Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Book Review: Fugue for a Darkening Island

Book Review: 'Fugue for a Darkening Island' by Christopher Priest

2 / 5 Stars

Most Americans are unfamiliar with John Enoch Powell (1912 – 1998), a conservative British politician who in 1968 made a speech in which he predicted that immigration into the UK ultimately would lead to racial violence, as the native population found itself overwhelmed by the social and economic problems attendant to an influx of foreigners to a small territory.

The so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was denounced by the UK political establishment and the national media, and Powell was removed as a member of the Heath government. His name soon was promoted by the media and British intellectuals as synonymous with an element of UK society that embraced racism and bigotry.

Powell’s declaration touched a nerve among the working- and middle- class British population, however, and his attitudes towards immigration and cultural assimilation became subsumed into the larger issue of whether the British Isles had sufficient ecological capacity to support a large population. During the 70s, on into today, the increases in crime, crowding, depletion of the welfare system, and other social strains associated with immigration,
maintained the middle class's sympathy for Powell’s stance.

As 2014 begins the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which calls for strict controls on immigration and the deportation of foreign-born criminals, has garnered unprecedented support at the polls, something which has greatly disturbed PM David Cameron and the Conservative party, the British political establishment, and the media.

Those celebrities who have, in unguarded moments, endorsed Powell’s views have been instantly subjected to vehement criticism. Such unlucky individuals have included rockers Eric Clapton (remarks made while drunk in 1976), and Morrissey, who in a 2007 newspaper interview did not explicitly mention Powell, but made remarks critical of immigration.

Christopher Priest’s ‘Fugue for a Darkening Island’ (first published in 1972; this Pan Books paperback, 125 pp, was issued in 1978, with cover art by Mike Ploog) takes the Enoch Powell controversy and places it in a near-future (i.e., late 70s) England.

The first-person narrator is one Alan Whitman; white, British, five feet and eleven inches tall, of middle-class background. He is witness to the arrival in the UK of an exodus of African refugees, fleeing the aftermath of a limited nuclear war in Africa. As a stream of ships crammed with half-starved, injured, penniless refugees descend on Britain, the government is wracked by internal disagreement over whether to observe human rights conventions and provide food, shelter, and residency to the refugees, or to prevent the ships from disembarking and forever altering the demographics of the UK.

As the novel opens, the exodus has led to the arrival of 2 million Africans, or ‘Afrims’. The government is in disarray, the crisis having splintered the ruling class into a number of factions, each fielding a private militia to harden their grasp of power. The country’s economy has collapsed, along with law and order, as large numbers of Africans occupy metropolitan areas and outlying towns and villages, aided in some cases by white liberals and British communists.

The novel follows the travails of Alan Whitman as he and his family flee their comfortable suburban house in a poorly planned journey to possible refuge in the coastal regions of northern England. Their travels will take them through a landscape marked by violence between armed bands of raiders, government factions, and Afrims……a landscape with decreasing hope of sanctuary……

‘Fugue’ would seem to have a premise tailor-made for the sort of engaging, apocalyptic adventure that characterizes The Death of Grass, or The Day of the Triffids. Unfortunately, ‘Fugue’ is a disappointment.

Most of this is due to the fact that, as a novel written in the heyday of the New Wave era, author Priest chose to use an ‘experimental’ prose structure in which the text is not divided by chapters. Instead, he provides paragraphs separated by ellipses. 


To further lend the novel an avant-garde flavor, the overall narrative is discontinuous, with each paragraph representing a narrative thread different in time and space. Accordingly, one paragraph may occupy itself with a moment from Whitman's college years, followed by a paragraph describing a present-tense event, followed by a paragraph detailing an event just prior to the arrival of the Afrims.

Much of the narrative takes place in the time before the Afrim arrival and is concerned with reminiscences of Whitman’s sexual experiences and marital problems, another trope dear to the New Wave movement.

As a consequence of the discontinuous narrative, whenever the author builds up some degree of suspense, it is dissipated as the succeeding paragraphs shifts the reader to some locale distant in time and space.

It also doesn’t help that the story’s protagonist is one of the more inept in apocalypse fiction: Alan Whitman is vacillating and weak. Perhaps not intentionally, Priests’ depiction of Whitman as a white liberal means that Whitman’s actions are marked by constant indecision and self-doubt.

I finished ‘Fugue’ thinking it an improvement over its French counterpart, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints (1973), in which an armada of
decrepit ships, packed with diseased, starving Hindus, inexorably sails for the southern coast of France, while the French government dithers over whether or not to accept them. 

But it’s safe to say that neither 'Fugue' nor 'Camp' really succeeds as an entertaining example of near-future social apocalypse.  

1 comment:

sciencefictionruminations said...

I wonder if it was written as a response (or at least in part) to John Christopher's The Long Winter (1962) where Europeans are forced to go to Africa due to global cooling and are treated like second-class citizens. Christopher's vision was a satire on colonial relations etc. Rather well done...