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Review – The Gradual by Christopher Priest

By / September 26, 2016 / no comments

You see them waiting at the harbour. A small group of men and women, young-looking, sitting under an awning. They pay little attention to each other, still less to the passengers disembarking from the inter-island ferry. Except, every once in a while, one of the young people will approach one of the new arrivals. There will be a brief exchange, a short wooden stave will be passed back and forth between them, money will change hands, then the new arrival, luggage in hand, will be lead on a roundabout journey, by foot or car or even boat, before being allowed to complete the entry formalities at the new port. You sail on to the next island, and at the harbour there’s another awning with another group of young-looking people sitting waiting. And you would swear that there are some who were there at the last island, though there is no way they could have have got ahead of you to meet you here.

The GradualThey are adepts. They understand the gradual, which you don’t, of course. And they perform a vital, if peripheral, role in Christopher Priest’s latest tour of the Dream Archipelago.

You don’t know the Dream Archipelago? Where have you been for the last 30-odd years?

Christopher Priest first began writing about the Dream Archipelago in a series of short stories in the late-1970s. The Archipelago girdled the equator, dividing a Northern continent whose various nations were engaged in an almost unending war, from an inhospitable and unsettled Southern continent where that war was mostly fought out. The islands in between, uncountable in number, never fully mapped, were in the main neutral, a place of refuge for deserters, holidays for the wealthy. But they were, most of all, places of sexual menace, places where predatory males were likely to find themselves predated upon. These stories culminated in the novel, The Affirmation, to my mind his best novel, which changed the Dream Archipelago by making it a sinister mirror for the psychologically damaged side of our own world.

The Affirmation (Valancourt 20th Century Classics)After The Affirmation, Priest abandoned the Dream Archipelago for 20 years, but early in the new century he returned to it again. Some of the early stories had appeared in his collection, An Infinite Summer, but now he brought all of those stories together, revised them, and put them together in a new collection, The Dream Archipelago, along with a new story, “The Equatorial Moment”, that lays some of the groundwork for The Gradual. But having returned to this sensual, infinitely malleable setting, it began to open up to new explorations. There were The Islandersmore Dream Archipelago short stories, then a novel, The Islanders, structured like a gazetteer of the Dream Archipelago, but in among the sometimes comic sometimes horrific descriptions of different islands, threads of narrative began to cohere: a murder, sexual indiscretions, shifting identities. It was, to some degree, the most complex and rewarding of his novels, but as in so much else of his work it left many questions unanswered. He returned to the Dream Archipelago with another novel, The Adjacent, which, like The Affirmation, established links and psychological mirroring between this world and that.

Now there is The Gradual, which, surprisingly after Priest has spent so much of his career exploring the Dream Archipelago, is the first novel set wholly within that world that tells one coherent story from beginning to end. But it begins not among the sunny liberties of the islands, but in the snow-wrapped austerities of the Northern continent. Alesandro Sussken is brought up in Errest, a dark, industrial town, but one that is also renowned as a centre for the arts. He and his older brother, Jacj, both have musical talent, but Jacj has to put his ambitions to one side when he is drafted. Alesandro somehow avoids the draft, and becomes a composer. From Errest he can see the three nearest islands of the Dream Archipelago, forever out of reach but holding out a tantalising promise. These islands inspire his earliest compositions, which earn him considerable fame.

While the fascist regime that rules his nation of Glaund forbids access to the Dream Archipelago to its citizens, it seems that their works can reach the islands: Alesandro learns that a rock star from the Archipelago who goes by the name of And Ante has taken some of his finest compositions and turned them into hit songs. Alesandro, a classical composer who has little taste for popular music, is both flattered and mystified by this discovery. It gives him yet another reason to find the Archipelago alluring.

Then, unexpectedly, he is invited to take part in a cultural tour of the Archipelago. With an orchestra, he is swept away into the hot equatorial climes, the easy-going lifestyle, the light and spirit and beauty of the islands. There are mysteries here: even before they depart each member of the tour is presented with a wooden stave which they are instructed to keep with them at all times; and aboard the various ships they take from one island to the next they notice discrepancies between absolute time and ship time. But neither Alesandro nor anyone else bothers too much about any of this, they are simply enchanted by the success of their performances and the addictive quality of the islands themselves.

It is when they return home to Glaund, however, that problems become apparent. Though the tour itself lasted only a matter of weeks, well over a year seems to have passed in Glaund. Alesandro’s wife has left him, his home is shut up, abandoned, his parents have died. He has to struggle to re-establish his own life; but having now seen the islands, he cannot be content in Glaund. Then the generalissima who heads up Glaund’s ruling junta decrees that Alesandro must write a triumphal piece for the regime. He knows that having come to the attention of the authorities, he is no longer safe. So, taking the exorbitant fee that the generalissima has paid him, he gets himself smuggled out to the islands once more.

That earlier story, “The Equatorial Moment”, with its image of aircraft spiraling across the sky, established the notion that there is something inconsistent, incoherent, about the islands. Now we start to see the effects on the ground: time does not flow in even, consistent lines but swirls in vortices. The staves, we begin to guess, record the bearer’s base time; the adepts, the young people we have encountered at each island stop, are skilled in guiding the individual through the time vortex until things even out. All of this had been ignored during Alesandro’s earlier tour of the islands, which was why time was so out of sync when he returned to Glaund. Now, the adepts lead him a merry dance, but as his time is normalised, so the islands lose some of their earlier allure but he also comes to understand something of the creative sympathy that the islands hold for him.

Oh there’s much more going on than all that, but this is the spine of it, the essential intertwining of time and creativity that build into something more complex than both. I haven’t mentioned the falling in and out of love that seems to echo the merge nice and decline of Alesandro’s ability to compose; the central role that Jacj plays even though he is off stage throughout much of the novel; the quest to find And Ante, and how it is resolved. Remove even one of these threads from the plot and the whole thing would be less than the sum of its parts; but skilfully woven together as they are here and the result is stunning.

What, you don’t know the Dream Archipelago? What are you waiting for?

Buy The Gradual on Amazon.

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