If any British writer is considering imitating Yann Martel’s campaign to get world leaders reading and is deliberating on a novel to break the ice with David Cameron, they could do worse than Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 exploration of wealth and poverty, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Just like our present government, it seeks to examine issues of fairness (as they relate to money) and separate the deserving from the undeserving – though it perhaps goes a little further by facing up to the central question – “What are people for?”
I am sure Mr. Cameron would be gripped from the very first sentence, which is:
“A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.”
The income from this sum of money ($87,472,033.61), in an act of legal tax avoidance (little has changed), is placed at the disposal of a charity, the Rosewater Foundation, the presidency of which is to be inherited by the eldest male Rosewater, “free to compensate themselves for their services as lavishly as they pleased.” Unfortunately, the current President, Eliot Rosewater, has been taking the Big Society a little too seriously:
“Maybe I flatter myself when I think I have things in common with Hamlet, that I have an important mission, that I’m temporarily mixed up about how it should be done.”
After more than one breakdown, and many years of alcoholism, he eventually decides to return to the town where the family fortune began – Rosewater, Indiana – and to “care about” the people living there:
“I look at these people and I realise that they can’t even care about themselves anymore – because they have no use. The factory, the farms, the mines across the river – they’re almost completely automatic now….I’m going to love these discarded Americans even though they’re useless and unattractive.”
While this may not be exactly what William Hague has in mind when it comes to welfare reform, it is remarkably cost-effective as Eliot goes about this single-handedly by manning a phone line twenty four hours a day. (We’re later told, “Eliot’s Rosewater County operation had been cheaper than staying in a sanatorium.”) Of course, such philanthropy doesn’t go unnoticed – at least, not by Norman Mushari, a lawyer who knows a thing or two about wealth creation:
“In every big transaction…there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on.”
If Mushari can prove Eliot insane then he can arrange for the Rosewater fortune to be inherited by a distant relative, after removing his share of course. As well as providing another commentary on avarice, this makes the reader question how sane Eliot is, or at least, how sane his actions appear to others.
Vonnegut’s novel is in a long line of literature dealing with this question of goodness and madness – Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is another example; as is, presumably, The New Testament – but one that is particularly concerned with money. He is quite clear that inheriting wealth is just “dumb luck” (that may not go down well in Cameron household), and creates a back story for Eliot’s family that suggests he does not buy into the idea that the entrepreneur is the highest form of life. Their fortune is created (as so many are) during war – the American Civil War. While one brother goes to fight, the other hires the village idiot to fight in his place and profits by converting his saw factory to the production of swords and bayonets. And, naturally, proceeds to swindle his brother (who returns from the war blind!) out of his share.
However, the novel’s lack of subtlety (another reason to suggest politicians as a suitable readership) does not mean it lacks complexity or seriousness. The questions it raises about equality and fairness have clearly not gone away. It is unlikely that Vonnegut would see politicians as the answer – Eliot’s father is a congressman whose greatest achievement has been to define ‘obscenity’. Above all, he reminds us that it is not about money, but about people, and it all starts with that question – “What are people for?”