Boyd Tonkin: Tyranny in the UK - how 'alternative history' sharpens the taste of freedom
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 03 November 2012
Frank Muncaster is a neurotic scientist in the dank, defeated, German-dominated Britain of Dominion - CJ Sansom's masterly new novel of "alternative history". Frank has heard of an American physicist who believes in "millions of parallel worlds". Now, counter-factual history, which as a genre in UK fiction often turns on the consequences of a Nazi victory in or around 1940, offers a parallel-universe theory of its own. Its imaginary outcomes redirect our gaze towards the strange contingency and happenstance of what did actually happen, and how events might therefore change. Oddly, the pretend determinism of this form - with its logical but fictitious chains of cause-and-effect - can stiffen our sense of freedom.
In Dominion (Mantle, £18.99), it's November and December 1952. Great Britain - that shabby and run-down satellite state of Greater Germany, shackled by the humiliating Treaty of Berlin in 1940 - gasps and coughs through damp, cold and later the "sulphurous chemical smog" that paralyses London. (That smog did happen, and exactly then.) Prime Minister Beaverbrook, Home Secretary Mosley (with his Blackshirts given free rein), India Secretary Powell, and the rest of the collaborationist regime bend their knees to Berlin.
The "giant meat-grinder" of the German war in Russia drags on, although Hitler is gravely ill with Parkinson's. After the rigged "elections" of 1950, Churchill and the anti-Nazi opposition have gone underground to take up armed resistance. In order to secure trade concessions for his impoverished semi-colony, Beaverbrook promises to round up the persecuted Jews - who wear a discreet, "very British" yellow star - prior to their transfer to the camps.
Against this forlorn backdrop, sketched with hallucinatory clarity, the British Resistance concocts an audacious coup. Thanks to his bragging physicist brother, working in the still-neutral US, Frank knows too much about American research on nuclear weapons (Hiroshima has not happened). A civil service-based Resistance cell, which contains our decent, troubled hero David Fitzgerald, must smuggle him out of mental hospital and to a waiting US sub. And super-sleuth Hoth of the Gestapo, seconded to the almighty German Embassy in Senate House, targets the plot.
Sansom, whose Tudor mysteries showed his feeling for the plight of good people in a brutal, treacherous society, builds his nightmare Britain from the sooty bricks of truth. "Given the right circumstances fascism can infest any country," as David's Slovakian comrade Natalia warns. From the thuggish "Auxies" who beat up protestors to the apolitical rebellion of the "Jive Boys", every note in Sansom's smoggy hell rings true. Yet he also explains how hope might dawn again and end the Nazi universe of "blood and fear".
Proper historians tend to treat counter-factual speculation as the crystal meth of their discipline - a cheap high. Novelists, on the other hand, create a parallel reality with every book they write. No surprise, then, that fiction has outclassed formal history in the imagination of what might have been. Apart from the "Victorious Nazis" genre, which Sansom adorns, I also detected the dingy shades of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
No bulldog defiance in 1940; no weary triumph in 1945; no dogged renewal with the post-war Welfare State: Dominion shows us what a truly broken Britain would look, and feel, like. And, as its half-Scottish author makes plain, the blood-and-soil nationalism he most detests would thrive in such a social wasteland. The SNP, depicted in the novel as semi-fascist collaborating creeps and then denounced again in an explanatory essay, will not like his book one bit. Sansom's alternative past also seeks to shape our possible futures.
One book to bind them all: the Xmas cracker
Mixed messages from Waterstones. MD James Daunt wins praise by rolling out more autonomy for individual stores. Yet Waterstones this Christmas will have a single "Book of the Year" promoted right across the chain. The eclectic shortlist runs from Artemis Cooper's Patrick Leigh Fermor biography to Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways. A Daunt folie de grandeur? Maybe, but the list is strong; and very good to see HHhH by French newcomer Laurent Binet, his novel about the killing of Heydrich, on it.
Little to large: publishers fatten up
A truly significant event happened in British publishing this week. No, forget about the £2.3 billion global merger of Penguin with Random House (still not cleared by any regulators). Booming indie Profile Books has bought up Birmingham-based fiction house Tindal Street Press, to add to a portfolio that includes high-impact niche brands such as Serpent's Tail. The two convergences do connect. A handful of global book giants will come together to boost their firepower against digital monopolists (Amazon, Apple, Google). But the remaining indie houses feel the need to shadow this consolidation, both by formal merger (as with Profile/Tindal Street) and by closer cooperation, as in the Independent Alliance. As the great balloon, even the small will have to swell. Publishing risks a digital-era obesity crisis that no amount of Dukan Diet-style bestsellers can amend.
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