See that image above? That’s a map of heavily populated places where, by 2050, it’s estimated mass flooding is very likely to occur on a yearly basis by 2050. (It’s taken from here.) The relevance to this book review will be clear, if you read on.
I will start by saying that I wrote this long reflection on what is ultimately an obscure novel about a refugee crisis in Britain back in November, when illness forced me to rest for a couple of days and I finally read it after having it around for literally decades and never having gotten past the first few pages.
Please don’t mistake the length of this post for an endorsement of the novel. When I write something this long, it’s usually because I’ve been discomfited, and in ways I think aren’t completely (or perhaps consciously) intentional on the author’s part. (Let alone keeping up with whatever controversial things the author has said online to make people hate him. Okay, I peeked, but I am shrugging right now.) This is a book that made me very uncomfortable, but which also, because of the parts it unsettled me with, also felts very much of a piece with the world we’ve found ourselves in.
This time, I found it less boring than uncomfortable. Uncomfortable for a range of reasons, and not just that it hasn’t aged particularly well. (Though that is true; true enough, in fact, for Priest to have edited the book for republication in the 21st century, complaining that where readers once perceived progressive and sympathetic tone to the novel, over time the book seemed more likely to be interpreted as racist.)
But the main cause for discomfort is really because the narrative of the novel is eerily prescient. Not of actual refugee behaviours, mind you, but of how a whole lot of people who’re lucky enough not to be refugees feel about the “threat” of refugees arriving in their country, as well as the rise of right-wing ideologues and their authoritarian approach to… well, everything.
It’s deeply unsettling to read this novel lit by the flames of so many awful fires that have been lit in recent years, weeks, and days, on a worldwide scale: fascist xenophobia is on the rise, and while Americans may be breathing a brief sigh of relief at the results of the midterm elections, we’re no less in that situation globally than we were a month ago. There’s still rising ethnonationalism and the popularization of neofascist parties; there’s still a huge anti-multiculturalism and anti-immigration backlash; there’s still a promulgation of strongman leaders and far-right ideologies… or, at least, far-right ideologues. Xenophobia is rampant, masquerading as national resentment in some places, while on full display in others, like where I live. (The outrage and panic over a handful of Yemeni refugees here in South Korea has been horrifying, and while I still think it’s mainly xenophobia whipped by far-right Christian nationalists—some of the most unapologetically racist people I’ve ever met were Korean Christian nationalists—it’s true that economics does play some role… and so does irrational resentment over the loss of any resources to “foreigners.”)
Frankly, I am starting to wonder whether it’s really just the ship of liberal democracy that’s taking on water—the weak points in the hull having been targeted and blasted open, yes, like the stupidity of our newsmedia and the manipulability of our online platforms—or if it’s perhaps the entire ship of modern civilization in its entirety that’s sinking, with neo-fascists of various stripes having waited till we stupefied ourselves badly enough to fail to remain a challenge for them.
(This would be said, since modern civilization hardly managed to even really start in earnest the task of civilizing itself, to begin with.)
Look closely, and you’ll get the feeling the world is on a fast track to becoming an utter shit-bucket for everyone (as it already was for many), but mostly not because of the things feared coming true; it’s mostly because fears turn us into great, ravening, idiotic monsters. People individually may become monstrous from brutal experiences, but en masse, we become more monstrous still from brutal imaginings. That’s where I find a useful reading of this novel: it’s less a study of social collapse (though it resembles one) or the renewed rise of brutal authoritarianism in the West (though it charts that too) than it is a study of fear of social collapse, the fear of being deluged and destroyed by refugees run amok. As a theme, that fear—idiotic as it may be—feels sadly, and disturbingly, timely at the present moment.
In contrast, Priest’s choice of main character is somewhat more familiar—a philandering middle-aged, resolutely middle-class English professor—but he jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, and also jumps around in chronology as well. Womack’s exploring the effect of a complete paradigm change on someone young enough to grow up semi-natively a part of a fallen world; Priest is instead exploring his broken England through the eyes of someone relatively privileged who never imagined that the world could really fall apart, and who never cared enough to pay proper attention to it even as it began to fall (something more generally true of the character in terms of other aspects of his life, especially his marriage). I think the latter is maybe eerier for me, because it describes so many people I know, and maybe, to some degree, even me myself.
So I think Priest is saying something at least somewhat observant about the way selfishness, moral laziness, corruption, and inhumanity are all pedestrian in their way, and deeply interwoven into the fabric of mainstream life (or at least, mainstream 1970s British life—but I don’t think that kind of banal evil has diminished much since then, and it’s a familiar enough sort of solipsism that I can see its analogues in every other society I happen to know).
Of course, if this was indeed a profound observation in 1972, it doesn’t really feel like one anymore. I am curious to see the world through the eyes of the narrator’s daughter Sally, or even those of his wife Isobel. Their sorrow and fear might ring a little more compellingly, where the narrator we’re stuck with is… well, it’s not that I can’t deal with an unsympathetic protagonist, but he’s just sort of uninteresting.
Well, or maybe I’m overstating it: the main calculus used for the narrator’s characterization is his sexuality. Interspersed among the various flashes of instants in the past and the present are just enough scenes for us to get a sense of how, sexually, he developed as a person. (And in fact, the only set of scenes that follow absolutely chronological order are the scenes involving his burgeoning sexuality as a young man: how he happens upon a couple having sex in a barn at age sex; the make-out parties he attends as an adolescent; his courtship of Isobel (his later wife and the mother of his child), and the sexual frustrations of his marriage, which he addresses in absolutely middle-class manner, but refusing to address them and cheating on his wife instead. It would be easy just to read this as Priest writing a sort of literary archetype, a figure common in mainstream literary novels of the 1970s (as well as before and after), but it’s hard to escape a vague sense that he’s actually up to something else… especially when there’s such an undercurrent of brutality to so much of the sexual content in the book.
Yes, it’s the 1970s, meaning a lot of people did have strange ideas about consent, but there’s what seems to be a purposeful muddying of the waters when it comes to rape: in several scenes, women resist the narrator’s (or another man’s) sexual advances before giving in. It’s hard to say what Priest is describing, at such a remove: etiquette manuals and magazine articles of the time were still counseling women to briefly feign opposition to sex before giving in, for the sake of appearances, and very few people actually talked about consent in 1972. When they first have sex, after months of resisting the narrator’s advances, she finally tells him to go ahead and do “What you want” (emphasis mine). The sex is cold and unfulfilling, and it turns out her father is woken by the noise they make, and catches them when they slink out of the sitting room. No contraceptives are used, and while it’s not this time that Isobel gets pregnant, it’s not long after; and once Sally is born, the never-strong sexual component of their relationship dies… and the man seems to bluntly accept it, not much caring beyond his own resentment, and he sets out on the path of infidelity.
There’s a passage that jumped out at me, on page 85 of my copy. It comes after the narrator has come across a group of women abducted, raped, and murdered, with the corpses sexually mutilated and left to rot in an abandoned house. They immediately assume that the crime was perpetrated by some of the many African refugees who’ve come to England (called “Afrim” in the book). The group of men who run across this scene of carnage have been searching for “the women”—presumably their own wives and daughters—who were abducted by a group of African refugees, so I suppose the assumption is fueled by that, as well as by rumors about such things going on. That said, the men have also traded canned food and other supplies for the sexual services of (apparently enslaved) African refugee women. They decide to burn the house rather than bear the women’s bodies out of it and bury them, and after this incident, the men begin to avoid talking about their search for “the women,” anxious that perhaps they’ve undergone this same fate. And here’s the passage that jumped out at me:
Individually, I think we were all horrified and numbed… but working as a group our reaction was one of more directed determination not to become further involved in the civil war. The search for the abducted women was not mentioned; for my own part what I had seen in the house only hardened my resolution in this respect. It was Sally I was worried about, for she was innocent. My daughter, not my wife, was uppermost in my mind.
It’s not that a father’s worry for his “innocent” child makes no sense, so much as the way the man puts it: even estranged as they are at this point, it’s stunningly cold for the man to think of his wife this way, as not-innocent, as if her being raped and murdered would be somehow less horrible… after all, she lost her “innocence” with him, or it might be fairer to say, she surrendered her innocence to his demands, for while he does not exactly rape her, she is not particularly enthusiastic about their coupling at any point in the book except the night she leaves him.
There’s a strangely ironic passage, a few pages later, where the narrator reflects on how, just after Isobel leaves, he and their daughter Sally end up in a sorry, confused state of panic and fear. For him, Isobel’s departure is just the first personal manifestation of all that had gone wrong prior to the outbreak of civil war in England, but of his daughter, he says, “like all children, her grief stemmed mainly from personal considerations.” This is an odd line, given the obsession that the narrator had with his own “personal considerations”: even when it was clear England was about to collapse, he was so wrapped up in his petty philandering and day-to-day resentments that he did nothing to prepare for the coming cataclysm (not that it would’ve necessarily done much good). This certainly feels like a mirror darkly reflecting how to understand the rightward lurch today: so many think-pieces have explained the growing support for the far right, or for its ideologues, in terms of “personal considerations” like the decline of the working class, the evaporation of blue collar jobs, the failure of the left to appeal to the “personal considerations” of that demographic, and so on. Oh, how resentment does us in.
(And if I were to look for any sort of symbolism in the book, I’d note that Isobel clearly seems, on some level, to be a bit like liberal democracy: unappreciated while she’s around, because she’s not really compatible with the narrator’s wildest passions, and often kind of a pain in his ass, but terribly missed when she’s gone. This certainly matches the pitilessness with which this plot progresses—the narrator’s weak commitment to democracy mirrors the weakness of his commitment to his wife, and the brutalization that both endure is horrifying in the end.)
The book is discomfiting precisely because it forces an awkward honesty out of the reader, along the lines of Stalin’s quip that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. This, quite literally, figures in the book: the “tides” of gas-bloated bodies that surface after an African refugee ship sinks off the coast are horrifying, but there’s a kind of distance to how the narrator describes them. When the narrator makes a similar discovery closer to home, the flatness of his tone and the distance signal his complete dehumanization. Sort of like how so many of us have become accustomed monsters doing monstrous things on our screens, and in our halls of government, and even sometimes in our streets. “Oh, that’s terrible!” we tweet, and the scroll to the next terrible thing.
I can’t help but think that, on some level, Priest’s point was something like the Refugee Awareness exercises my sister used to organize on behalf of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Basically, it was an edu-LARP of what it’s like to be a refugee: people were marched through a simulated warzone (with carefully controlled explosions, for example, set off just off the road) until they reached a fake border checkpoint; there they were made to wait hours and endure poor treatment before being herded through the checkpoint to “safety” (after which the hungry participants received a tiny bit of food). When one of these events was organized where my folks lived, my parents volunteered to help work one of those stops, and my dad—who’d seen countless real military checkpoints during his years in Malawi and Rhodesia—posted a number of signs in the area that were written in cryptic pseudo-Dutch, and he shouted at participants in in this strange pseudolanguage, demanding their papers and passports and refusing to talk to them in English. The effort was aimed at giving Canadians, who live very sheltered lives, a deeper understanding of what it actually means to be a refugee, and from what I hear, participants often were genuinely moved by the experience, and looked at refugees with new eyes. Would that we had more such programs.
So it’s strange to say, but I think part of what Priest was doing was performing a kind of speculative inversion of geopolitics. Usually, those kinds of inversions fall flat: “What if black people were privileged and whites were victims?” isn’t just dumb, it’s actually the dumbass talking points for white nationalists these days, who pitch themselves as the white victims of cultural marxism and growing cosmopolitanism, or whatever.
This inversion is less stupid, though of course the African invaders in Britain are obviously more brutal—and certainly more vaguely-drawn—than one would like, given how so much violence involving refugees these days seems to involve ethnonationalist locals attacking the refugees. (And then lying and saying the refugees attacked first.) But in the early 1970s, normal Britons tended to look at Africa as a distant, unfortunate place wracked with suffering that had little to do with them. In Fugue for a Darkening Island, this becomes inverted: future-England becomes the distant, unfortunate place wracked with suffering masses, and the fact that it feels different to us is something that should leave us uncomfortable with ourselves: when the book was published, where was nothing in its pages that wasn’t happening in a handful of African nations on any given day… and while a lot of the governments perpetrating those horrors in 1972 were black African governments, the time lay well within living memory when the invaders who overran the continent had been white Europeans.
That doesn’t really fix for me the fact that the “Afrim” invaders into Britain are… well, monolithic and brutal, raping and pillaging and setting up brothels filled with kidnapped women and girls (and killing those who don’t “cooperate”), all of them speaking Swahili. That’s not like like how most actual refugees behave in most places, and it feels like it’s more in tune with the ignorant histrionics of today’s right-wing panic-pundits and racists than with anything in reality. Even as I say this, I recall my father describing horrors he himself saw: guerrilla terrorists cutting the udders off cows and burning crops just to screw up the local food supply for their enemies, say, or civilian locals having to carry cards affiliating them with multiple political parties and then produce the correct one at any given checkpoint, or else suffer a brutal beating. (One Malawian on staff where he worked apparently produced the “wrong” card at two consecutive checkpoints and thus arrived at work battered, bloody, and carrying his ruined bicycle on his shoulder… and there was nothing anyone could really do about it.)
Still… the “Afrim” don’t really feel so much like victims as the story progresses: they fly around in helicopters, kidnap women, and man checkpoints, just as the white nationalist Brits do. (And if the “Afrim” are raping British women and girls… well, by the narrator’s implicit admission, so are the Britons, and in their own way, they’d been doing long before the crisis occurred.) So… there’s plenty to feel uncomfortable with here, if you try to read it as an actual situation, and especially the hysterical imagining of refugee-as-alien-invader.
Taken literally, it’s more of the same stupid shit we’re already seeing all around us, but taken as a sort of fever dream of that unreasonable, unthinking, xenophobic panic and fear, a panic and fear that seems to have mobilized so many people these days? It works pretty convincingly on that level, and like Random Acts of Senseless Violence, it drives home just how fragile most of what we take for granted actually is. That makes it, in my opinion, worth reading: for those of us who do not share that temperamental predisposition to be terrified of the Other and to panic, it is definitely a means of glimpsing what those feverish imaginings look like from the inside. Which way Priest intended we take it, I don’t know; the fact he’s recently revised the novel suggests he didn’t perhaps didn’t make it enduringly clear in this version.
And understanding this stuff from the inside may matter more than any of us yet realizes: it’s very unlikely that we’ll see a nuclear war in Africa like the one in this novel, but we are likely to see an unprecedented degree of human displacement as climate change turns more and more people into desperate refugees. How we think of them now matters; how our governments train us to think of them matters more; and how we actually, collectively respond to the challenges they will pose us matters most of all. (The current trajectory is the opposite of promising.) Christopher Priest does manage to make that much very clear: the coming cataclysms will change us, and the real question is a matter of how, and how much for the worse, something that depends almost entirely upon us.