Monday, 28 January 2013
Here are the facts. The year is 1952. In the east the German war with Russia, now eleven years old, shows no sign of ending. On a line roughly extending from Lake Ladoga in the north-west to the Caspian Sea in the south-east, the struggle is in stalemate, a contest punctuated by blows and counter blows which settle nothing.
In the west Britain, having made peace with Germany after the brief war of 1939-40, is governed by a crypto-fascist regime headed by Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, the press magnate. Oswald Mosley, whose fascist party made substantial gains in the rigged parliamentary election of 1950, is Home Secretary, in charge of the normal police and black-shirt recruited auxiliaries. Enoch Powell is Secretary of State for India, where Britain is still fighting a rearguard action to retain the Jewel in the tawdry Crown. Under the Treaty of Berlin, which ended the western war, the Isle of Wight has been turned over to Germany as a base.
In Berlin, Hitler, suffering from increasingly acute Parkinson’s disease, is nearing the end. The future is uncertain, with no clear succession. There are those who want to end the hopeless war in the east; there are those, chiefly in the SS, who want to carry on the struggle against the Slav ‘sub-humans’ until that elusive final victory.
We are, of course, in past futures, a foreign country which did things differently; we are in the country of C. J. Sansom’s Dominion, a ‘what if’ novel along the lines of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, Len Deighton’s SS GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland.
The premise is a plausible one. The novel opens with a real historical scene, the meeting in the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street on 9 May, 1940. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, has announced his intention to resign, discredited by Britain’s disastrous campaign against the Germans in Norway. The contenders are Halifax and Churchill. Halifax, the Foreign Minister and a noted appeaser, is favoured by Chamberlain, the King and most of the Tory Party. In real history he demurs. In this history he does not. After the German invasion of the West, and the disaster of Dunkirk, Halifax makes peace, entering into a treaty of friendship with Britain’s former enemy. Churchill withdraws, eventually to lead a Resistance movement against the new Vichy-style regime, headed in succession by Halifax, David Lloyd George and finally Beaverbrook.
Dominion is the first book that I’ve read by C. J. Sansom, though I’m told that he is well-respected for his Shardlake series, historical novels set in Tudor England. He has a doctorate in history; so, if that’s any measure, he is qualified enough to treat the subject with imaginative insight and a high degree of verisimilitude and empathy. Does he? Well, now, that’s the key question. At the risk of trying your patience I’m going to begin this review by looking at the justification for the premises contained in the novel, set out in a Historical Note at the very end.
Actually, if you are at all interested in the context, I would suggest that you begin at the end. It’s the key to all that goes before. It shows the author as a man with a mission. He has, in other words, a political intent; his novel is not merely for shallow entertainment. Rather it has a didactic purpose, namely to warn you against the dangers of nationalism and fascism in the real historical present by showing you nationalism and fascism in a fictitious historical past.
I suppose that this book might be compared, at least superficially, with It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel warning of the dangers of fascism in America. It could have happened here, that’s Sansom’s point. But could it have happened in the way he describes in Dominion?
You see, what he gives us is an Anglo-Saxon version of Petain and Laval’s Vichy state. It’s really all based on a shallow idiocy of perspective, if I can put it like that. George Orwell, who also feared a form of fascism in England, was altogether more subtle than the inept Mister Sansom, at pains to advance his left-wing credentials. “What sickens me about left-wing people, especially left wing intellectuals”, Orwell wrote, “is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen.”
My own doubts were raised early. Beaverbrook, in real history, was a close friend of Churchill and an effective minister in his wartime cabinet. In Dominion this same Beaverbrook is a man prepared to hand over Britain’s Jewish community to the Nazis. In justifying his portrayal, Samson quotes Clement Atlee, the post-war Labour prime minister, who said that the press baron was the most evil person he had ever met. Really? Is this the same Beaverbrook that Michael Foot, a former Labour leader and respected leftwing journalist, describes with such warmth and affection in his essay collection Debts of Honour?
Then there is Enoch Powell, the bête noir of Samson and his kind. His real credentials were impeccably anti-fascist, an opponent of appeasement and a man who returned to England from a comfortable academic position in Australia specifically to fight against the Nazis. The idea of him collaborating with Oswald Mosley is laughably absurd. Samson has simply advanced beyond his fictitious present to a real future, to Powell’s 1960s warning over the possible effects of mass immigration. He has then projected back again; for, as we all know, concerns about immigration equals fascism.
Powell, who only entered Parliament in 1950, was an admirer of British rule in India, that much is true, but by the early 1950s his imperial convictions were weakening. The depiction of him in Dominion is, quite frankly, childishly inexact. By Sansom’s measure Churchill might just as readily have been Secretary of State for India in a Beaverbrook cabinet, given his own past political commitments, his past refusal to countenance any form of independence for India.
So, what is there to say about Samson’s imagined Britain? It’s a drab place, economically depressed, a country in debt, a country that is no more than a satellite of a Continental superpower, a country where independence is all but a fiction, a country with an uncertain future. This is Vichy Britain, the only model the author seems to understand, a country whose cowardly leaders are prepared to hand over some of its citizens to an uncertain fate.
But Vichy was not the only model to hand. In real history there was Finland, an ally of Germany in the war against Russia, but one that preserved its democratic polity and refused to play any part in the Holocaust. Then there is Denmark, the ‘model’ protectorate, a country occupied by the Germans but one that still managed to undermine Nazi policy towards the Jews.
It’s perfectly true, in a world of limitless possibilities, that Samson’s alternate is just as valid as any other alternate, but does it stand up to scrutiny? My alternate is that if Britain had exited the war in 1940, instead of 1945, it would not have accumulated the massive debts, particularly to America, that so crippled its post-war economic performance.
Even in Sansom’s world the country would surely have done much better. There is no objective reason why it should have been so poor. Although allied to Germany, it was not involved in the war with Russia. Why on earth would the Germans have erected tariff barriers against British produce when such produce, particularly in armaments, would have been vital for the continuing campaign in the east? Sansom’s model makes no logical sense.
The truth is that Sansom’s depiction of a sad, indebted, economically and politically dependant nation is far closer to our contemporary political realities; a grubby Britain, a country increasingly uncertain of itself, a country falling to bits, a country tied to the European Union, an organisation the author clearly approves of.
The Historical Note, incidentally, which starts off objectively enough, ends up as a carpet-chewing rant against nationalism in general and – would you believe it? – Scottish nationalism in particular! Nationalism and patriotism, in Sansom’s view, are close kin to fascism. We are back in the mental world of those 1930s intellectuals who, when it came to understanding fascism, understood exactly nothing
I’ve tried your patience too far. The historical stuff may be of no interest at all to you. You have one question only: what of the novel, what of the story; is it any good? Yes, well, it is in part, now and again a bit of a page turner. Ignore the political manipulation – unfortunately I can’t - and you might actually enjoy it. The problem is that it is overlong and repetitive. More than that, the whole superstructure rests on an astonishingly weak base. The core plot device, the heart of the story, is as weak as marshmallow.
It centres on one Frank Muncaster, a geologist, who has learned a ‘dreadful secret’ that turns out to be no secret at all. I’m not going to tell you what the ‘dreadful secret’ is, simply that the Germans are anxious to find out, though what earthly good it could have done them is anybody’s guess. Muncaster learns his ‘dreadful secret’ from his physicist brother, who happens to be working with the Americans. In the contretemps that follows, the said brother is pushed out of the window of Muncaster’s flat, while he proceeds to wreck the place (why?), all the time shouting about the end of the world.
It turns out that Muncaster is the sort of fellow that a goose would say boo to, so his actions, to say the least, are just a tad out of character. But on his hissy fit all else follows; the Gestapo follow, the British fascist police follow, the British resistance follow; Churchill himself follows. Quick, let’s find Frank; our war in Russia depends on his ‘dreadful secret.’ Quick, let’s find Frank; let’s discover the ‘dreadful secret’ or get him away safely to America.
I’m really trying not to laugh as I write this, but there is so much in Dominion that is laughable; the lost and found chase through a thick London fog, Keystone Cops-style, is particularly funny. Poor Muncaster, freed from a loony bin, is aided by an assortment of individuals – David Fitzgerald, a civil servant and member of the resistance who befriended the forlorn chap (oh, just how many times do we heed to be reminded of his rictus smile?!) while they were at Oxford together. He is aided by Ben, a nurse at a lunatic asylum and a homosexual Scottish communist, also a member of the resistance, ye ken. He is aided by, of all organisations, the Fire Brigade, an organisation with impeccable left-wing credentials, which rides to the rescue through the fog!
And so it goes on, from high tension to low comedy, a series of increasingly implausible encounters. The scene on the beach below Rottingdean on the Suffolk coast takes verisimilitude to the Senate House, the SS headquarters in London, and tortures it out of existence. In the end Frank takes himself and the ‘dreadful secret’ into oblivion, an action, if taken earlier, that would have saved several hundred wearisome pages.
As a novel Dominion is real boys’ own stuff, difficult even for boys to swallow. In almost 570 pages of text the only believable character, the only character with any real human depth, is the world-weary Gunther Hoth, the Gestapo agent on Muncaster’s tail. There would seem to me to be a spot of plagiarism here, for he is simply a more ideologically committed dimension of Xavier March, the detective from Robert Harris’ Fatherland.
Dominion is based on a bogus historical premise; it’s based on the character assassination of real people. As a novel it’s too long, it’s repetitive, the characterisations are weak, the encounters unbelievable, the narrative plodding, as thick at point as the London fog and the fog in the author’s mind.
Samson does not write badly; he just doesn’t write very well. If he were not already Mister Shardlake I am convinced that this book would have gathered rejection slips rather than accolades from the likes of the Guardian and the Independent. Quite frankly, it’s a shallow and immature book, no more than a vehicle for the writer’s political prejudices. If you like alternate history and political thrillers go to Fatherland instead. It’s infinitely superior.