Trampling the Astroturf

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Review of 'The Fountain at the Centre of the World' by Robert Newman, Verso £10.99

This is an ambitious novel that weaves the struggle against globalisation into the story of Chano Salgado. On the way we visit the blowing up of a pipeline in Mexico, a detention centre for asylum seekers in England and the Battle for Seattle at the end of November 1999.

Everyone is involved in politics. Chano and his comrades debate direct action as against demonstrations, and discuss how to counter Ethylclad - a corporation that is destroying the local environment. Chano's teenage son Daniel, sent to Costa Rica while still a baby after his father was presumed killed, returns to search for Chano and gets caught up in the anti-Ethylclad movement. Even the regional chief of police is a New Labour style figure. In between yoga sessions and firing on demonstrators he ponders modernising the cops to provide a secure climate for foreign investment.

Chano's brother Evan was adopted at birth and taken to England. He has ended up on the other side of the global power divide, advising governments and companies on how to profit from globalisation. But he has a deadly disease and goes in search of his brother hoping for a cure.

Evan gives us a view of Seattle from above while Chano and Daniel are on the streets. The protesters are teargassed by police and the talks collapse inside the conference centre while Evan watches.

We also get some fascinating insights into the world of globalisation's boosters. Evan's company advises some of its clients not to bother with trying to actually convince public opinion. Much better and more realistic just to instil the idea that an issue is complicated and there is no right and wrong.

They also help companies create fake grassroots movements - 'astroturf' - to put their case to a sceptical public.

Newman's dialogue mostly feels real. When, for example, Chano and his corporate brother argue over globalisation, the good guy doesn't get all the best lines. Other characters give us discussions on whether protest is futile, on violence and on the trade unions. The language is arresting and the descriptions are bold and vivid.

There are moments when the writing does not flow so easily. Newman inverts an opaque phrase of Gramsci's to tell us that Chano 'had optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will'. I've always struggled to work out what this phrase means. But these flaws are few.

It is rare to find such a politically engaged novel. There has been plenty of fiction that has had a political edge or implications, but this book is much more than that. It is openly partisan. I suspect it would make uncomfortable reading for advocates of the current global set-up.

You can learn something about what it is like to be in a detention centre for refugees from a novel, just as from a pamphlet. You can learn about the impact of the North American Free Trade Area on Mexico's economy and people. About what it felt like to have been on the Seattle demonstration. And I learnt about all these things and more from reading The Fountain at the Centre of the World.

But although the book is partisan, it is not 'worthy' in the pejorative sense. It works as a novel, and not just as a political novel. I kept reading, fascinated by the story and characters.