Christopher Priest – until Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film of his book ‘The Prestige’ by Christopher Nolan – was one of our ‘unsung heroes’ of off-kilter literature. The Separation was a tale of melded alternate histories of WW2 and Inverted World placed its action in a wheeled city as it trundled through a blasted landscape. ‘Fugue…’, was his first book – written in 1971 and re-printed last year with a foreword by the author.
Once you get past the disjointed narrative, the plot is relatively simple, Africa is rendered uninhabitable by nuclear war and a massive exodus of survivors ensues – tramp steamers beached in the Thames, ships wrecked off the South Coast – thus the ‘darkening’ of the island. Most of the world does what it can for the refugees but dear old Blighty has some sort of turbo-charged UKIP government, so it’s not long before the refugees take matters into their own hands and take over streets and areas to call their own. Bloody chaos ensues.
Our way into this scenario is college lecturer Alan Whitman. His dawning realisation of his family’s peril and subsequent flight through a war torn south of England paints a grim enough picture to satisfy any disasturbator. Brutality abounds from all sides, military and civilian (the latter either displaced or hunkered down in fortified towns). Alan has lost everything to the ‘Afrims’ but can see the justice of their fight – until his wife and daughter are taken from him. And don’t rely on the ending for uplift – this is all as unremittingly bleak as the scenario demands.
Priest’s foreword to the new edition is illuminating. He was inspired to write in 1971 by the TV footage of The Troubles in Northern Ireland – new to UK TV screens. He was fascinated by images of war in streets in our own country and that, combined with the threat of nuclear war gave him his impetus. His new version was partly motivated by wanting to adapt the language to be more in line with today’s cultural sensibilities. Not having read the original I can only imagine the 70’s vocabulary used to describe the Africans. Interestingly Priest also notes that his book has been described as both left and right wing. It is neither.
From an environmentalist’s point of view whilst there is no explicit ‘green message’ but the inference is clear – scrub nuclear war, replace with catastrophic climate change and the refugee crisis would be the same. Faced with upheaval our great nation will surely respond with political extremism, disorder and violence. Sweet dreams one and all.
Sir Fred Spong (which is, you’ll be shocked to learn, a pseudonym)