Authors: Christopher Priest
Also Available from Titan Books
Print edition ISBN: 9781785653032
E-book edition ISBN: 9781785653049
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First edition: September 2016
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Christopher Priest asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
Copyright © 2016 Christopher Priest
First Published by the Orion Publishing Group, London, 2016
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To Conrad Williams
I grew up in a world of music, in a time of war. The latter interfered with the former. After I became an adult, a composer, many pieces of my music were stolen, copied or rehashed by a plagiarist. I lost my brother, my wife and my parents, I became a criminal and a fugitive, I travelled among islands, I discovered the gradual. Everything affected everything else, but music was the balm, the constant.
When I went in pursuit of my tormentor, I became an inadvertent traveller in time.
Time is a gradual process – like ageing, you do not notice it happening.
I was blessed with musical talent, so I never seriously questioned where my future might lie, but the war which dominated my childhood gave a pressing urgency to other things.
Survival was of course a preoccupation, but we, my parents and brother and I, had to eat and drink, had to sleep and learn, had to take shelter more times than we liked, had to become concerned if people we knew were harmed by the war. Both my parents, their careers interrupted when the bombing of civilians began, had found alternative work, but because of the occasional raids what they were able to do had to be intermittent. Neither of them could make enough money to support the whole family. They came and went to their work, and I developed the ability to think for myself, to look out for myself.
There was nothing I could do about the war, but you accept the world you are born into, at least at first. I was born into a musical family, and my talent was prodigious. I took naturally to various instruments as I grew up, uniquely gifted. By the time I was ten years old I could play the guitar and the recorder, but I was accomplished on piano and violin and I had written my first compositions. I am rarely boastful about myself, so I write this in a factual way. Since becoming an adult I have established myself as a well-known composer of modernist classical music. My name is Alesandro Sussken.
Before the air raids started in earnest my father was first violin with the Errest Philharmonia, the principal orchestra in the region where we lived. He had a growing reputation as a virtuoso soloist. The orchestra was disbanded when the bombing worsened and my father had to find what work he could as a teacher. My mother too, who had been a principal singer with a touring opera company, had to take in students. It was not easy for either of them.
Then there was my brother Jacj, four years older than me, who was approaching the age of military draft.
Jacj was also a violinist and a good one, but he remained an amateur and began studying law. His studies were interrupted when the war intensified. I knew that Jacj was fiercely opposed to violence of any kind, and that he intended, if he could manage to avoid the draft, to qualify in international law.
As I grew up and first became aware of the complexity of his problems I realized he was torn several ways: by his music, his devotion to our parents, his concerns about the legality of war, and, of course, the impending draft which would wreck all his plans. Most boys of his age appeared to be fatalistic about military service, postponing their plans for future lives until the days of soldiering were over. Jacj was not like that and in a way neither was I. Music to a musician is a part of life. It has no options or alternatives.
Music and bombing. These were the two main events of my childhood, running through it from the time of my first awareness until I left school. The enemy, which we all knew was the neighbouring country Faiandland, was firing rockets and sending pilotless bombers against us. Although the raids were never intensive, the bombs hit factories, military installations, houses, schools and hospitals at random. If our side was doing the same in retaliation I never heard about it.
War involves secrecy and a vague but powerful sense of patriotism. The two become mysteriously, inextricably linked. The news and information about the war, which no doubt was controlled and certainly censored by the military junta in Glaund City, was always positive, triumphant, brave. However, I also learned, if not through my teachers, that this country in which I had been born, the Republic of Glaund, had a violent history, a sorry record of disputes with neighbouring countries.
Whatever the reality, and whoever it was who might be thought of as the aggressors, no civilian was safe from attack. At frequent if irregular intervals our lives were disrupted by the sounding of alarms. The town I lived in, Errest, was a provincial industrial city, not the main target for the enemy but because of the huge steelworks on the edge of the city we received more unwanted violent attention than many places. Errest was on the coast but had no port, just a small harbour, but even so that also probably drew in the enemy. The capital city suffered worst, but it was a long way to the west of us and there was a persistent assumption in Errest that any raids were a mistake or a miscalculation. Assumption or not, the bombing continued for the duration of that phase of the war.
In fact, my family and I came through the war relatively unscathed, compared with thousands of other people. Our house suffered damage along with everybody else’s, but it was mostly superficial. We lost part of the roof in one raid and several windows were broken at other times. The house was solidly built and it had a deep cellar where we kept our most valued possessions and where we took refuge whenever the alarm sounded. Overall, our neighbourhood was comparatively undamaged by the shells and bombs, while the heaviest bombing occurred closer to the centre of the town. One of the earliest buildings in Errest to be destroyed was the Industrial Palace, the great and beautiful complex of concert halls and auditoria. My father had regularly played in orchestral performances in the Palace before the bombing.
Like all children I lived in two worlds: the outer reality, which was sometimes grim or frightening or depressing, but mostly was simply ordinary, and the inner world of dreams and the imagination. Here, in the privacy of the mind, stimulated and enlivened by the making of music, I dwelt as long as possible each day. Some of the music I heard was of course practical, actual – the long hours of learning and practising, the sounds of my parents and brother playing on their own instruments, the repeated playing of the gramophone records we had – but much of it was a stream of imagined music, welling up somehow from my unconscious mind.
I describe the outer world as ordinary, and so it was for me. I knew nothing else, so I assumed that life in Errest, or even anywhere else in Glaund, was as it should be, as it was known to be. What I then considered to be ordinary was a town which I now realize had originally been a tiny fishing village, but which before I was born had been developed and expanded to become the site of several large engineering factories, and above all the steelworks on the other side of town. This expansion had begun about a hundred years earlier when substantial iron ore deposits were discovered in hilly country not far away. Necessary communications with the rest of the country meant that new roads and railways were built. Errest became a town of dark and dirty factories, a grim environment of poor housing for the workers, a source of the spillage of much disgusting effluent into our only small river, and the instigator of an almost perpetual pall of chemical-laden smoke or fog.
However, state-run heavy industry inevitably brought wealth to the town and by the time I was born Errest was renowned as a centre for the arts. One of the largest art galleries in the Glaund Republic was situated in Errest, with several satellite galleries in other towns in the region. And then there was the Industrial Palace, which incorporated two theatres, three concert halls of different sizes, several well-equipped workshop areas, a huge sports facility, a lending library, a recording studio, two restaurants. Errest was regarded by many of the people in our country as a showpiece town, a monument to industrialization and profit. Naturally, it became an early target for Faiandland’s drones and self-guided rockets.
Between the raids – and sometimes weeks and months free of bombs went by in false seasons of hope – I practised on my violin and my parents’ piano. I was becoming primarily a violinist, but increasingly I went to the piano when I wanted to write down some of the tunes and harmonies I could hear resounding in my mind.
I joined a local youth orchestra as third or fourth violinist (the actual position depended on who else turned up for each rehearsal or session), and there was a local social club where young musicians were traditionally welcomed on some nights of the week. Jacj and I went along whenever it was possible, discovering folk songs and popular dances, repetitive reels, played with drums and concertinas, fast, loud and long. We enjoyed this relaxed kind of fiddling so much that we both began to let our classical practice fall into inaction – my father soon put a stop to that when he found out what was happening. Afterwards, visits to the club were strictly rationed.