Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Christopher Priest - Fugue For A Darkening Island (1972)

"Everywhere they caused social upheaval; but in Britain, where a neo-racist government had come to power on an economic-reform ticket, they did much more."

   'Fugue For A Darkening Island' is Christopher Priest's damning indictment of Britain's innate conservatism and xenophobia that rings disturbingly true some forty years after it was published. It is also about the dangers of not standing up to evil. In some ways it can be seen as a riposte to the 'cozy catastrophes' of John Wyndham, in which middle class English folk respond to the apocalypse with their typical stiff upper lip and good sense and so maintain order and decency in the face of chaos. Here Priest wields a similarly dry, paternalistic tone to great ironic effect as he undermines the very notion of English decency.
   In 'Fugue For A Darkening Island', the incident that precipitates the catastrophe isn't an alien invasion or a plague. Africa is rendered uninhabitable by nuclear weapons, causing a massive exodus of refugees. Whereas in the rest of the world they simply cause the standard problems one would expect from an influx of a large population in need of food and shelter, in UK, where a racist far right government has come into power, they are met with suspicion, hostility and violence, eventually leading to a civil war with the African immigrants and their supporters on one side and the fascist government and the military on the other. The story centres on Alan Whitman, a British everyman who has never taken a moral or political stance his entire life. He and his wife and daughter are forced to leave their home by the conflict, and join up with a gang of refugees, where he is separated from his family.    
      In addition to its uncompromising subject matter, 'Fugue' is also ambitiously constructed, the structure designed to mimic that of a fugue, with three interweaving plot strands that echo each other as they progress. Episodes from the protagonist's early life are intertwined with the narrative explaining how the political situation collapsed and a third strand follows the protagonist through a socially disrupted England as he tries to find his wife and daughter. What could have been an unnecessary complication turns out to be an effective storytelling device. The disrupted narrative echoes the fractured state of mind of the protagonist, and the contrast of his state of mind and his behaviour throughout different points in the crisis allow us to see just how much he has been damaged by the experience. Additionally it lets us know more about Alan Whitman the person. The frank descriptions of his sexual awakenings may not initially seem to have much to do with the plot at hand, but as the narrative progresses and we get more and more information about his character, it casts some of his later decisions and behaviour in a different light. Whitman is a selfish and self-absorbed man, with that stereotypical British desire to avoid confrontation at all costs. Thus, he finds himself trapped in  a loveless marriage, constantly cheating on his wife and oblivious to the feelings of his young daughter, lacking the courage or conviction to either commit to his marriage or admit it isn't working and move on. This same fear of committing oneself is echoed in Whitman's response to the political situation developing around him. He initially joins a pro-immigrants rights group at his work, but doesn't actually do anything apart from go on a single protest march, and pulls out when the government starts cracking down on dissident activity. He even acknowledges the public's worrying political apathy in the face of political extremism, but fails to notice this characteristic in himself. There is an absolutely cringe-worthy scene in which he finds himself at a pub laughing nervously as an acquaintance makes racist jokes about the immigrants.
   This reluctance to commit haunts Whitman and drives his every action, even as he is forced out of his home by a situation created by his brutal fascist government. It is only as he searches for his wife and child, who have been kidnapped and sent to a makeshift brothel by the militant African forces, that he starts to make the first steps towards action. He shoots down a helicopter with an African pilot out of revenge, but when he goes to investigate the wreckage and finds the pilot still alive but mortally wounded he still cannot make himself either kill the man out of revenge or to put him out of his misery.
   As the story progresses, Whitman becomes more and more of an unreliable narrator. His natural inward focus is intensified by the crisis, and while he still shares his thoughts and experiences in his clipped, detached manner, it becomes clear that his sense of perspective towards outside events is becoming more and more warped as his decisions become less and less rational. The way Priest uses a dry and understated voice to ironically underscore just how twisted his protagonist's perception is brings to mind Anna Kavan's similarly apocalyptic 'Ice'. There is a scene towards the end when the rest of the UK has collapsed into anarchy where Whitman comes across a sleepy middle class village which is blissfully unaware of the situation outside its walls, which is reminiscent of the middle class family in Samuel R. Delany's 'Dhalgren' who still behave exactly the same as always and ignore the complete breakdown of social order going on outside. Priest similarly mines this situation for all the dark humour possible.
   The version of Whitman narrating one of the chronologically earlier narrative strands tells us that the government and military exercised a policy of genocide against the Africans, and he knows that the morally right thing to do is to side with them, however he keeps shying away from actually doing so. By the end of the book he discovers that his wife and daughter have been killed by the African military for not submitting to the brothel clientele's demands, which is finally enough to force his hand in the other direction. He goes on to kill an African boy and runs off into the countryside to seek revenge. By this stage, Whitman is too damaged to see that the Africans themselves are not to blame for the situation; the white nationalistic forces have brothels staffed by female African prisoners of war whom they treat exactly the same, which Whitman himself visits earlier in the story. Both armies have committed horrific atrocities against civilians on both sides, but this is a situation that has come about because the government responded to an influx of immigrants by putting them in concentration camps and trying to exterminate them. If Whitman or the rest of the UK population had the courage to stand up for what was right, rather than deferring to the last moment, this could have been avoided. Towards the end, Whitman's view is so distorted by grief and insanity that he can only see the Africans as enemies, however the only Africans who directly appear in the text, (apart from Lateef, the leader of the refugee group Whitman joins, whose origin remains ambiguous), are all victims rather than villains - the starving refugees arriving on the boats, the prisoners of war in the brothels, the dying helicopter pilot. This is my main gripe with the book, really, that all the Africans and women who appear in the text have no agency. I get that it's a conscious decision on the author's part to emphasise the limited perspective of the viewpoint character, but it's still frustrating.
   'Fugue' is an uncomfortable and uncompromising read. In a world where the UK's government is the farthest to the right it's been in years, and a substantial proportion of British voters are proving that they don't think that government is right wing or xenophobic enough, we would all do well to remember Christopher Priest's warning.  

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