It’s difficult to squeeze The Iron Bird into a single genre pigeonhole. The novel sets out to dismantle the received account of Thatcher’s upbringing – her sainted father, his grocer’s shop, etc – so in some respects it’s a coming-of-age story. But it’s also a tale about her Miss Haversham-like decline into dementia, so there’s an element of literary fiction too. Perhaps above all, though, the book is a political allegory – something that isn’t as common as the thriller or the rom-com, say, but every so often a fascinating example comes along, so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of them…
1. Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swift (1726)
When I first read an abridged version of Gulliver’s Travels as a child, I had no idea that, in the words of Philip Harth, the Lilliputians
…provide us with a political history of England between 1708 and the early 1720s.
But even so, I remember something about Swift’s tale touched a nerve. Perhaps it’s the iconic image of Gulliver caught up in the Lilliputian’s ropes that captures the imagination, or perhaps it’s Swift’s linguistic dexterity: Lilliput, Brobdingnag, the Houyhnhnms – and of course, the Yahoos. The first novel to create it own lexicon, its own world.
Samuel Butler (1872)
This is an unusual one. The hero – a chap called Higgs – is a Gulliver-like figure, a traveller in search of his fortune. But the land he discovers in New Zealand’s Southern Alps is a world turned upside down. For in Erewhon (an anagram of Nowhere) criminals are sent to hospitals to ‘recover’ from their crimes and the sick are sent to prison.
As Orwell said in a talk about Butler’s novel…
All Utopia books are satires or allegories. Obviously, if you invent an imaginary country you do so in order to throw light on the institutions of some existing country, probably your own.
The subject here is clearly Victorian society, then. But even so, the novel remains surprisingly relevant, especially a section called The Book of Machines, which introduces the concept of mechanical devices evolving more rapidly than humankind, evoking the fear of a Matrix-like world where humans are reduced to slaves.
3. Animal Farm
George Orwell (1945)
As Orwell’s novel was the inspiration for The Iron Bird, it just had to be on this list. Perhaps to a modern reader its simple, almost matter-of-fact tone might not seem challenging, but as Louis Menand makes clear in the New Yorker, on an allegorical level this is a complex book:
Virtually every detail in Animal Farm allegorizes some incident in (the history of the Soviet Union): the Kronstadt rebellion, the five-year plan, the Moscow trials, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Tehran conference.
And it is still relevant. In fact, perhaps it could even be read as a warning against populism – after all, looking from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Kate Hoey, and from Kate Hoey to Jacob Rees-Mogg again, it’s sometimes impossible to say which is which.
4. The Crucible
Arthur Miller (1953)
Not a novel, of course, but I just couldn’t leave The Crucible off this list – after all, it’s as much about McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities as it is the Salem witch trials. And Miller’s dialogue is as rich and uncluttered as the King James Bible.
5. Lord of the Flies
William Golding (1954)
I studied this a school, aged 15. In retrospect, I’m sure my English teacher must have pointed out that it could be read as a political allegory, but as a teenager, I suspect it might have been the adventure story that appealed to me at the time. Can The Lord of the Flies be considered Young Adult fiction? If so, setting the dialogue to one side, it’s a stunningly contemporary example of the genre. In fact, the dystopia that Golding conjures up is darker than that of The Hunger Games – and much more elemental. What happens when civilisation collapses? Witness the death of the Christ-like Simon, the bloodlust of the hunt for Ralph. We could be on the heath with Lear.
Howard Jacobson (2017)
Written in “a fury of disbelief” when Trump was swept to power in 2016, Jacobson’s satire has been praised as “a fierce, bitter tirade with moments of brilliance”, and at the same time, dismissed as “boring”.
As Lucy Sholes points out in the Independent:
The problem with any attempt to satirise Trump’s improbable but very real presidency is that he’s already so outrageous as to be beyond parody.
I think there’s another problem here, though. Some politicians are larger than life – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson – but distance lends comprehension. How will their stories end? We don’t know. They need to recede into the mist of history before an author can make sense of them. Sadly, though, the 45th president of the United States is still slumped in the White House, scoffing Big Macs in front of a plasma TV. And so it’s too soon to reconsider his appalling character through the lens of political allegory. Now, Margaret Thatcher on the other hand… Enough said.