Fugue for a Darkening Island
London: Gollancz, 2011
Christopher Priest is a British sci-fi writer best known for The Prestige, a 1995 novel successfully filmed in 2006 by Batman re-inventors Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. Fugue, his second novel, was originally published in 1972, and re-issued in 2011 by Gollancz.
Fugue is a part of the British tradition of catastrophist novels which includes The Day of the Triffids and The Shape of Things To Come, but bears most resemblance to John Christopher’s Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics), which is regarded as something of a genre classic. It also forms a neat pair with Jean Raspail’s New Rightist The Camp of the Saints. Fugue is not as good a book as the two latter, but it is notable for its theme, in some ways similar to Camp of the Saints, of a massive and sudden immigration of Africans (Afrims) into England due to a catastrophic nuclear conflagration on the Dark Continent which has completely collapsed the ecology and the economy.
The story follows Alan Whitman as his life disintegrates, losing first “his job, then his family, then his identity.” Whitman is a college lecturer and a run of the mill liberal. For a while he’s involved in pro-immigrant campaign groups along with many of his students, before concluding that he can basically sit out the problems caused by the African influx. He’s wrong. The problems follow him, as they follow millions of others. Then they catch him up.
Of course apocalyptic and catastrophic scenes are ten a penny in our popular culture, but there’s something profoundly shocking about envisioning one’s own folk being burned out of their homes, forced into refugee status, and chased into our familiar countryside. This is not beyond the realms of possibility, given the present racial demographics and present and future levels of immigration. (Fugue describes African immigration, which is a factor in the real world, but the Asian-Muslim presence is now more likely to cause problems of the type described. It should also be borne in mind that the British were disarmed by the State in the wake of the race riots in the port cities in 1919, and in Fugue the British are encouraged by a racialist propaganda paper to fight with “petrol bombs, coshes, and garrottes” (p. 110), that being all they can lay their hands on.
The new 2011 edition has a short introduction by the author. In explaining the genesis of the novel as partly inspired by the effects of the sectarian war in Northern Ireland (blocked streets, paramilitary recruitment, regular large-scale fighting and rioting, etc.), and partly by the reaction to non-white immigration into mainland Britain, Priest makes the astounding claim that, after some right-wing agitation and inflammatory speeches like Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, “Assimilation soon began, and by now is complete” (Foreword, vii).
If Priest seriously believes that’s true of ethnic relations in Britain generally, one can only assume he hasn’t been getting out much in recent years. Certainly the whole atmosphere and force of his book contradicts that view. Of greater significance though, is the fact that the text has been modified between editions. Priest makes the revealing comment that he wanted to make changes because “sensibilities about the subject matter began to change, attitudes to it changed, even the vocabulary of it changed. The story, which I saw as an attempt to describe a global disaster in the ironic and liberal terms of its day, gradually became misunderstood” (Foreword, viii).
Priest cites the example of two reviews in Time Out, separated by several years, the first praising his anti-racism, the second accusing him of being a fellow traveller of the far Right. To avoid such confusion Priest has “modified” his text. I don’t have a copy of the original edition, but I think some enterprising literature student should do a comparative analysis and make a judgement as to whether Priest has caved in to the pressures of political correctness. Your liberal professors are sure to be delighted with such an endeavor.
The background situation in Fugue develops rapidly, and perhaps thinking of Powell again, Priest has a right-wing Tory, John Tregarth, elected to power on a Nationalist, anti-immigrant platform. Some of the armed forces and police sympathetic to the Afrims split away to form the opposition in a civil war, and a third group simply try to avoid any involvement at all, at least for as long as they are not personally affected.
The action of the novel is intercut with incidents from Whitman’s sexual career. I wondered why, until it occurred to me that the structure is meant to imply maturation. Whitman has never had to grow up, not until circumstances force him to become a man. Infantalization is one of the most significant features of our societies now, and in describing this Priest is prescient.
In the end it’s the treatment of the women in Alan Whitman’s life, his wife and daughter, the former of whom he doesn’t much like, the latter he doesn’t really know, which destroys the last vestige of his liberalism and awakens him to the blunt realities of invasion and replacement. The best part of this book is the final sentence.
1. Gollancz is today the sci-fi imprint of Orion, which is a division of the conglomerate Hachette. Gollancz was founded in 1927 by Victor Gollancz, a London-born Jew who also founded the Left Book Club, one of the main aims of which was to fight fascism. For a time Gollancz and the Club were pro-Communist, but this changed with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, after which they took a democratic socialist line. Gollancz’ father was an orthodox Jew and his uncle a Rabbi, though Victor’s own religious beliefs were a mixture of Judaism and Christianity. Essentially he seems to have invented his own religion to suit himself.
2. The name is suggestive, and indeed the first sentence of the book is “I have white skin.”
3. Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree (London: Paladin 1988).
4. In a pub argument a supporter of the Nationalist government tells Whitman that “Half the white population of Leicester has been displaced.” This is close to the real demographic situation of that city, though the displacement has taken place over several decades. www.leicester.gov.uk/your-council-services/council-and-democracy/city-statistics/ethnicity/
For a Left-wing review of a Left-wing book on this subject see www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/840
6. Time Out began life in 1968 as a London listings magazine with a Leftist counter-cultural flavor. At one point in the 1970s they simultaneously had anarchists and Trotskyists on the editorial staff and a Rothschild nominee on the board of directors! In the 1980s some of the comrades defected to launch the now defunct City Limits after discovering that some were more equal than others (that is, the commitment to equal pay for all staff was abandoned). Like much of the print media Time Out (London) is struggling and recently announced a switch to a weekly giveaway format. http://www.timeout.com/london/free-mag/
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