them leads to a frightening climax. Once again, this novel has engendered filmic treatments, the better 1963 version ( and in my opinion, the inferior 1990 version (

“Big Brother” is term most people around the world are familiar with for the wrong reason. Everyone knows the execrable TV reality shows around the world in which “Big Brother” is a person exercising total control over a group of people’s lives as they are confined in a house. Once again, most people would not know the origin of the term. It is derived from “1984” by George Orwell written in 1949, where he describes a dystopia that he imagines the world has deteriorated to in 1984. Orwell introduces Big Brother and other concepts like newspeak and thoughtcrime. In this imagined future, the world is dominated by three totalitarian superpowers, people’s actions are scrutinised to the extreme and personal freedom has become unknown. The novel has generated two films, the 1956 version ( and the superior 1984 version (

George Orwell also wrote another classic political and social allegory, “Animal Farm”. In this novel, Orwell satirises Stalinist Russia, by describing the revolt of the animals of Manor Farm (i.e. the common people) against their human masters (the aristocracy). Led by the pigs Snowball (Lenin) and Napoleon (Stalin), the animals attempt to create a utopian society. Soon, however, Napoleon gets a taste for power, drives out Snowball, and establishes a totalitarian regime as brutal and corrupt as any human society. Manor Farm becomes a world where all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others… Interestingly, this novel has been brought to the silver screen as animated feature films, the 1954 version ( and the 1999 version (

I could probably go on and talk about Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent”, Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and many more. I could talk about authors like Kafka, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Clancy, Grisham, Crichton, who write fiction that is largely politically motivated, or at least politically actuated, but I have tried your patience enough.

It is obvious, that this genre of literature is engaging and effective as a tool for social change. Humans are political animals and personal experience, the experience of both private and public characters, forms the heart of what fiction is, so it is not surprising that many of the great literary works are politically motivated. People do read a lot of political fiction, a lot of culturally critical fiction, and the sales of popular authors like Grisham and Crichton support this. Enjoy your reading!


  1. Excellent review of some great novels!

  2. With comic or romantic or dramatic novels, the reader either enjoys the writing or he/she does not.

    With political novels, the reader is either delighted with the political themes, or aggravated by them. A common example would be Atlas Shrugged. I was so angry about Rand's politics that I did not ever find out if she could write well or not.

  3. I liek how you’ve included the movies made from these novels… Great post.