It is tempting at the moment to look at every piece of art, be it book, movie or TV series, that has anything vaguely political to say and claim that it is symptomatic of the time. But trying to reflect and understand the times we live in has been one of the roles of the arts since people were drawing on cave walls. Writers often hold a mirror up to the world and allow their audience to consider their situation in a safe fictional space. Not that there is anything particularly safe about Kyrzbekistan, the hybrid Eastern European country that forms the backdrop of Simon Wroe’s second novel Here Comes Trouble.
Kyrzbekistan, held the title of “Most corrupt country 2011 and 2012” and was formerly home to the record holder for heaviest weight lifted by a beard (until both honours were taken by neighbouring Uzbeks). It is currently home to one Ellis Dau, a sixteen year old son of a newspaper editor, expelled from school for an act of extreme vandalism. With nothing else to do, Ellis ends up working for his father’s newspaper, The Chronicle. The Chronicle aims to prick the conscience of the populace as opposed to its rival paper The Gazette which reports on starlets and their pregnancies. When nationalist forces start to rise, as “discontent drew itself along ancient lines of nation, religion and race”, The Chronicle becomes a target.
Wroe’s book is a look at a country tearing itself apart. He charts the rise of nationalists thugs calling themselves The Fortyfour Horsemen (because four was not enough), emboldened by a power cut that strips a veneer of civilisation off the country. Wroe’s view through Ellis, is harshly satirical. This on the Horsemen:
“They banged on about protecting their culture, but the culture of bullying was the only culture they ever seemed to pursue… stuck in a strange loop where they cracked skulls because it was sickening how the noble tradition of cracking skulls had been lost…”
But also, supported by a corrupt administration which arrests people first and asked questions later using a more “theory-based approach to evidence”.
And just when a western reader might comfortably assume that this is about a fictional Eastern European country so does not apply to them, the media aspect makes clear that Wroe could just as easily be talking about any Western democracy. This, particularly in a time of fake news and war on the press, is a cry for press freedom for people to “Publish and be damned”. Wroe takes particular aim at those who claim to “make people safer by the liberties they removed and the information they restricted”. To stop the slide to where it is “illegal to write about slaughter but not to commit it.”
But Here Comes Trouble is far from a polemic. At the centre of the action is Ellis Dau experiencing his own coming of age in the middle of a revolution. Dealing with being excluded from school, trying to make sense of the world of adults, and falling in love, Romeo and Juliet style, with the daughter of one of his father’s targets. Ellis turns out to be a perfect guide through the chaos, naïve enough to go where others might fear to tread but knowing enough to be able to slip out of most scrapes.
Wroe effectively conveys the madness and chaos of the current populist, nationalist movements rising not only in Europe but across the world. He explores the fears and prejudice that drive these movements and the way governments exploit their popularity for their own ends. But despite the inherent and sometimes confronting violence, he does this with a light touch and plenty of wry observation.
Here Comes Trouble might not be the novel that definitively captures the time but it is definitely of the moment. It holds a cracked mirror up to the world allowing readers the comfort of a thin fictional distance while revealing underlying truths that eventually we may all need to face.