Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island

Originally published in 1971, Fugue for a Darkening Island was Christopher Priest’s second novel. The scenario is similar to that explored by Jean Raspail in The Camp of the Saints, and the outcome nearly identical, but the arguments and point of view are markedly different.

Africa has been ravaged by all manner of natural and man-made disasters. With the emergence of a number of nuclear states, and the inevitable nuclear exchange, the Dark Continent has become uninhabitable. There are survivors, however, and great multitudes of starving, poor, desperate Africans set sail for the north. Over a period, dilapidated boats loaded with thousands run aground on British shores, some going as far as the River Thames, in London. The government at first seems baffled, unable to stop them, or take decisive action to prevent the boats from coming ashore. The Africans land and quickly disappear into the cities. This, incidentally, is exactly what has been happening lately in Spain’s southern border, where African migrants have changed tactics and, instead of attempting to slip into Europe in small numbers, now organise nocturnal raiding parties, climbing fences several thousand at a time, thus making it impossible for the border authorities to stop them. In the Priest’s novel, the landings carry on until eventually the island ends up with two million invaders, which in the novel are referred to as ‘refugees’. A ‘Right-wing’ government—by which we must understand not fascism, but something along the lines of Enoch Powell’s brand of conservatism—takes strong measures to protect British subjects, aiming to contain and eventually expel the invaders. The invaders, however, organise into ‘Afrim’ militias, which soon begin raiding English towns and forcing people out of their homes. The country descends into a civil war: on the one hand, there are the Nationalists, who are with the government; on the other are the Secessionists, who want to restore order and give full citizenship and rights to the ‘refugees’.

Against this background we follow the story of one Alan Whitman, a university lecturer. Whitman’s marriage is a shambles: his wife, Isobel, seems sexually frigid (though it later transpires that she feels neglected), and his response is to philander serially and indiscriminately, driven purely by his sexual urge. The Whitmans have a daughter, Sally, who is the ostensible reason the marriage still holds—ostensible, because both adult parties are a state of avoidance and denial. In due course, the Whitmans lose their home and are forced into the countryside, where Alan has his wife and their daughter living like animals, without a decisive plan of action, and without the wherewithal to do what is necessary to get them to a safe destination. This unchains a series of events. First, Isobel leaves him, and, though they are later on reunited, he then loses her again when Afrim militiamen take her and their daughter away from him at gunpoint, to be shuttled away who knows where. By this time Alan has ended up with a group of British refugees, led by one Rafiq, of indeterminate origin. Initially, the group avoids committing to any faction. When the gang finds a cargo of firearms amid the ruins of a Nationalist convoy, however, Rafiq decides to organise the group into a militia, but Alan, a pacifist, walks away, averse to committing himself politically or to violence. Whitman is, indeed, thoroughly unheroic: weak, spineless, indecisive, and liberal. Predictably, he is detached when the crisis first develops—a gape-mouthed witness, predominantly preoccupied with his numerous love affairs, when a boatful of invaders wedges itself against the London Bridge, right under his nose; he then sides with the invaders, presumably speaking up for their human rights (though about the specifics we are not told); he subsequently loses his job when the university is closed down, forcing into manual labour; and even then he is in denial, acting only as and when circumstances leave him without options. His actions, on such occasions, are invariably prissy and limp-wristed. He steadfastly refuses to support the Nationalist cause, thinking it racist. It is a miracle he survives as long as he does.

From the narrative, the author’s sympathies seem to lean in one direction: the Nationalists are spoken of or portrayed as extremists, their measures as repressive and counter-productive, and their supporters as creepy Neanderthals in suits; the Secessionists, by contrast, tend to give Whitman fairer treatment, and he, of course, deems their vision for a resolution the superior one. Nevertheless, Priest does not make any effort to humanise the Africans: they are like shadows in the landscape, emotionless, and utterly ruthless throughout; from the most part they are a distant menace. Priest also seems to view avoiders and deniers with amazement and contempt, for avoidance and denial afflicts not only Whitman; they are, indeed, a theme throughout the novel.

In the end, and as always, events force Whitman to commit himself against his liberal judgment. Afrim militiamen had used the white women abducted by them to set up brothels and thereby establish a method for procuring supplies. Rumour has it that his wife and daughter were likely taken to one of the brothels along the Southern coast. He finds the brothel and the family is reunited, except that his wife and daughter are now two out of a score of female bodies rotting on the beach. That same evening, we are told, Whitman murders a young African, steals his gun, and goes back into the countryside. That’s where the story ends.

The 2011 edition of this novel offers a revised version of the original. In his preface, Priest explains that, at the time, he had simply set out to write a disaster story, against the background of events in post-colonial Britain such as Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, but that the language of race relations had changed in the intervening time, causing a novel that was initially praised for anti-racism to be condemned for racism. He deemed this too much of a distraction, so he updated the text to substitute nowadays troublesome words like ‘Negro’ and ‘coloured’ with politically correct terms, in an effort to leave the text ‘politically neutral’. I don’t think it is, and this impression is accentuated by the veering into speechification towards the end of the novel, when Whitman realises his own uselessness and his wasted life on the periphery. And yet, though I suppose the intention is for the reader to view Whitman’s conversion to militiadom as a tragedy, an unintended and yet equally possible reading is that the effete Whitman finally discovers his manhood and goes out to earn his right to be called a citizen, reality’s repeated bites having finally instigated the growth of a spine.