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Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest

I have white skin. Light brown hair. Blue eyes. I am tall. I usually dress conservatively: sports jackets, corduroy trousers, knitted ties. I wear spectacles for reading, though they are more an affectation than a necessity. I smoke cigarettes occasionally. Sometimes I drink alcohol. I do not believe in God; I do not go to church; I do not have any objections to other people doing so. When I married my wife, I was in love with her. I am very fond of my daughter Sally. I have no political ambitions. My name is Alan Whitman.

My skin is smudged with dirt. My hair is dry, salt-encrusted and itchy. I have blue eyes. I am tall. I am wearing now what I was wearing six months ago, and I smell awful. I have lost my spectacles, and learned to live without them. I do not smoke at all most of the time, though when cigarettes are available I smoke them continually. I am able to get drunk about once a month. I do not believe in God; I do not go to church. When I last saw my wife, I was cursing her, though I have learned to regret it. I am very fond of my daughter Sally. I do not think I have political ambitions. My name is Alan Whitman.

Among the first books I reviewed when I started this blog was Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions. After writing the review, I looked online to see what others had thought of it and discovered that I’d liked it more than most. The reason seemed to be because the London Kunzru was writing about was the London of my childhood; I recognised his book as true.

The problem with that of course is that if a novel needs a reader who was there (though I was only a small child in the 1970s) then it will struggle both for longevity and a wider readership. My Revolutions did find a wider audience than just me, but not as appreciative a one as he found for some of his other books.

I grew up in Notting Hill, more specifically North Kensington (near the north end of Ladbroke Grove for anyone reading this who knows London). It wasn’t then as fashionable as it is now; in fact North Kensington (despite what the word Kensington suggests) was one of London’s more deprived areas. It was also an area with large Black British and Afro-Caribbean communities and there were often tensions between them and the older white communities (Sam Selvon’s excellent The Lonely Londoners and his Moses Ascending both explore the area’s immigrant experience, my reviews of both are here).

Sometimes there were riots, and as a child one particular street (All Saints Road, the band All Saints named themselves after it though god knows why) was known as “the front line” because it was seen as a border between black and white neighbourhoods and a no-go zone for police and whites. The no-go bit was a myth incidentally, I walked through it on several occasions without the slightest problem (other than an assumption I was looking to buy drugs).

All of which brings me to Christopher Priest’s 1972 novel Fugue for a Darkening Island. Priest is a writer of what is sometimes called slipstream fiction, a term he invented as far as I know. He provided the foreword for Anna Kavan’s Ice and is a writer who straddles the line between literary and science fiction without recognising the boundaries of either. He can be challenging, and while Fugue is far from his best novel in some ways it’s perhaps the most challenging of all of them.

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Racists sometimes talk of immigrants “swamping” Britain; of them “overrunning” the country. Fugue is a novel in which their worst fears are realised, That’s what challenges here: it’s not the fact that the narrative is a mosaic which cuts forward and back among the protagonist’s experiences and memories so that only by the end is the entire story clear; it’s the fact that Priest has written a book which explores racism in a profoundly visceral way.

War has broken out in Africa. Some of the powers involved have got hold of nuclear weapons. They use them, rendering large parts of Africa uninhabitable. The result is a human tidal wave of refugees; millions of them. Many come to the UK; more than the UK can absorb. The result is social breakdown, civil war, the descent of the UK into the sort of hellhole the Africans are fleeing from.

The obvious parallel is with War of the Worlds, in which Britain finds itself on the receiving end of the colonialism that it dishes out elsewhere, thanks to the Martians. Here there are no Martians, but the essence is the same. Priest asks the same question as did Wells, how do we like it when the atrocities happen in the Home Counties, rather than Rwanda or the Congo?

Fugue is written from the perspective of Alan Whitman, but not chronologically. Some sections are from his life before the UK’s collapse, with Alan indulging in meaningless affairs while ignoring both the increasing sham of his marriage and a dangerous drift to the hard right in UK politics. Some are from the period in which society began to break down, with Alan looking for somewhere he and his family can safely wait out the approaching storm. Some are from after that storm has hit, with Alan one refugee among many looking now for his wife and daughter who have been kidnapped by an Afrim militia group.

The Afrim are what the African refugees are called in the novel. It’s never explained why, which lends it a certain verisimilitude as the characters after all would know why. As the novel takes Alan’s perspective though the Afrim are largely faceless; a mass of indistinguishable black aggressors who literally steal his women. It’s a troubling portrayal and it plays directly into racist stereotypes (“Once the Afrims have a street to themselves, they spread through the rest of the district in a few nights”, and later “‘Then you should know that the Afrim command has set up several brothels of white women for its troops.’”). I don’t think this is a racist novel, but it’s definitely capable of a (incorrect) racist interpretation.

Priest describes in the detailed and fascinating foreword how he was in part inspired by the cosy catastrophes of writers such as John Wyndham and John Christopher. He wrote against a backdrop of political violence in Northern Ireland, barricaded streets and paramilitaries driving families from their homes.

We realized we would probably be forced to abandon our house in Southgate the day the barricade was erected at the end of our road. Although terrified by the prospect we did nothing, because for several days we thought we might be able to adjust to the new mode of life.

In Northern Ireland sectarianism led to social cleansing, not that we use that term when it happens in the developed West. Catholics and Protestants often found themselves living in different areas, and entering one group’s territory if you belonged to the other could be dangerous even if you weren’t yourself political. For Catholics and Protestants read Hutus and Tutsis, Serbians and Bosnians, a myriad sectarian squabbles.

The following day we were at home when we heard the noise of the Martins being evicted. They lived almost opposite us. We had not had much to do with them and since the Afrim landings had seen even less of them. Vincent Martin was a highly qualified research technician and worked at an aircraft components factory in Hatfield. His wife stayed at home, looking after their three children. They were West Indians.

Soon Alan is on the road with his wife and daughter, heading to his wife’s parents in Bristol and avoiding “the barricaded Afrim enclaves at Notting Hill and North Kensington”. We know they don’t make it, and Alan becomes a refugee pushing his few belongings across England in a wheelbarrow. The violence spirals out, not just white against black but nationalists against those who sympathise with the plight of the African refugees. Alan finds himself in a warzone, policed by UN troops who do little to help. When he meets combatants it doesn’t really matter much which side they’re on because none of them give a damn about the civilians caught in the middle. At best the various militaries hand out propaganda, then move you along.

He offered me an immediate commission into the Secessionist forces, but I turned it down, explaining that I had to consider Sally. Before we left he handed me a sheet of paper which explained in simple language the long-term aims of the Secessionist cause. These were a restoration of law and order; an immediate amnesty for all Nationalist participants; a return to the parliamentary monarchy that had existed before the civil war; the restitution of the judiciary; an emergency housing programme for displaced civilians; and full British citizenship for all contemporary African immigrants. It reflected exactly what I hoped would happen, but all our recent experiences had underlined the impossibility of a peaceful solution to the present chaotic fighting.

Alan incidentally spends a fair chunk of the novel criticising his wife’s passivity and refusal to recognise what’s going on and so help herself. As the novel progresses though it becomes evident that Alan’s not really that different, that what he hates in her is in part the mirror of his own failings. Fugue is as much an exploration of Alan’s psychology and how he reacts under extreme pressure as it is a bringing home of conflicts we’re used to seeing on the TV, and it’s that dimension which ultimately makes this a better book than many of those which inspired it – Alan is simply more real, more flawed and human, than most protagonists are in this sort of book.

Fugue isn’t without its problems. In the foreword Priest talks about how he thinks that when he wrote it he was too influenced by the coolly distant style of the 1970s new wave movement and by writers such as Brautigan and Vonnegut. Part of the reason he rewrote the book was to change stylistic and language choices which worked in the 1970s but which with the passing of time carried overt political interpretations which hadn’t been intended, but part too was that with hindsight he felt that his influences had resulted in a book the language of which didn’t really suit the subject matter. I’ve not read the original, pre-revision, version, but even here there is at times a conflict between the intentionally flat prose and the horror it describes.

I’ll definitely be reading more Priest, and I’m glad I read this because while it is exceptionally bleak in both tone and outlook, it does humanise the nameless refugees who from time to time populate our news. There used to be a saying in English, there but for the grace of God go I. It’s gone out of fashion, but it expresses an important truth. Given different circumstances, a run of bad luck, political developments beyond our control, those people we perhaps send a little money or a food or old clothes donation to could be us.

In my last review, of Berlin Alexanderplatz, I talked at the end about how that novel continued to have a contemporary resonance. Fugue, despite the unlikely subject matter, does too in its way. I’ll leave you with two final quotes:

The country was in deep recession. We had a government that prided itself on fiscal expertise, but they made one bad decision after another. John Tregarth and his government had first come to power because of their economic policies but the balance of payments was in the red for month after month, public borrowing was at an all-time high, prices continued to rise steeply and an increasing number of people were made unemployed.

and

Meanwhile, democracy was taking its turn, and a General Election was held in Britain. It was a time of economic recession, with many people jobless. Inflation was high, loans were difficult to obtain, many companies were going out of business. A new right-wing party, initially a splinter group from the Conservatives, campaigned successfully on the basis of economic reform and isolationism as a cure for our employment problems.

The cover above is the one I have. I couldn’t resist sharing this one though, which utterly misrepresents the novel on pretty much every front:

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Anyone who bought the book on the basis of that cover would have been sadly disappointed.

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