by Christopher Priest,
Gollancz 2017 (2016)
“Home is the sailor, home from the sea”
— from ‘Requiem’ by Robert Louis Stevenson
In many ways a genre-crossing novel, The Gradual exhibits the kind of features I have now come to expect of Christopher Priest’s books, a sense of viewing reality in a distorting mirror — solitary or alienated protagonists — a planetary romance blending aspects of science fiction with the kind of magic we associate with fantasy — allusions and illusions that create dream-like images and sequences.
Above all there is his literary sleight of hand which seems to be part of his trademark style, consisting of a bit of mystification assisted by misdirection. He is kind enough however to reveal to his reader sufficient clues for them to partly work out what’s going on, only to then introduce a plot twist which turns the tables on us.
The Gradual is the testament of one Alesandro Sussken, composer and musician on a world simultaneously similar to but yet completely different from ours. And just as a music composition is an unfolding in time of a sequence of sounds, so Priest’s novel too is about sounds, and time, and even space.
The author set some of the action of previous novels in his Dream Archipelago — The Islanders and The Dream Archipelago, for example, and The Adjacent (the only one I’ve read of these so far). But this novel starts during a bitter war on the mainland between the Glaund Republic and Faiandland. Alesandro grows up with his elder brother Jacj and parents in the Glaund city of Errest forever under the intermittent threat of shelling. After some years a ceasefire takes place, and a proxy war begins in the southern continent of Sudmaieure; Sandro’s brother is drafted into the army and Sandro himself pursues a career in classical music, performing in the capital Glaund City and developing as a composer.
So far this is all redolent of recent or current conflicts in our world — Syria for example, or the Ukraine — with the totalitarian Glaund Republic somewhat like Russia, or its satellites, its client states. But this is not our world, however much we may see echoes in names, in politics, in climate: this is a world with a northern land mass, a southern continent and an archipelago girdling the equator and the tropics, but it is also a world where time behaves in a very odd fashion, a world in which adepts and other sensitives not only experience it differently but interpret it, responding in creative ways and even manipulating temporal reality.
A major key to the novel comes in the multivalent title, simultaneously a musical term, an oblique reference to a physical object and a description of the tempo of passing time. In the Latin mass the gradual is a prayer sung or spoken on the steps of the altar, deriving from the Latin gradus, meaning a step or rung and, in the sense of ‘grade’, rank or position. When something is ‘gradual’ then it is done step by step or incrementally. In chapter 55 Sandro realises that the term he constantly hears in the islands — the ‘gradual’ — equals the gradients of time.
This bundle of gradual associations continually surfaces in the novel, but it’s not the only one. Another is the sea voyage, and here I’m reminded by Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘Requiem’ written on his final destination, the island of Samoa. Here was another creative type who, for his health and peace of mind, sought peace and solace in an equatorial Pacific island, much as Alesandro attempts to do, “under the wide and starry sky” instead of in the polluted haze of a dismal industrial country and beneath the heel of a repressive regime.
But there the similarity ends: the disconnect between Sandro’s life in Glaund and the musical tour he joins is more than a simple contrast between the wintry republic and balmy island hopping — he seems to have lost a significant amount of time unaccounted for by a few weeks of travelling by ferry, which costs him very dear in terms of family and relationships. When an unwelcome musical commission is forced on him many years later he looks to escape to the paradise he remembers. Will he ever return to his home — home from the sea — and the life he used to know?
I very much admired this novel, not least for the musical aspects and what constitutes the wellspring of creative inspiration. In this first-person narrative we see everything through Sandro’s eyes, we too go through his confusion, his disappointments, his successes; we learn about the republican junta and adepts, his search for lasting relationships and the nature of detriment and increment; and we puzzle at the seeming somnolence and lack of curiosity of so many people in this odd world where the anomalies, which the reader can clearly see, are concerned.
To conclude let me mention a symbol of the novel’s multivalency, the wooden staff which Sandro is given to travel around the islands. On this staff — properly a stave — mysterious lines are scored by individuals later identified as adepts. To the words stave and score my training in classical music immediately adds the image of a conductor’s baton, and in truth the scored stave in visual terms closely resembles this tempo indicator.
But when we consider the adepts whom Sandro encounters (and later associates with) the additional image of a magician’s wand also suggests itself. With these beguiling concepts Priest intones his spell over the susceptible reader.
A read for #SciFiMonth