Re-approaching Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelations makes for an even more disturbing read now, than in 2000 when it was released. The story of a male dancer who is kidnapped by three women, who use and abuse him sexually, was brilliant and uncomfortable back then, but with the iconography of Abu Ghraib in mind it seems ever more real. “The fact that you even bring up Abu Ghraib proves a point that I’m always making,” remarks Thomson, author of novels such as Divided Kingdom, Soft, and The Insult. “None of my books are set in parallel worlds – though critics frequently describe them as exactly that. The worlds in which I set my fiction are all around you, if only you look carefully enough.”
His latest novel, Divided Kingdom, presents a dystopian Britain, divided into four sectors separated by barbed wire and guard towers. The society is divided, not along racial, national, or political lines, but rather based on psychological outlook, or rather the concept of humours: the sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. It’s a strange and inventive choice. The utopian/dystopian novel has traditionally been set in the future, and has resorted to science fiction style invention. “Divided Kingdom is far more concerned with the past than the future,” explains the British born author, “far more concerned with history than with science. This was an inevitable consequence of becoming interested in the medieval humours. I never intended the book to be futuristic; I wouldn’t have been comfortable with the idea of science fiction. I liked the fact that a government involved in a piece of radical social engineering might look to the past for its inspiration. There was something so believable, or even human, about that – we always seem to think that things are worse now than they used to be – but it was also perverse. The idea that a government could reject progress so utterly seemed to contain within it the seeds of something unpredictable and quite possibly malignant… Once the kingdom had been re-defined in that way, its various component parts could develop at different speeds and with different priorities. Choleric people would embrace every aspect of modern technology, for instance, whereas sanguine people would select only those aspects that suited them. Part of the fascination of the book, I hope, is to watch how the groups go about redefining themselves. They are all reacting to absence and loss. The present has been removed, and must be replaced.”
Re-affirming that the Divided Kingdom in question is an alternative Britain, and not some futuristic world, is the inclusion of a map showing the geographical division of Britain according to Thomson’s fictional system. It’s something he was in two minds about: “On the one hand, I thought the book could stand on its own without them, and that to include them might suggest some kind of weakness in the vision. On the other hand, I know readers love maps. I looked at other novels that dealt with created worlds, and it didn’t really help. Gulliver’s Travels had maps. The Unusual Life of Tristram Smith by Peter Carey had maps. Continent by Jim Crace didn’t have maps.” There is a vivid sense of location in the book, maps or no maps: “I would have felt as if I was cheating the reader if I hadn’t fully imagined the new geographical reality. Not that I drew up every single border – but in London it was important to have a fairly precise idea of where they were. I know that the border between the Red Quarter and the Blue Quarter runs down Park Lane, for instance, and that the Dorchester Hotel, if it was still standing, would be facing the wall. I know that the border between the Red Quarter and the Yellow Quarter runs through Trafalgar Square (there is a reference to Nelson peering out, one-eyed, over a tangle of barbed wire) and on over Hungerford Bridge. It was also fascinating to work out which part of the country suited which humour. Given their spiritual bias, it was clear to me that the phlegmatics should have the south-west of England, for instance – Glastonbury, Tintagel etc – and that their portion of London would have to include the Serpentine and Little Venice, since their principal defining element was water. Sometimes I would set a scene in a certain landscape without being sure whether it actually existed, and I would have to get into my car and go and look for it. I found The Wanings to the north-east of Carlisle. I found the Church of Heaven on Earth in the Isle of Purbeck. In short, there isn’t a location in Divided Kingdom that doesn’t correspond to a real place in the United Kingdom.”
While the geography may be concrete, Thomson’s narrator has a voice that is anything but. Taken as a child from his parents as part of the great ‘rearrangement’, Thomas grows up in the Sanguine red kingdom. His narratorial voice suggests a detached observer of himself. He is constantly noting, with surprise, his own reactions to events and people. “Exactly,” agrees Thomson, “Thomas is an artificial construct. He has been given a new family, a new character. He has even been given a new name. He is someone who has been created by the State, and he is a microcosm of that State. One of the central dynamics of the book is Thomas’s various attempts to work out the difference between what he used to be and what he has become. The trouble is, the previous version of himself only lasted eight or nine years, and never developed into anything concrete or mature. What he is trying to discover is something that is unformed – a potential. At times, he almost loses himself in the gap between the two. There comes a point, then, when he realises that this particular aspect of his quest is limited, and he abandons it.” Achieving the right tone, for Thomas’s voice was problematic: “Thomas buys into his new identity, but the action of the book only serves to weaken him. The danger was that he would sound lifeless, almost neutral – and yet the tone of voice had to be dispassionate. He may be taking himself apart to see what is there, but obviously he has to protect himself at the same time. He cannot operate without a safety net.”
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