Pursuing Christopher Priest: Fugue for a Darkening Island

Fugue for a Darkening Island, Christopher Priest’s second novel, was originally published in 1972, though I’ve only now read it for the first time. It’s both a product of its time and a chillingly contemporary story, of equal relevance in 2014 as when it first appeared. That the novel can remain so valid is both a complement to Priest’s penetration and the state of urgent relapse our society is currently experiencing.
The edition I have has been thoroughly revised by the writer, and re-copyrighted 2011.It includes a short but comprehensive foreword that takes a lot of the fun out of analysing the book, by laying its author’s intentions and inspirations completely bare. So let’s go with that flow to begin with, and see what detailed inferences can be drawn later.
Priest’s original desire was to write a Catastrophe Novel, of the kind typified in British SF of the Fifties, the most obvious examples of which being John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes and The Day of the Triffids. Priest points out that this strand of genre fiction was popular in an age where the country was still outgrowing the aftermath of the Second World War, when apocalyptic occurrences were not too distant from the reality of daily life.
With the coming of the Sixties, an improved economic era and a more utopian period in which the underlying mood was possibility and expansion, this genre had vanished. Priest was interested to see if a Catastrophe Novel was a feasible project in an era where the depradations of the Seventies were, as yet, unforeseen.
The shape this would take in Fugue was derived from two current and highly visible political issues. The first of these were the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which re-emerged violently in 1968, leading to nightly news coverage of riots, murders, attacks, bombings: sectarian violence reflected in the police forces supposedly responsible for maintaining stability, and the Armed Forces on the streets of a part of the United Kingdom.
The capacity for hatred and revolution was there, but how to bring it onto mainland Britain’s streets? The answer to this lay in the contemporaneous issue of immigration: in particular the Asian populations being forced out of East African dictatorships, such as Uganda under Idi Amin. This displaced population held British Passports, and tens of thousands of them came to the UK. This diaspora was unwelcome in Conservative circles (the Tories were in power under Edward Heath when the novel was written and published), and was a cause of the infamous Enoch Powell speech suggesting that Britain’s streets would run with “rivers of blood.”
By extending the comparatively localised East African Asian refugee issue to a continent-wide disaster, Priest located the underpinning of his novel.
To what extent this is attributable to the different era in which it was set, or to the fact that, on one level, Fugue for a Darkening Island has the hallmarks of an intellectual experiment, the novel differs dramatically from the classic form of the Fifties Catastrophe Novel. The very title signals as much, and the opening page sets out how Priest plans to progress.
The novel is told in the voice of Alan Whitman,a former college lecturer, an irresolute, liberally-minded figure, husband of Isobel, father of Sally. Take note of the deliberately colourless name, emphasised by the surname Whitman – a letter removed from White Man. Whitman is not a leader, he is not a major character in any sense of the word, he is not an active figure. His political position is small ‘l’ liberal, but it is an unthinking, unthought-out stance. He is entirely passive, reacting to circumstances but unable to initiate any meaningful action. A far cry from a Wyndham hero.
Furthermore, the opening page makes it plain that this is not a story that will be told in linear fashion. Whitman introduces himself in a series of short, unexceptional declarations as to colouring, appearance, style of clothes, marital status, job etc. No sooner is the paragraph written than Whitman reintroduces himself, six months later, in the same unadorned declarative style, in the same order of priorities, demonstrating that in that period everything has changed.
The story then flicks backwards and forwards, never quite sustaining a lineal progress in any of its three main time-streams: the pre-Crisis world heading towards the current catastrophe,in both the personal and the political, Whitman’s current place as a subordinate member of a wandering group of men under the command of Rafiq, and the various steps taken by Whitman and his family to try to preserve themselves in a Britain deteriorating beyond rescue.
In the opening paired paragraphs, the course of the book is implied, and it does not require the reader to pursue it to the end to realise that, unlike the traditional Fifties novel, there is no escape. No body of survivors who begin to organise themselves against the catastrophe, no peak reached beyond which the threat begins, however slightly, to recede. Entropy succeeds.
As a result, there is no actual story, in the sense of an over-arching plot, a fact simultaneously obscured and highlighted by Priest’s achronological approach. What there is of an underlying story is Whitman’s wish to rescue his wife and daughter, who have been taken by a raiding party and, it is assumed, being used in some form of mass prostitution (despite Isobel’s lifelong sexual issues and Sally’s unspecified, but implicitly, pre-puberty youth).
Again, it does not take too long for the reader to understand that there will be no reunion, happy or otherwise. It is not giving a spoiler away to say that the book ends with Whitman’s discovery of the bodies of his family, in a mass shore grave.
Or rather, the end of the story comes in a final paragraph in which Whitman, in a strange sense feeling released of his final ties, kills a young African and steals his gun. It is implicit that this will only be his first kill.
One aspect of the book that must be confronted, and which will divide opinion about it, is the question of racism. The book screams a proto-racist conflict: a predominantly white Britain, possessed of its own long-developed culture, undergoes a literal invasion by black Africans (which Priest’s use of the term Afrims does little to conceal). The native culture resists, the foreign invaders are too numerous and powerful, the country descends into the popular conception of anarchy because the Afrims insist on taking Britain as their home.
How can the book not be seen as an account of a race war?
One of the major reasons for Priest’s revision of Fugue was a pair of long-separated reviews in London’s Time Out. The first, representing a progressive mind-set, praised the initial publication for its anti-racist, politically neutral tone. The second, presenting the same mind-set, excoriated a re-publication as racist.
Despite a distaste for Political Correctness, Priest could not accept being accused of being a racist, and determined to revise the book to remove material that reflected that aspect. (At the same time, he sought to eliminate the original stance of ‘cool detachment’, prevalent in late Sixties/early Seventies SF and reflect a greater degree of emotional response, though I’m bound to say that the novel still appears dispassionate: Whitman is too uninvolved, beyond his every day needs, to react in a purely emotional fashion).
What makes the book so relevant today is the fact that, whilst the British Asian diaspora of the early Seventies was more or less assimilated, and Powell’s visions of blood in the street have never come true, the same attitudes are getting stronger and stronger each year in this country, as all elements of the political spectrum, and not just the extremist, thuggish right, increasingly demonise the alien, the outsider, the foreigner.
That they focus as much if not more on ‘invaders’ who are white is particularly worrying.
Priest endorses no point of view in Fugue but the book is shot through with the racist response of the ordinary British public to black immigrants. There’s a political leader who incarnates that response, and further legitimises it, and Priest intends that we should see this for what it is and confront our response to it.
The problem is that Priest does not summon up any reason to see the British impulse towards charity and tolerance as having anything like the same visceral force. With the exception of the clearly Asian Rafiq, who is more of a leader than Whitman could ever be, we see nothing but white faces in action. The Afrims are kept at a distance, they are out and out invaders, they are portrayed as ‘different’ and their actions – however forced by necessity they may be – are without exception antisocial, criminal and violent.
And they enslave white women for sexual trafficking.
No, I don’t accuse Priest of being racist in any conscious way. It’s clear from his body of work that he dopes not have that mindset. But in Fugue, the situation he sets up to examine, and the studied inadequacy of his viewpoint character, do not allow him from depicting Britain as a largely racist society that is nevertheless justified in its responses to an unheeding, alien force.
For all that, I was still impressed enough by Fugue for a Darkening Island to want to read it again, and to recommend it as a book worth reading. Given that Christopher Priest would not begin to discover his underlying theme of unreality and our perception of it until his fifth novel, A Dream of Wessex, this could perhaps be described as apprentice work, though it’s too well handled for such a description to be fair. It’s a book by a writer who hasn’t properly discovered himself yet, but it shows great promise.

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