In 2004, years before he was poised to become Britain’s next prime minister, Boris Johnson published Seventy-Two Virgins. His novel, which has sold more than 46,000 copies according to Nielsen Book Research, is a farce about a terrorist plot to assassinate America’s president during a state visit to Britain, featuring a contest reminiscent of reality television, much talk of buxom women and occasional mocking of Britain’s welfare policies.
Reviewers called it everything from an “effortlessly brilliant page-turner” to “not quite a novel”. But it was most noted for its hero, Roger Barlow, a member of Britain’s parliament.
Barlow is bumbling and gaffe-prone, not unlike Johnson, who has been typecast as both throughout his career. Barlow rides a bike, not unlike Johnson. And Barlow spends much of the book hounded by a newspaper for what appears to be a sexual indiscretion. Johnson was fired as a shadow minister just months after the novel came out for lying about an affair.
In Britain, the novel has largely been forgotten, except by political commentators. In June, Marina Hyde, a columnist for The Guardian, highlighted some of its worst moments in a series of tweets (one character is said to look “like a lingerie model only cleverer, and, if anything, with bigger breasts”; another has so much machismo “he was sometimes considered a danger to himself”).
But to some, Seventy-Two Virgins and Johnson’s other books — which include a love letter to Winston Churchill and an illustrated book of verse about pushy parents — deserve a closer look. “They’re all part of the wider Boris project. They’re not just books,” said Steven Fielding, a politics lecturer who has studied how British politics is represented in culture.
Sonia Purnell, a former colleague of Johnson’s at The Daily Telegraph who has written a biography of him, said Seventy-Two Virgins had proved invaluable to her research. “He is a very secretive person, but he allows glimpses of himself,” she said. “He would expect the books to be dissected, but I think they’re quite telling.”
That Johnson would write a novel is not surprising, said Andrew Gimson, another Johnson biographer. Stanley Johnson, his father, has written a series of political thrillers. Rachel Johnson, his sister, is also a novelist (she won the Bad Sex in Fiction award in 2008). Members of this family have always been competitive, Gimson said, and Johnson might have wanted to show he could write a novel, too.
Johnson’s office did not reply to an interview request for this article. But he said in a 2004 interview with The Evening Standard that he wrote it out of “pure vanity” on holiday, “just to see that I could”. “He’s not me, by the way,” Johnson added of Barlow, in an interview with The Times of London. “But you’ve got to use what you know, haven’t you?”
While writing the book, Johnson was “terrified” that it would come across as a pale imitation of P G Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh, two of his favourite authors, he told The Sunday Business Post (other favourite authors include Chaucer, whom Johnson once praised for “his pricking of hypocrisy and his terrible puns”, and the crime writer Carl Hiaasen).
There is a long tradition of Conservative Party politicians writing novels, Fielding said. Winston Churchill, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote one novel, Savrola, about a revolution in a fictional country. The hero was a faintly disguised version of Churchill, Fielding said. Benjamin Disraeli, another key figure in British politics, wrote romantic novels in the 1800s, many with a political message. In Sybil, for instance, a working-class heroine finds love with an aristocrat, a barely disguised call for Britain’s lower and upper classes to unite against the evils of industrialisation, Fielding said.
In Seventy-Two Virgins, the political message at times seems at odds with Johnson’s right-wing politics. The most sympathetic character is Dean, a young terrorist from Britain’s Midlands whose back story involves petty crime, a racist foster parent and a next-door neighbour obsessed with cheese. A traffic warden from Nigeria plays a key role. And there is anti-Americanism running through the novel (“Britain slavishly followed America into the war on terror,” Johnson writes).
But Fielding said that Johnson — who has been criticised for stoking Islamophobia, including through his book The Dream of Rome, which included an appendix saying there was “more than a grain of truth” to the idea that the “real problem with the Islamic world is Islam” — was trying to show he was a liberal Conservative to appeal to voters in the early 2000s. Johnson would write a different novel today, Fielding said.
“Johnson’s a political chameleon,” Purnell said. “He was left-leaning London’s mayor and now he’s going for the far-right Brexit crowd. He was once pro-immigration, and now we’re not so sure. He was a petrol head and now he’s made himself an eco-warrior. There are no core beliefs, no values, just instincts.”
Gimson agreed that the book showed Johnson’s lack of core beliefs but said that was a good thing for a potential prime minister. “Both in politics and the arts, you shouldn’t be improbably reaching after certainty,” Gimson said. “Politicians often get stuck with an ideology that makes sense at one point, but circumstances change.”
The book’s sympathetic portrayal of a terrorist showed Johnson’s humanity, Gimson added. “People often miss that about him,” he said. “There are strong feelings hidden behind all the jokes.”
In 2005, Johnson talked about Seventy-Two Virgins on Desert Island Discs, a British radio show where celebrities are asked about their favourite music (Johnson picked Brahms, Beethoven and Pressure Drop, by the Clash). Sue Lawley, the show’s presenter, called the book “chillingly prescient”. But she then asked Johnson why he’d written a novel that reminded people of his own extramarital activity. “You do like playing with fire, don’t you?” she said.
“I suppose there might be an element of truth in that,” Johnson eventually replied.
Johnson has not left writing behind. He is working on a book about Shakespeare called The Riddle of Genius, due in 2020. In June, Johnson said that deadline would slip if he became prime minister.
The book will be Johnson’s second on a British cultural icon, following 2014’s The Churchill Factor. While the Churchill biography sold more than 280,000 copies, according to Nielsen Book Research, academics criticised it for slapdash research and its attempts to link Johnson to the former prime minister and war leader. “My biggest problem with it was it was a lazy book,” said Richard Evans, a historian who reviewed the book for The New Statesman, a left-leaning magazine. “The book is a bit of political propaganda, not serious research. He’s just trying to persuade people he’s another Churchill.”
At one point, Johnson writes that Churchill became prime minister despite members of the Conservative Party having been “conditioned to think of him as an opportunist, a turncoat, a blowhard, an egotist, a rotter, a bounder, a cad and on several well-attested occasions a downright drunk”.
Seventy-Two Virgins ends with Roger Barlow, the Johnson-like member of Parliament, giving a speech in an attempt to save the American president’s life.
A terrorist cuts Barlow short, which so annoys our hero that he kicks the terrorist in the elbow. Barlow’s “beautiful research assistant” cries out his name. Barlow then hits the terrorist on the head with a statue, using a motion he “first learned as a child when thwacking the tops of thistles in the meadow”.
Barlow may have bumbled his way through much of the book’s 326 pages, but at the last minute he saves Britain from becoming a global embarrassment.
How does he celebrate? By cycling home.
© 2019 The New York Times