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Making The World Strange

An essay on the writing of The Left Hand of God Trilogy from The Afterword of The Beating of His wings:


Consider the following first draft synopsis of an epic fantasy novel set on a planet far, far away called Gondwana.

Eight years after the end of the Great War, in which the vile Alois Hutler, tyrant and genocidal murderer, was finally defeated in the shadow of the Brandenburg, his most powerful enemy, Elector Joseb Jugasvili of Eurazia, the greatest mass murderer in history, dies. But not before he has stolen, by means of grand treachery, the secret weapon created by the Oceanic Empire, his undefeated enemy – a weapon so powerful it can destroy the world. The power struggle between the Oceanic and Eurazian empires continues as, wary of annihilating each other, they probe each other’s weaknesses in the proxy wars of the Khmer and the Bukhan and other disputed territories. When a new young emperor, John of Boston, comes to power in Oceania the Eurazians see their chance to test his inexperience and place one of their stolen weapons on an island near Oceania. They wait to see what John of Boston will do. He orders them to remove the weapons or he will use his own device and bring about the end of the world. Millions lie awake at night in terror as the transmitters bring news of the imminent death of the world. But then the Eurazians back down and the world is saved – for now at least. A few months later, John of Boston is assassinated by a returned defector from Eurazia – the world’s greatest hope for peace and freedom seems to have died along with the saintly young emperor. What is Oceania to do now about its restive Black Untouchables – descendents of slaves brought to Oceania during the previous centuries?

Oceania gets to the moon but is traumatized by an appalling war in the disputed Khmer territories. Then Eurazia collapses without warning. Oceania, now the only great power on Gondwana, is attacked by religious extremists and is dragged into more unwinnable wars, known as ‘the quagmires’. Meanwhile, a powerful new empire springs into life in the Far East. But then a Black Untouchable is elected president of Oceania. And now the temperature of Gondwana is rising with incalculable consequences for the entire globe. Religious tensions increase alongside the rise of consumerism and the cult of celebrity, and equal rights are demanded by groups whose values threaten established moral values.

So far so instantly recognizable. But this serves to highlight the problem of writing about the world we live in. These are huge-scale events and therefore almost impossible to write about, even in the one form – the novel – that has any chance of tackling them. The central problem is that because we experience life as individuals we are much more caught up with everyday living: How will I earn my keep? How will I get this man or woman to love me? How do I get a decent job? The result is that the forces gathering strength around us can easily seem remote, even tedious. In my first novel, The Wisdom of Crocodiles, published in 1999, one section is devoted to dramatizing how and why the world’s financial system was bound to collapse sooner or later. One American publisher offered to buy the book on condition that I removed this section. It’s not as if I didn’t stoop to every trick in the book to make it entertaining, including the presence of a lawyer with a flick knife and a judge with a rubber nose and a terror of giant fruit bats.

When it came to The Left Hand of God, I wanted to find a new way of telling stories, one that began with a single individual’s life, in this case the life of Thomas Cale. His life would begin slowly to merge with and to affect great events happening in an outside world of which he knew practically nothing at the start of the book. By the end he was often the reluctant agent of history. But this involved using a narrative that was very far from new (something indignantly pointed out by the book’s critics): a young man of obscure origin but with great qualities escapes his oppressive upbringing and, by means of heroic swashbuckling, makes his fortune and ends up winning the heart of a beautiful princess. Surely this is indefensibly trite and unoriginal? Or worse, a cynical attempt to pander to the laziest desires of a mass audience in a genre more or less inherently despicable (fantasy, for the avoidance of doubt).

It depends. Firstly, I’d argue that the story of an apparently obscure young man (from Oedipus to Luke Skywalker) setting out to make his way in the world of great events goes far deeper than cliché ever could. This is the story of every human life – to a greater or lesser extent it’s the truest of truisms. And it was in this inescapable narrative that I found one way of wrapping the personal and the larger-scale world together. I asked myself what was the story I knew best. My own, of course. I found that having made it to my early fifties I was, for some reason, now compulsively drawn back to my early life ( whereas my first two novels had been set in the modern world of work and technology). But the thing is I wasn’t born, so to speak, in the modern world at all. I was born in 1953 in a house without electricity or running water, by the light of a paraffin lamp. We even got our drinking water from, as it turned out, a poisoned well in the garden. My first memory of my father was of him falling out of the sky. This wasn’t a false memory caused by the hallucinogenic effects of poisoned water, but one from just after my father had taken up freefall parachuting. His obsession with the sport radically altered my life: I saw my first violent death at the age of six after a friend of my father’s fell to his death when his parachute malfunctioned due in part to his over-confidence (what was this but a replay of the death of Icarus?).

Over the next ten years I must have seen my father come close to being killed on nearly a dozen occasions. In those days parachuting was a military sport and I saw the Cold War (the one feebly disguised in the above synopsis) being fought out repeatedly between the American and Russian teams at world championships. The Americans won this sporting war through the same method that ultimately caused the collapse of the Soviet Union –putting so much money and energy into new technology that the Russians were unable to keep up. As with the war between Thomas Cale and the Redeemers, technical ingenuity ensured victory. It was a wonderful lesson to a novelist that even the biggest historical and political event could be seen played out at in miniature, where the nuances were much easier to capture in human terms.

By now my father was the British Parachute Champion, and because he was a soldier he was sent to Kenya to start up the Kenyan Army First Parachute Regiment, expressly to fight bandits in the lawless Northern Frontier District. He went off to a peculiar world where most of the fighting was done with spears and AK47s. Aged ten, I went off to a very much weirder one: a Catholic boarding school in Cowley, an industrial suburb of Oxford. This is the basis for The Sanctuary. The only major difference between the imagined and the real place was that in the real place they weren’t allowed to kill you. This was 1964, and while the modern world as we know it was in the process of exploding into the future, I was on my way back into the past. And a brutal one at that. Readers have often pointed out, not usually approvingly, that the world of the trilogy is an odd fusion of the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century, along with flashes of modernity. The reason for this is straightforward: that was the peculiar world we lived in at the school. Mostly we were subjected to a harsh religious philosophy of sin and damnation that would have been entirely recognizable to someone born in the thirteenth century – and on Thursdays we were allowed to watch Top of the Pops. Violence from the priests was not continuous but it was ever-present and arbitrary. One of my eleven-year-old friends once popped a blown-up paper bag in the dining hall. The priest in charge took him out of sight, punched him to the ground and gave him a good kicking. This kind of brutality was not a daily occurrence as it was in so many Catholic schools, but it could happen at any time and came from priests who would treat you in a reasonably civilized manner for months at a time and then, without warning, beat you savagely for a trivial infraction. Add to this the constant psychological harassment, the revolting food, the cold, the total lack of privacy (I spent years sleeping in a dormitory with seventy other people), the grinding boredom and the idiotic stories of heaven and hell and you can, perhaps, imagine how deadly this place was to any kind of joy or pleasure.

Inevitably the violence and harsh treatment took a real toll on the pupils, several hundred boys from the age of ten to eighteen, most of whom came from tough working-class or underclass backgrounds. The threat of serious violence from each other was a constant. I was attacked within hours of arriving at school, and when I slipped my attacker stamped on my head. This was a place where fighting was something you had to be prepared to do at any moment. One psychologist who specialized in dealing with the casualties of such places called them God’s concentration camps. The sad thing is that the school I attended for seven years was probably no more than halfway up the pyramid of abuse in Catholic boarding schools – many others were much worse. The litany of cruelty in the Irish government’s 2009 Ryan Commission report on historical maltreatment in Catholic schools beggars belief. The Irish Times called it ‘a map of hell’. But it can’t be emphasized too much that this medieval world existed alongside the gilded paradise of OxfordUniversity less than two miles down the road, and swinging Carnaby Street an hour away by car.

So far, so grim. Even so, while I was writing about The Sanctuary I often found myself laughing. What I remembered was that the only real weapon we had against the priests was to mock them. Granted the jokes were mixed with hatred and contempt but we were also kept at least partly sane by realizing the sheer witless absurdity of these men and the things they expected us to believe (though there were a fair number of pupils who were absorbed into the deranged belief system that was destroying them). So we developed our impersonations of individual priests giving sermons full of lurid descriptions of small children being roasted and dismembered eternally in hell for coveting their neighbour’s ass.

When I decided to write The Left Hand of God it seemed to me that the story lay in trying to answer a question: how do people brought up in such extreme and enclosed circumstances make their way in an outside world so different in almost every way? I could have written something straightforwardly autobiographical, but I wanted to write a novel that traded on my experience but also went much further, exploring my growing sense that there was no normal world out there, just numerous alternatives, some odder than others. This idea was intensified by what happened to me in 1971. When the local government wanted Catholic girls admitted into the day school, the priests found the suggestion so repellent they simply shut it down. This meant that I suddenly found myself in a state school surrounded by teachers who were reasonably normal people. One of them, the sculptor Faith Tolkien (daughter-in-law of the great man J. R. R.), had become a teacher to support herself after her divorce, and arrived at her new school to be faced with an extremely unpleasant teenage boy without any academic qualifications (the education I had received was as bad as everything else at the school). I gave her a particularly hard time, I must guiltily admit, but after six months I finally admitted I’d stumbled upon a woman of unique kindness and intelligence. An already implausible life was about to become even stranger.

Once she realized I was not just a sociopath, she went about transforming my life. Because my academic record was so dismal no university would even interview me, so Faith decided to enter me for Oxford, where at the time they offered places based on open competition. She spent a year giving me extra lessons and, despite the dire warnings from her fellow teachers that what she was doing was bound to end badly, I duly took the entrance exam and was accepted. As far as I’m aware I’m the only Oxford graduate ever to have failed all his O-levels. I used to make Faith laugh by telling her that I only went to Oxford because I couldn’t get in anywhere else. But having spent so many years in a place utterly removed from the modern world I was now heading into another. Where once I’d slept in the same room as seventy people, surrounded by priests who believed there were real devils flying above them in the night air, I now had a room of my own the size of a small cathedral and a college servant to make my bed, and was surrounded by some of the finest minds anywhere in the world. It was like going from Mordor to Shangri-La. What these experiences confirmed for me was that there is no one ‘modern world’, there are numerous worlds – some of them very large, admittedly – endless alternative realities distinguished from the ones in fantasy and science fiction only by the fact that they actually exist. If you doubt this, consider how unbelievable the world described in the Gondwana synopsis above appears. As those who have read the first two books in The Left Hand of God trilogy will now have realized, The Sanctuary is rooted in a real place. Unsurprisingly enough I clashed with the world of Oxford in pretty much the same way as Cale clashes with the world of Memphis.

By now it was impossible for me to believe in what is called realism in fiction, because my life proved that realism didn’t exist; realism didn’t have what it takes to explain what’s real, just as modernism couldn’t explain what was modern. To go back to the fantasy synopsis at the beginning, and to labour the point of what I’m driving at in terms of the sheer melodrama and strangeness of the world we inhabit, I was born in the same year that Stalin, the greatest mass murderer in human history, died. Mao died in the year I graduated from Oxford. In the decade between, while I was relentlessly warned I was going to a spiritual hell, I can remember lying awake in October 1962 worrying, with good reason, about whether the Cuban Missile Crisis was going to bring the world to an end. Within fourteen years of my leaving Oxford, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Within a decade the Chinese empire began its electrifying rise. So if I’ve strained the point, it’s for a good reason. Huge events like this can seem to swamp the individual and their personal story, and so fiction turns its back in the face of a hopeless task and either descends into garish simple-mindedness (though I’ve also been accused of that) or stylistic narcissism (I’ve been accused of that, too). But fiction exists in part to dramatize these changes and point out something inescapably true: Mao and Stalin were individuals, not forces. Individuals helped and opposed them, or just watched. The Cuban Missile Crisis emerged out of great ideological clashes, but it was averted, just about, by people not so different from you and me blundering about trying to guess what was going on in the minds of other people trying to do the same thing on the other side of the world. You may notice that Henry Kissinger’s comment on this process of powerful individuals blindly trying to direct great matters is quoted twice in The Beating of His Wings. The repetition is because I think it’s an observation about confusion and its place in all our lives, one that’s of central importance to what I’m trying to convey in these books. I hope we can accept as a fictional licence that one person – and a deeply disturbed boy, at that – could be tied in with the kind of rise and fall of empires and ideologies outlined in The Left Hand of God;  it’s the best way I can think of to get a grip on the way individuals and the forces of history, politics and ideology clash in our many and various real worlds.

It would be impossible in a conventional ‘realistic’ novel to write about this diversity and complexity because there’s too much of it. Each section would take years of careful research (I’ve tried this: The Wisdom of Crocodiles took thirteen years to write). By inventing a hypothetical world like that of The Left Hand of God (and combining it with the notion of The Rubbish Tips of Paradise as outlined at the start of this novel) it becomes possible to take elements from history – for example, the most romanticized and most hideous of all societies, the Spartans, and mix them with elements of the first true trading bloc, the Hanse. There’s nothing impossibly anachronistic about this any more than the fact that the US is now engaged in a war in Afghanistan, a society that is fundamentally early medieval. In an obvious sense we all live in an overblown fantasy novel. But it also enabled me to mix writing about worlds and ideologies of which I had personal experience (Catholicism, the rural poverty I was born into, and the world of Oxford privilege I stumbled into), with worlds and ideologies I had only read about. In this way, I tried to mix and match, copy and re-imagine something of the strangeness of the world we all inhabit – but in a manageable and coherent way. In the year that I first watched my father competing against the Americans and the Russians in his Cold War of Sports, Mao Tse Tung was setting out idealistic policies that were to eventually starve to death as many as thirty-five million people; while I was sitting in my room at Oxford eating crumpets in 1975, Pol Pot was slaughtering more than a quarter of the Cambodian population in order to create year zero for the perfect state. The Catholic world in which I was brought up relentlessly pressed on us one motto in particular: Death rather than sin.

In The Left Hand of God trilogy I’ve tried to condense the monstrous ideology that human beings must be changed for the better at any cost, an ideology that has so plagued human history, into one person. Redeemer Bosco’s plan to remake the human soul by destroying the world is my avatar for this kind of murderous idealism. The trilogy is my way of trying to blend together, in a world of infinite complexity, the relationship between my own life and the extraordinary world into which we’ve all been born.