Thursday, June 30, 2011

Look Back in Anger

The recent flare-up of violence in Northern Ireland brought back memories of the province when I visited as a young TV researcher in the mid-1980s. Belfast felt very familiar to me, with the same rainy gloom and down-to-earth inhabitants that I associated with Scotland. And yet there were massive barricades running between ordinary urban terraced houses and armored tanks prowled around the streets. It was a place of random checkpoints, massive lurid murals on every wall, and loud explosions in the night. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a war zone, and I was fascinated to witness the way the conflict intersected and intertwined with the daily life of the people.
A decade later, I took those few days in Belfast and built a novel around them. I called it The Province of the Imagination. If anyone had ever told me I’d write a political thriller, I’d have laughed out loud, but my plot seemed to grow organically from the powerful sense of place the city had left me with. The agents and publishers to whom I sent it were largely complimentary but said that – with the passing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 – the Northern Ireland novel was passé. Perhaps as the Troubles recede into the past (recent events notwithstanding), I should try sending it out again, this time as a historical novel set in a time not only before peace but before cell phones, digital photography, and the Internet.
Here’s an extract. Sandie Gillespie is a BBC journalist on assignment in Belfast. Earlier that day, she has interviewed Danny McGarrigle, the President of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, and he is now taking her for a late night drive to show her around the city.
The car’s engine had a quiet expensive sound. Sandie was intensely conscious of the stripe of the seat belt across her chest, the power locks on the car doors. She had surrendered herself to the situation, alone with the notorious man beside her.  
For once, there was no rain, just roiling clouds blowing over the city. The streets were quiet, but a helicopter cut across the sky above them, its floodlight trailing behind it. Danny McGarrigle chuckled. “They won’t be catching anybody if they wave that thing around like that.”
Sandie glanced across at him. His hands were loose on the wheel, his middle fingers tapping it as if to the rhythm of a tune in his head. He looked over at her and smiled. She felt the smile slide through her and loosen up her body like a finger pushed into an over-ripe fruit. Sandie sat up straighter and pressed her knees together, afraid that her body might let her mind loosen its vigilance. She mustn’t get too comfortable with him. 
“Where are we going?” she asked, watching an armored police Land Rover pass them in the other direction. McGarrigle didn’t answer for a minute. Sandie saw him look steadily into his rear view mirror. The headlights that had been behind them turned off into a side street and she saw his shoulders relax.
“We’re going up the Ardoyne,” he said, “I want you to see where I grew up.”
....... She looked out of the window at the row of locked garages they were passing. It felt like a lonely, dangerous place to be, and she felt a shiver that was half-fear, half-excitement run down her back. The road rose beneath them as they headed up into the narrow terraced streets of North Belfast. Sandie leaned forward, realizing that here was the front line of the urban war. Towering surreally above the brick back-to-backs was the peace line, a massive barricade topped with barbed wire erected right down the middle of the terraced streets, dividing them right across the middle so that not so much as a look need pass between neighbors. 
“My god,” Sandie murmured, “It’s worse than the Berlin Wall. Look how close it is to those houses.”
“Nobody’s brought you up here before?” he asked, carefully maneuvering the car through the maze of streets beneath the overwhelming wall. Sandie shook her head, “We just got here,” she murmured, absorbed in what she was seeing. Every so often, the terraces opened out into acres of wasteland where houses used to stand. Brazier fires burned at each corner, with one or two men hanging around the warmth despite the lateness of the hour. Even through the closed car window, Sandie could smell the heavy, sweet smoke from coal fires, an old-fashioned smell that reminded her of childhood.
McGarrigle stopped the car and took one hand off the steering wheel to lean across her and point. “I grew up in that house over there - 11, Loughgall Street.”
Although some of the houses in the terrace looked occupied and there were even touching signs of pride in the net curtains in the windows and the ornaments on the sill, Number 11 was like a gap tooth, blackened, the windows sealed with breeze blocks.
“Some Loyalist kids tried to burn it down last year. Just because I lived there a million years ago.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Coming to Terms

I am rereading The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. I first read it about 15 years ago at a gallop, caught up in the loves and hates of the main protagonists and the doomed marriage of Soames and Irene Forsyte played out into the next generation.     
But this time I have been discovered much more in the trilogy. Galsworthy and his contemporaries Arnold Bennett and Max Beerbohm tended to be dismissed as old-fashioned and hopelessly Victorian by their innovative successors like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence. But no amount of innovation can substitute for a well-told story with complex characters using language that is both accessible and yet profoundly fresh at the same time.
This time what has struck me is Galsworthy’s insights into the minds of men (they just happen to be men) in the last years of their lives. I am 15 years older than I was when I first read the book and am now quick to remember that life is finite and must be grasped with everything one has before it expires. So this time a chord is struck for me by the musings of Jolyon Forsyte, a man in his early 80s, enchanted with his house and his grandchildren, and still stirred and fired by life.  
“Nowadays Nature actually made him ache, he appreciated it so. Every one of these calm, bright, lengthening days, with Holly’s hand in his, and the dog Balthasar in front looking studiously for what he never found, he would stroll, watching the roses open, fruit budding on the walls, sunlight brightening the oak leaves and saplings in the coppice, watching the water-lily leaves unfold and glisten, and the silvery young corn of the one wheatfield; listening to the starlings and the skylarks, and the Alderney cows chewing the cud, flicking slow their tufted tails; and every one of these fine days he ached a little from sheer love of it all, feeling perhaps , deep down, that he had not very much longer to enjoy it. The thought that some day – perhaps ten years  hence, perhaps not five – all this world would be taken away from him, before he had exhausted his powers of loving it, seemed to him in the nature of an injustice brooding over his horizon.”
Then many years later his own son “Young” Jolyon at 72 discovers he has a heart condition that could kill him at any time. 
“He had taken it [his diagnosis] with a smile – the natural Forsyte reaction against an unpleasant truth. But with an increase of symptoms in the train on the way home he had realized to the full the sentence hanging over him. To leave Irene, his boy, his home, his work – though he did little enough work now! To leave them for unknown darkness, for the unimaginable state, for such nothingness that he would not even be conscious of wind stirring leaves above his grave, nor of the scent of earth and grass. Of such nothingness that, however hard he might try to conceive it, he never could, and must still hover on the hope that he might see again those he loved! To realize this was to endure very poignant spiritual anguish.”
I wonder if this was how my own father felt in the last years of his life, already diagnosed with the disease that would kill him. That is what great literature does – it makes you look around you and feel more acutely what may be happening inside the heads of other people in other places and times and in other phases of their lives. For that alone, Galsworthy deserved his Nobel Prize.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Way It Might Have Been

The Nazis enter Paris in 1940 - for real
I have long been fascinated by the potential of using counterfactual or alternative history in fiction. To quote from Wikipedia, “‘Alternate History’ looks at ‘what if’ scenarios from some of history's most pivotal turning points and presents a completely different version, sometimes based on science and fact, but often based on conjecture.”
Historians have made quite a genre out of positing alternative outcomes of historical events – what if the South had won the Civil War, what if JFK hadn’t been assassinated, what if the Japanese hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor. However, this hasn’t been explored much in fiction, except to some extent in science fiction by writers like H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, and Isaac Asimov.
But what I have in mind is realist fiction set in an alternative historical scenario. Only two prominent examples spring to mind. In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagined that the aviator Charles Lindbergh beat FDR in the 1940 election. The novel follows the fortunes of the fictional Roth family in Newark, New Jersey who observe and experience firsthand America’s growing isolationism and anti-Semitism under Lindbergh’s presidency.
The other example is the bestselling thriller Fatherland by the British writer Robert Harris. It is set in Berlin in 1964 in a world where Nazi Germany won WWII.  King George VI (he of The King’s Speech) has been deposed and is living in exile in Canada, as is Churchill. Hitler has restored the abdicated King Edward VIII to the throne with Wallis Simpson as his queen, and Britain is run by a pro-German puppet government much like the actual Vichy government in France in the 1940s. And in 1964, who should be President of the United States but Joseph P. Kennedy.
I’m surprised that this form of fiction hasn’t been attempted more often. First of all, if you’re the least bit interested in history, it’s just plain fun to imagine how things might have turned out differently. But also, counterfactual historical fiction has the great advantage of dealing with the familiar within an imaginary scenario that is still recognizable. It allows the novelist to give free rein to her imagination but within a well-known and understood context – realism with a twist. One click to the right or left and the whole fabric on which the story is painted changes from deeply familiar to passing strange.   
If I ever get as far as the last novel in my Albion’s Millennium sequence, I intend to experiment with this technique. At the end of a narrative that will otherwise have stayed very close to the facts of the 20th century, I plan to introduce a twist when we reach the 1990s – in the form of a Labour Prime Minister who declares a State of Emergency in response to an uprising of left-wing militants in a northern city. In reality, the Labour administration of that era was headed by Tony Blair, and the uprisings in Liverpool of the 1980s were well and truly over by then. But by using the liberty of fiction to bring that conflict to a more dramatic climax than was afforded by reality, I hope to show how the Prime Minister’s action - and the country’s reaction to it – reflects how the British resolve conflict and, in the process, often fail to see where the next big threat is coming from.  
Meanwhile, in another idea for a novel which I have thought about for many years, the whole backdrop would be counterfactual history. I would go back to World War II and imagine how the lives of my four main characters would be affected if the Nazis had succeeded in invading Britain – as they came so close to doing in reality. This would give me the chance to explore the vexed and difficult issues of resistance and collaboration and how the consciences of different individuals can lead them to behave in diametrically opposite ways.
Now if I only had the time to write all of these novels that buzz around in my brain!
Does anyone else know of other examples of novels that use alternative histories to tell their tales?

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Myth Maker Part 2

Here is another image from the Gauguin exhibit that imposes the painter’s invented cosmology on a very real landscape. Its title is Mahana no atua or Day of the God (Art Institute of Chicago).
The stylized figure in the middle background of the painting is meant to be Ta’aroa, the supreme creator god in the mythology of Polynesia, crowned by an elaborate headdress made from the feathers of tropical birds. So far so accurate, though the headdress should be a blazing scarlet – the color associated with divinity in Tahiti. But in Gauguin’s interpretation, Ta’aroa looks like a Hindu goddess with his upraised, undulating arms, and in fact the painter is said to have been inspired by the carved reliefs on the Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur in Java.

But the rest of the picture is pure Tahiti - from the waves breaking on the reef to the mountains coming down almost to the edge of the lagoon. Notice the pandanus tree on the left with its long flat spindly leaves. Plaited together, these leaves were traditionally used to roof Tahitian houses, though thatched roofs have now largely been replaced by ugly corrugated iron, which is less of a fire hazard. On the left of the painting, two women carry a long tray laden with food as an offering for the god. This kind of communal feast bowl, known as an umete in Tahitian, was used throughout the South Pacific. Princess Titaua, the oldest Salmon daughter, inherited a spectacular 12-foot long umete from the Cook Islands, which she and her second husband sold to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1895. The museum has just undergone a £46 million refurbishment and will reopen this summer – and I will be there to see the umete take its place as the centerpiece of the museum’s magnificent multi-level Grand Gallery.
Wherever I go, I catch glimpses of Tahiti.