Owen Sheers Resistance
Faber and Faber 2008 (2007)
‘What is it?’ she asked.
Albrecht’s voice came from behind her, out of the darkness. ‘The world,’ he said. ‘Or at least an idea of it.’
Maps and journeys dominate this novel. Historic maps of the medieval world. A route across southern England. The cul-de-sac that is an isolated valley in the Welsh Marches. The pathways of human memories. The unmapped future when one steps off the end of the known world. The past as it might have been if history had taken a different direction.
All fictions could be said to be alternative histories, in that they describe people who may not have existed and events that may never have happened in our own physical world. Resistance however sits firmly in the alternate history genre given that it envisages what might have happened if Nazi Germany had finally triumphed; it’s a popular theme, explored for example in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Sheers’ novel Hitler’s armies have seen success both on the Eastern Front and in Western Europe, and have begun their successful invasion of Britain in autumn 1944. The novel’s action focuses on the Olchon valley, an isolated location north of Abergavenny, and it is here that a group of German soldiers are sent on a clandestine mission by Himmler and where they mysteriously encounter an all-female community.
Foregrounded are the German officer, Albrecht Wolfram, and Sarah Lewis, the farmer abandoned by her husband Tom; the latter, we surmise, has joined a covert Auxiliary Unit manned by insurgents — as the Germans call them — to maintain resistance against the occupiers. Sarah and the other women (Maggie, Mary, Menna and Bethan) are completely in the dark as to why their men have left, but with winter approaching they have no choice but to get on as best they can with the demands of hill farming. It comes as a complete shock when Captain Wolfram and his men appear. What do they want, and why are they here?
Sheers explores in great subtlety the relationships between the soldiery and the women. In particular Albrecht, a former scholar, and Sarah, who left school early, find they have more in common than they expected — missing loves, similar sensibilities, a respect for literature, and a recognition of their shared humanity. Against their relationships there is, mixed in with some reluctant toleration and socialising, a background of suspicion, distrust and fear in the wider community; and of attempts to restore some normality being punctuated by savage acts of reprisal.
Invisibly binding foreground and background like threads in a tapestry are more abstract themes. Albrecht’s surname reflects the tribute paid to the medieval poet Wolfram von Eschenbach: Wolfram is best known as the author of Parzival, the story of Sir Perceval’s quest for the holy grail. In the late 13th-century Hereford Mappa Mundi, which looms large but mostly hidden in these pages, the quest theme is also strongly represented: illustrated prominently are Jerusalem as the centre of Christian pilgrimage and Crete’s labyrinth as symbolic of the classical quest. The search for a special relic to take back to Himmler’s parody of Camelot, the Wewelsburg Castle, is in fact just one of many Arthurian themes in this novel; another is Sarah’s childhood remembrance of Welsh artist and poet David Jones who had enthralled her with tales of Arthur and of the spirit of a king within the mountains. (This latter may be the medieval hero Owain Lawgoch rather than King Arthur, however, as Owen Sheers the poet will have known.)
Borders and margins are everywhere: in the Welsh Marches; Offa’s Dyke itself — built to separate the Mercian Angles from their Cambrian neighbours — running on the ridge above the valley named from a river with a Welsh name; in the sheep farmers, conscious of their Brythonic heritage but geographically resident in England’s Herefordshire. More intangible are the understandable barriers between Albrecht’s men and the valley women, and those between the locals at the Llanthony Show and poor shunned Maggie.
I very much admired the author’s recreation of life in the Welsh hills, the minutiae of exacting tasks combined with isolation and with the usual anxieties accompanying subsistence farming. This slow pace of life is beautifully echoed in the pace of the narrative as we move through the rural year, from autumn to summer. Violence is never dwelt on, and rarely visceral; while there is always a constant sense of menace and of the world turning inexorably, the shocks are few but telling.
The final violent deed, done by somebody we might least expect, is to me narratively speaking exactly right; it symbolically crosses the border between wartime uncertainty and a hopeful future, with the object itself a gateway to be utterly destroyed so as to allow stasis to be overcome. The genius loci is thus summoned from his cave, the final crossing of the ridge over which Offa’s Dyke runs an escape from the perils of No Man’s Land. The hand of the poet, I feel, is evident everywhere in this wonderful novel; it’s a healthy way to respond to the horrors of war and conflict and to exalt the human spirit.
In the 2015 Reading Challenge I decided this would count as a book set in my hometown. Strictly speaking the events in this novel mostly take place in one of the valleys of the Black Mountains just a handful of miles north of the small town I now live in, but I don’t feel this is stretching things too far!