A State of Denmark
August 10, 2009
I’ve just finished reading Derek Raymond’s novel A State of Denmark, which I’m afraid I can’t recommend. This is a shame though, as the novel, which was written in the 1960s, is the kind of book that you feel you should like – dealing with the struggle of the individual against faceless tyranny, which manipulates ideology to service its totalitarian ends. That I’ve come across it in a Britain which is undoubtedly suffering a marked erosion in historic civil liberties (and where the government has undoubtedly widely tortured terrorist suspects beyond anything conjoured by Raymond’s imagination), makes this doubly disappointing.
The book follows the story of Richard Watt, a British journalist who is making a living on a Tuscan hill farm, growing olives and making wine. He is an exile, although we gradually learn from what, or whom, and we learn a little about the richness of his agrarian lifestyle, the people around him and the contrast – rather clumsily drawn – between the Britain of Watt’s memory, and the Tuscany of his present. That’s all turned upside down, however, and not to give too much away, when an emissary from the British state arrives to tell him that he will have to return to face vaguely framed charges (trumped up tax irregularities).
Watt then has to make his way back to Britain, which has become a crumbling, dreary dictatorship, where he is interned and gradually drifts into lassitude, pining for his wife and then… Well, then he’s killed by the state somewhat duplicitously, in a well judged finale. It’s surely not too rude to tell you that, as I’m not recommending the book, and that really is one of the best sections, evoking the horror of Brazil’s clinical ending, or the Lodovico treatment in A Clockwork Orange.
Yet Raymond was no Burgess, or indeed no Gilliam. His touch is always clumsy and his grasp of how to link Watt’s personal trajectory with the decline of British democracy is threadbare. We never learn how Britain has slipped into a pretty comprehensive tyranny seemingly overnight (people just gave up apparently). We don’t learn a great deal about why the physical decline of the country is so swift, and why the dictatorship can summon up great public resources to discipline private thought, yet none to maintain the lineaments of a working infrastructure That’s despite its focus being a “New Pace” – vaguely socialist in presentation, working to enforce unity at the expense of all individual initiative.
So Raymond mis-steps here. The historical record of dictatorship is hardly uniformly dire in physical upkeep. The Nazis could build enormous highways and Mussolini proverbially got the trains to run on time, despite claiming no democratic mandate. I say this not to exculpate tyrants, but to criticize Raymond’s thought process in framing the novel’s idea of tyranny. He utterly fails to make the experience of dictatorship believable. His characters are almost uniformly shallow and often cartoonish, or at times awfully twee (the relationship between Watt and his girlfriend Magda being particularly insufferable). The contrast between sunny, hard-working and independent Tuscany and dour, repressed Britain is equally insubstantial. It all seems like a teenage riff on 1984, with none of the imagination brought to bear by Orwell on the possibilities inherent in technology to enhance the power of would be tyrants.
Depressingly, the book is sold by Serpent’s Tail as some sort of anticipation of Thatcherism and Blairism – the manipulation of the media in particular, but Raymond doesn’t really describe how Jobling gained control over the media, or why the media gave him such an easy time. We just find out that before Jobling rose to power, Watt tried to expose him, while afterwards Jobling closed every paper except for the English Times. Again, this is hopelessly implausible in the British context. The kind of tyranny imposed by a media dominated by narrow corporate interests or the sort of political duplicity cultivated so spectacularly by New Labour’s spinning legions, seems to be off Raymond’s imaginative radar.
All of this detracts from his book, which is a period piece, and nothing more. It seems that some magazines have rapturously received the re-release of A State of Denmark (“Alternative science fiction on the scale of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four” says Q, while Time Out calls it “a fascinating and important novel by one of our best writers in or outside of any genre). I can’t understand why.
We know that tyranny is detestable and that curtailments of civil liberties must be fought, but we know less of how states become repressive and why this is tolerated. 1984 provides some illumination on this point, but A State of Denmark is by comparison as informative as 250 random pages from a Jilly Cooper novel.