Saturday 5 July 2008

The Separation by Christopher Priest

'The Separation' technically falls within the increasingly popular sub-genre (or would that be sub-sub-genre?) of alternate histories of World War 2. Since I have written one of those myself (The Foresight War) I read this book with more than usual interest.

The overriding impression I formed is of the vast difference which can exist in the way in which nominally similar themes are handled. At one extreme comes my own effort, which is a nuts and bolts analysis of how foreknowledge of events by those in power in Britain and Germany (thanks to time-travellers) might have affected strategies, tactics and equipment, and how the war might have turned out differently as a result. Christopher Priest's novel is at the other end of the spectrum.

'The Separation' is a fascinating intellectual exercise portraying different versions of reality. The tale starts in an alternate 1999, in which an historian is collecting material for a book about an RAF officer, J L Sawyer, who appeared to have played a mysterious part in the events which led up to the ending of the Anglo-German War in May 1941. The rest of the book consists of the material which he found: accounts from various viewpoints, correspondence and official notes of meetings.

It soon becomes clear that much confusion had been caused by the fact that there were two J L Sawyers: identical twins named Jack and Joe. Their contrasting personal accounts make up much of the book. We first meet them at the 1936 Olympics where they are rowing together, but they fall out and their paths diverge shortly thereafter. As war looms, one becomes a bomber pilot in the RAF, the other a conscientious objector working for the Red Cross.

As the viewpoint shifts from one person to another, so does the path of history. In one account, one of the brothers is killed; in another, the other one dies; and in a possible third they both survive. In one timeline one brother marries and has a daughter; in another, the other brother marries the same woman and has a son. In the wider context, one thread sees the war lasting until 1945 while another describes its ending in 1941. Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess apparently flies to Britain (but is he a fake?) in one account, and plays an important role in negotiating the peace in another. The confusion is not helped by the fact that one of the brothers suffers from powerful, extended and entirely realistic hallucinations following a head injury: are the experiences he recounts imaginary or real? He doesn't know, and neither do we. There is a final twist in the tail of the tale, concerning the identity of the historian researching the story.

With such internal contradictions the story is difficult to follow, or even to make sense of afterwards: do not hope for a tidy ending in which all is explained! This all may sound like an exercise in frustration, but the high quality of Priest's writing draws the reader into the novel. Don't look for dramatic action or much in the way of the technicalities of war; there is much well-researched detail on the bombing campaign, from the viewpoints of those delivering it and of those on the receiving end, but that's about it. The pleasures of this surreal story are more subtle. It is like a kaleidoscope; keep turning and the same elements keep falling into different patterns.

Some aspects are not entirely convincing. There is brief mention of events outside NW Europe following the 1941 end of the war, in which the USA becomes involved in extended conflict in Asia and, for no clearly explained reason, becomes a failed, gangster-run state which it remains even half a century later. There is much about Churchill, but the way in which he suddenly changed his mind over an important issue did not strike me as realistic.

Despite these reservations, the novel can be strongly recommended to readers who appreciate high-quality story-telling and enjoy having their perceptions repeatedly overturned.


George Berger said...

I read the book twice. Right before the first reading I expected a straightforward story told linearly. Given that presupposition I could follow very little. Later I read it again. Of course things did not 'fall into place', but the effect was one of compulsive fascination. It's a masterpiece.
In 2007 I heard Mr Priest talk about the book and his interests in writing it. This lecture was one of the most interesting talks I have ever attended, in and out of academia. Mr Priest spoke of his critical attitude towards Churchill's powers of analysis and judgement. This was new to me. He also described his (near) pacifist moral position. This motivated the book's thought experiments.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for the insight. The book's certainly worth another read.