Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest

Second paragraph of third section:

Working methodically, by midday I had filled two haversacks with canned food and had stolen for future barter three road maps from abandoned cars. I did not see the other man, Rafiq, again during the morning.

This was one of Christopher Priest’s first books, published over half a century ago in 1972, depicting a near-future Britain with a populist right-wing government, over-run with refugees from African conflicts, and the consequent disintegration of the social order. It’s told through the viewpoint of Alan Whitman (“White man”?) who is frankly unpleasant; he cheats on his wife and on his travelling companions, not for the sake of any grand strategy but because he’s just that kind of guy.

Since the book was published, the topic of migration and refugee flows has become considerably more toxic than it was then. Priest is clear that the two things he had in mind while writing were the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which saw the biggest forced population movement in Western Europe since the second world war, and the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, many of whom came (and as it turned out integrated well) to the UK. Those were different times, and for us it’s impossible to read the book now outside the context of the 2015 migration crisis and the poisonous and dishonest rhetoric of recent years.

It’s not what Priest was getting at; he was looking at the disintegration of his own society under the shock of the future, a sort of It Can’t Happen Here, and mapping the disintegration of his protagonist’s household and family onto this social crisis. His target is not the refugees but the corrupt right-wing government that presides over the chaos. The narrative itself is disjointed, three different timelines (as a fugue has three different themes) jumping between several different phases of the crisis as things get worse.

I read this as a teenager and wondered how it would hold up. It’s all grimly credible from a 1971 viewpoint, but of course the world has moved on, and Priest revised the novel in 2011 to smoothe some of the parts that had aged less well. This is not one of his better known books – tenth on LibraryThing, fourteenth on Goodreads – but it was an interesting return. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016 (kindly given to me by the author, who signed it for me). Next on that pile is At the Edge of the World, by Lord Dunsany.