Playful Games with Reality: Christopher Priest’s “The Islanders”

TO GET SOME UNDERSTANDING of the Dream Archipelago, it is perhaps worth noting that the Torquis island group can be found at the coordinates 44oN – 49oN and 23oW – 27oW, while the Torquils island group is located at 23oS – 27oS and 44oE – 49oE. There is also an island group known as the Torquins — though, since nobody has visited this group, it may not exist.

If that suggests that the Dream Archipelago is geographically and ontologically uncertain, a place where reality itself is unreliable, then you have come some way to understanding the playful undermining of our certainties that is the overwhelming characteristic of Christopher Priest’s latest fiction, which recently won the British Science Fiction Association’s award for best novel of 2011. Though to call the book a novel is only to use the least unreliable of any number of terms that could be applied to this complex and ever-shifting work.

When Christopher Priest began writing about the Dream Archipelago in the late-1970s the world-girdling archipelago was clearly an avatar of the Greek islands, which were just then becoming generally affordable for British holidaymakers and had already acquired a reputation for hedonism and sexual licence. This reputation is reflected here, for instance, in the erotomane laws on Torquil. In Priest’s stories, collected in The Dream Archipelago (1999), the Dream Archipelago separated a cold northern continent whose technologically advanced nations were locked in a perpetual war, and a largely uninhabited southern desert continent where this war was mostly fought out. Between the two land masses lies a chain of islands so profuse that no one has a clear idea exactly how many there are. The islands of the Dream Archipelago represent the unease of neutrality, politically, morally, socially, and sexually. They are places of escape, particularly for deserting soldiers, and yet many of them turn into a trap in themselves; they are places of sexual freedom, but the price of such freedom is often death. The sexual allure that constantly draws visitors to the islands has a vicious side; the stories consistently render desire as threatening and generally fatal.

The psychosexual dramas played out in these stories were transformed in what many consider to be Priest’s finest novel, The Affirmation (1980), in which the nature of identity is undermined and reconfigured. The islands become a place not so much of sexual or political liberation as of an escape from oneself, a place for reimagining one’s own identity. At that point he stopped writing about the Dream Archipelago, though there were references to it in The Quiet Woman (1990), and later novels such as The Prestige (1995; the source for Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film) and The Separation (2002; winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award) continued to explore themes previously laid out in those stories. Recently, however, he has returned to the Dream Archipelago in a number of short stories, and now there is another novel.

The Islanders is as different from The Affirmation as it is possible to be and yet still retain that sense of shattered identities, unstable realities, the combination of allure and threat, and above all the willingness to challenge and experiment with our understanding of what is going on. The new novel takes the form of a gazetteer, with entries in alphabetical order describing some 53 of the main islands and island groups in the Dream Archipelago, providing information for the tourist on landscapes, flora and fauna, currency, and the like. The islands, we learn, all have at least two names, and some have more; Muriseay, the largest island in the archipelago and the one that features most often in the stories, is also known as “Red Jungle,” “Threshold of Love,” “Big Island,” and “Yard of Bones,” the names suggestive of the many stories that associate themselves with these islands. We also learn, through this deeper and broader exploration of the archipelago, that they are more than the fantastic substitute for the Greek islands they once were. The events that prove central to the book, for instance, take place at the Teater Sjøkaptein in the town of Omhuuv on the island of Goorn, names suggestive of a colder, more Scandinavian setting. Indeed, in this novel the archipelago comes across, in more senses than one, as a rather chillier place than it did before.

Several entries restrict themselves to basic facts about the islands, but other forms of information start to intrude: there are diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, official reports, memoirs, personal accounts, confessions, and more. Many of these constitute stand-alone short stories, so that at times The Islanders comes across as a collection of separate tales; at times it is like a “fix up,” linked stories that add up to something close to a novel. Then, slowly, we realize that in among the several stories we are being told there is one central mystery to which we keep returning, sometimes directly, sometimes only glancingly. By the end of this intricately structured work, we accept that it is a novel, but a novel unlike any other we have read.

Because of its complex structure, nothing of this central mystery is presented in chronological order or from consistent viewpoints. We are given fragments of a story: our first intimation of the central thread of the tale, for instance, comes in the form of a newspaper report of an old miscarriage of justice. Later comes a student’s first-hand account of a year he spent working in a provincial theatre; another piece reveals, in passing, that the student had concealed his real identity; still another will make mention of a famous mime artist killed on stage in mysterious circumstances. It is up to us to piece all these disparate scraps together to discover what story it is we are being told. And since not every account we read can be telling the truth, we might all come up with a different story depending on which accounts we choose to believe and which we dismiss.

Such a disjointed, achronological structure is nothing new for Priest. His second novel, Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972, revised 2011), opens, in its first paragraph, with a description of the protagonist as the story begins, and in its second paragraph, with a description of the same character as the story ends. Thereafter, the novel moves, seemingly at random, to disparate scenes between these two points. Famously, Priest introduced one discontinuity into the text so that the paragraphs could not simply be rearranged into a coherent chronological whole. I doubt that he has needed to play the same trick this time, if only because there are more than enough reasons for us to doubt and question what we are told.

For instance, the introduction to the gazetteer has been written by Chaster Kammeston, the most famous novelist in the Dream Archipelago. And yet, the book that he introduces includes an account of his death and funeral. So can we really be reading the book that he has introduced? Not only that, but Kammeston turns out to be a central player in the novel’s mystery, and we have to assume that he would not so openly support a work that implicated him in murder.

Nor is this the only incongruity that makes us question the novel. We drift in time just as readily as we meander from island to island; events in one telling seem to be far in the past, in another they are current; characters are long dead in one tale and mingling with figures from a later age in another. Part of this is play; The Islanders is often very funny and contains some of the driest jokes Priest has ever written. Part of it is deadly serious; this is a profound meditation on the nature and unreliability of truth, on belief and trust.

Just as one of the main characters in the novel is the writer Chaster Kammeston, so other recurring figures are artists, but artists whose work tests our sense of reality. There is the sculptress whose work consists of tunnels drilled through islands until they become tuned instruments played by the wind, artwork that has the unfortunate side effect of destabilizing the islands themselves. There is the painter and serial adulterer whose erotic paintings, often withheld from public view, reveal in their detail stories only hinted at elsewhere. There is the up-and-coming novelist who writes, in vain, for advice from Chaster Kammeston and who turns out to be Moylita Kaine, a central figure in the very first Dream Archipelago story (“The Negation,” 1978), and whose own magnum opus is The Affirmation, further blurring the lines about what we can trust. And, of course, there is the mime artist whose death is open to so many explanations, and who seems to have performed as much off stage as on.

Alongside these are other stories, some of which echo earlier tales. The horror of the vampiric creatures enclosed within the ancient towers on Seevl, for instance, recalls the unease generated by “The Miraculous Cairn” (1980). Equally horrific, but new to this volume, are the creatures discovered on the Aubrac Chain. These two stories, involving as they do archaeological and biological expeditions, indicate that alongside the interlinked artistic themes there is a concern with the scientific exploration of the islands, from investigation of the peculiar winds and tides to the social ideas of E.W. Caurer who plays, obliquely, as big a part in this novel as Chaster Kammeston, and as mysterious a part, since she seems to have lived well past her supposed death. The interlinking of these many different strands of story is represented by Esphoven Muy who investigated the winds of the archipelago and who was one of the lovers of the painter Dryd Bathurst, whose standard biography was, in turn, written by Chaster Kammeston. All are drawn together into a complex interweaving of plot and ideas, of playful games with reality and serious challenges to our preconceptions. The result is easily one of the richest and most rewarding novels that Priest has written to date.