A Hurtling Power-Dive Into Oblivion
Derek Raymond didn’t just write about crime; he did something about it.
Born to a wealthy London family and raised in the countryside near Kent, Raymond (born Robert Cook) showed a gift for downward mobility as soon as he left Eton: unable to stand the pressure of working for the family business, he joined the Army, but was unsuited for anything more critical than cleaning toilets. He returned to the city and rebelled against his upbringing as violently as possible; he not only left high society behind, he abdicated society altogether, becoming a professional lowlife and a smooth criminal. Smuggling was his specialty, but he dabbled in pornography, fraud, forgery, insurance scams, theft, and everything else that was illegal and profitable. It was after a particularly brutal interrogation by the Dutch authorities in connection to an art scam that he finally backed away from his life of crime, but he never quite abandoned it: he simply started writing about it instead of living it. By the time he died in 1994, a rail-thin reduction of his former self laid low by a lifetime of chain smoking, he’d established himself — with books like The Crust on Its Uppers, He Died with His Eyes Open, How the Dead Live, and the electrifying I Was Dora Suarez — as the father of the British noir novel and its greatest practitioner.
Long before the so-called “Factory Series” that established him as England’s master of downbeat crime drama, though, the wrote what may well be his most atypical, and yet one of his most intriguing, novels: 1964’s A State of Denmark. Released, like many of his early works, years later under the pen name Robin Cook (which he employed until the emergence of the best-selling American novelist of the same name in the ’70s), it differs from his other work under that pseudonym in that it was neither a crime novel or a subversive work of class disruption. It is, instead, a work of science fiction, a near-future dystopia that functions as both a psychological thriller and a meditation on the nature of political power and the abuses and tragedies of authoritarianism. Out of print for decades, it was re-released by Serpent’s Tail as part of their Mask Noir crime imprint immediately following Raymond’s death, and in 2007, it came out in a deluxe edition from the same publisher.
Although it fits oddly with the rest of Raymond’s work, it is out of character only in its subject matter, not in its style. It’s written with the same combination of highly literate observation and tone and perfectly heard street dialogue that marks all the rest of his books, and while it bogs itself down a bit, by necessity, into the exposition demanded from any work of the unreal, it’s firmly rooted in the contemporary that it uses an imaginary world to deepen the shadows of the real one. It’s not without precedent in Raymond’s life, either; its theme of a sometimes unwisely subversive journalist who speaks truth to power until it cuts him off at the knees is drawn from his own past. Despite the many nefarious deeds of his youth, the first time he saw the inside of a jail cell was when he was slumming about in Spain and drunkenly bad-mouthed the regime of Francisco Franco. Dragged out of the bar and ill-treated by the Spanish police, Raymond never forgot the experience, and there are many passages in A State of Denmark that ooze with contempt for the petty brutality for the men who form the lowest level of the pyramid of oppression.
A State of Denmark is obviously influenced by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, to such a degree that it might be called a remake. It appeared at a point almost halfway between when Orwell’s novel was written and when it took place, and while the structure of Raymond’s book diverges somewhat (the first half is entirely different from Orwell’s masterpiece, while the second half is nearly identical), its greatest variances are in tone and mood. Nineteen Eighty-Four was written just after a devastating global war, in which the fight for freedom had horrifically costly consequences and state power had shown itself capable of the most terrifying dehumanization of its subjects; A State of Denmark was written when the clash of titans had curdled into shabby proxy wars, the Cold War had become as much a show as a genuine conflict, and citizens on both sides of the Iron Curtain were becoming susceptible to all sorts of nonsensical propaganda, whether from official state organs or the popular press. The latter book, then, is much more sneeringly cynical and much less forgiving. Fear of the state and its brutality drive the men and women of Orwell’s Oceania to collaborate with Big Brother’s lies and abuses, but Raymond’s England — while not free of police violence — is populated by millions all too willing to put up with authoritarian rule in exchange for petty class favors and a cheery word from the papers. Winston Smith believed that if there was hope, it lay with the proles; for Richard Watt, there is no hope anywhere.
Watt is the protagonist of A State of Denmark, and as it begins, he would seem to safe from the totalitarian horrors of England under Jobling, a pocket Hitler who has used a melange of fascist populism, economic austerity, and ethnic cleansing to bring the country under his rule. Watt’s life is safe, if not entirely secure, as he lives in exile in a small Italian mountain town with his common-law wife Magda. But what at first seems to be an idyllic life proves to be alarmingly tenuous; Watt makes his living operating a vineyard, and his ability to survive is entirely at the mercy of the often-unforgiving elements. These early passages of the novel are among the best; written in a decorated but effective social-realist manner, they quite strikingly portray the struggles of a man of unlimited freedom but limited resources, and the strain that can be put on a relationship between two people whose love for one another is unquestionable, but who are under the constant pressure exerted by economic and social factors. Watt, who fled England after having humiliated the dictator Jobling in an interview before he took power, enjoys a warm relationship with the local authorities in Italy, but they too are subject to pressure from above, as troublesome intricacies of the law, as well as diplomatic pressure from England, conspire to make his position untenable. Though he tries to live in the moment, trouble on the farm and his inability to put the troubles of his homeland out of his mind haunt him constantly. It doesn’t help that he lives among Italians who can remember all too well the devastation fascism brought to their own country; in one of the book’s most memorable sections, one of his neighbors recalls the rise and fall of a strutting teenage blackshirt, which illustrates the destructive effect of fascism by both the oppressor and those who resist them.
The middle passage of the book is the most problematic, and the one that arguably keeps it from being counted as one of Raymond’s greats; its lengthy and often tedious Socratic-dialogue-style conversations between Watt and an old colleague are probably necessary to deliver the needed exposition about England under Jobling, but that doesn’t stop them from being extremely clunky. Raymond’s a-curse-on-all-your-houses attitude isn’t very politically pointed; advocating for any one position might well have sunk the section even further, but it’s hard to reconcile Watt’s presentation as a firebrand journalist with his unsophisticated political sensibilities. While this transitional period of the book might turn some readers off of A State of Denmark entirely, that would be a great loss, because what follows is a masterpiece of despair.
The book’s final section finds Watt returning to England, with a combined air of resistance and inevitability. From here the story will follow with a great deal of fidelity the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, with two critical differences that make for an equally compelling psychological portrait: first, while O’Brien’s dismantling of Winston Smith, while it had its individualist aspects, was meant as a stand-in for the way Big Brother’s regime would treat anyone to maintain order, Jobling’s hatred of Watt could not be more personal. The state terror of Orwell’s book made the inhuman behavior of the government terrifyingly abstract, almost divine; the deeply personal hatred of Jobling for Watt in A State of Denmark makes his power structure seem shakier, but its instruments are no less terrifying and they gain the salty, bloody flavor of vengeance, making them more livid and immediate than the gray eternity of punishment that is Airstrip One. Second, while Winston Smith is more or less resigned to his doom from the very beginning of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Richard Watt is more of a hardboiled character, all determination and defiance. He hisses, spits, and bristles, luring us into the comfortable thought that sheer willpower and bloody-minded resistance alone might be enough to tear down the towers of the police state; but, of course, they are not enough, and it makes Watt’s inevitable destruction all the more tragic and bleak.
A State of Denmark lacks the philosophical depth and universal elegance of Nineteen Eighty-Four; its author is clearly out of his depth writing in such a different setting, and the transition between the very different first and third parts of the book is a very rocky one indeed. But the prose is strong, the characters are believable and powerful, the descriptive passages contain moments of rare beauty, and Raymond never once relinquishes his shocking grasp of street language. The dialogue is as good as you’ll find in any noir novel, with the same distinctive blend of realism and gutter eloquence (there’s a passage where Watt threatens a low-level government functionary by hissing “Just try me, cockstruck; you won’t pick yourself up as a heap of hairpins” — and that’s just one of dozens of memorable turns of phrase). And the story, while it wears its influence so far down its sleeve that it might as well be a wristwatch, takes some original turns that give it a true psychological depth without losing sight of its darkly pessimistic worldview. In the fantasy of A State of Denmark as in the reality of human society, the systematic control by the state of human freedom and potential can never be measured in anything but units of loss.