It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon here in late August Tottenham, Haringey, London, England, UK, Europe, the world.
I just finished reading the first of the many many novels I bought as a result of reading Joe Darlington’s The Experimentalists. That book is a hugely enjoyable pop academic literary biography of the group of writers hanging out in London in the 60s and 70s, including Ann Quin, BS Johnson & Christine Brooke-Rose.
Of all the writers mentioned in the book who I had never read before, Alan Burns was the one whose oeuvre seemed most exciting to me, in particular this – his second novel (first published in 1965 by Calder) – Europe After The Rain.
This novel is another example of a type (which I’ve encountered recently but I cannot remember where) I would describe as “ambient dystopia”.
This is a novel set somewhere (vague) in Europe after war of some kind. A major cataclysmic, destructive, probably nuclear, definitely genocidal, definitely factional and complicated war that has completely changed the natural, political and geographic landscape of the places where it happened.
Burns’s novel has a nameless narrator-protagonist who is bouncing around various towns and settlements that are no longer militarily contested but very much fraught with the beginnings (and the distant actions) of rebellions, revolutions & the potential for resumption of fighting.
It is a dangerous place and it is never clear from what nation/army/group (if any) the narrator hails, for what nation/army/group he is working, who controls the area he is in and what relationship there exists between those likely three different entities.
In parts of the novel, he is accompanying a young woman, possibly sometimes his lover, who is the daughter of a leader of rebels or perhaps the deposed leader of an army; it’s… all very muddled, but it feels muddled in a very believable and very atmospheric way .
The reason why this novel is particularly affecting, even though in terms of its narrative it is intentionally vague, is because the fears of a post-war dystopia that existed in 1965 are the same as those that exist today.
The situations and the scenarios described by Burns in this text are similar, painfully similar, to everything I know and have read about the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, & to the reports that continue to come out of Ukraine as war continues there.
Even though there are no explicit nuclear explosions or fallout in the novel, the fear of H-bombs and the total devastation that seems to be necessitated if one is wary of a nuclear attack in response to one’s offensive push, seems to have become eternalised since the Cold War.
War is a destructive thing, not a creative thing. This novel mirrors the ways in which malevolent people easily seize power in the chaotic vacuum created by mass slaughter and violence; Europe After the Rain could have been accurately set in any of the non-European parts of the world that America and the UK invaded during the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and so on, and I’m sure whatever the next colonialist war that happens either on these shores or far away will follow a similar pattern.
Because this is what war causes. This is what it does.
Burns’ short but really powerfully evocative novel dramatises the confusion, the instability and the ceaselessness of panic and fear that results from the dramatic cataclysmic trauma of being in a war environment.
I often – to be frank – dislike novels where what’s happening is opaque, where there is a deliberate skewering of clarity, but I really didn’t mind it here at all, because the situation that is being described forces that same experience onto those who experience it.
It is very bleak, very sad and very worrying that nothing has changed and nothing continues to change.
The ways in which wars are fought has, I don’t know, maybe grown more mechanised, but this doesn’t make a difference to the people on the ground, does it? It might be less traumatic for a colonial soldier to kill doctors, nurses, teachers and children using a drone rather than a bayonet, but the thing that matters is the destruction: of lives, of buildings, of livelihoods, of food, of institutional safety nets, of hospitals, of healthcare, of trade networks, of housing, of infrastructure… all of this destruction has the same effect on those it injures as it always used to have.
I thought this novel was brilliant, if I’m being honest, and I would definitely recommend it.
I’m off to start reading another Alan Burns novel right effing now.