Tim Pears is the author of In the Place of Fallen Leaves, In a Land of Plenty and A Revolution of the Sun. His most recent novel, Wake Up – described in the Guardian as a ‘pungent, deeply unsettling modern parable’ – is the story of a pioneering businessman whose investment in genetically engineered potatoes is going awry.
He explains his choice of genre: ‘Is the purpose of fiction to engage with or escape from the here and now? It’s surprising so little fiction takes up the challenge of the former. A novel can’t change the world. But a great novel opens the mind like nothing else. And when the mind opens, so too does the future.’
1. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (1910)
A rambling, revealing, woolly, dignified account of poverty-stricken working class life 100 years ago, written by an in and out of work painter and decorator. A British novel that inspired generations towards social justice; to be read when young and forgiving of the awkward weight of polemic.
2. The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek (1923)
Shaggy-dog stories of beautiful incompetence, of effortless anarchy spread through the Austrian army in 1914 by our eponymous idiot hero. A comic handbook on how to undermine authority in the most enjoyable way possible, written by a notorious hoaxer, drinker and vagrant Bohemian.
3. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)
A Russian communist general is imprisoned in one of Stalin’s purges. The novel concentrates on his incarceration and interrogation, and extracts both political complexity and a burnished portrait of an individual’s irreducible sovereignty, even as he is being destroyed.
4. The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andric (1945)
Episodes from the small Bosnian town of Visegrad since its stone bridge was built in the 16th century: the stories of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians, individuals enmeshed in tribal loyalties, ending with the conflagration of 1914. An indispensable insight into the Yugoslav tragedy.
5. The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati (1945)
The daily futile life of Giovanni Drogo and his comrades in a remote garrison overlooking an empty plain. Is that movement out there in the distance? Is that dust the enemy? Among other things this hallucinatory novel describes the insecurity of empires: the frontier is vulnerable. What to do? Expand. And saddle yourself with wider, yet more vulnerable frontiers.
6. Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948)
A Zulu pastor searches for his lost, errant son through the lower depths of Johannesburg, and encounters the degrading reality of the country he’d ignored. A novel of illuminating beauty and power.
7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Astonishingly inventive masterpiece. About 30 years after its publication, I heard Joseph Heller being asked if he was sad that he’d not written a book to equal his first. He confessed that he was, but took some consolation from the fact that no one else had either! After reading this satire, it’s hard to believe armies still have the effrontery to mobilise.
8. When the Tree Sings by Stratis Haviaras (1979)
How is this extraordinary book out of print? Set in German-occupied Greece during the second world war, it’s a coming-of-age novel, full of striking characters, but it is also about tyranny, collaboration, hope, desolation and exile. There’s a Laurie Lee-like quality to the writing despite it being in the author’s second language.
9. The Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee (1983)
Michael K, a poor young gardener, decides to take his mother out of a collapsing South African city and walk to a new life in the emptied country. As he loses what little he has – his possessions, his mother, his liberty – Coetzee portrays the resistance of a man who has nothing.
10. Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje (2000)
A forensic anthropologist in America returns to her birthplace, Sri Lanka, with a human rights group to study the bodies of murder victims. Against her will and better judgment she is drawn into the political turmoil behind the violence, forcing herself open to the messy complexity of truth. A dark, challenging, beautiful novel that both describes and answers the writer’s (and the reader’s) challenge: escape or engagement?