Two writers take on a tale of exile, personal tragedy and literary friendship in a stirring reimagining of the political novel
One of the US’s largest overseas military bases lies in the Indian Ocean on Diego Garcia in the Chagos Islands. How that came to pass is murky, to say the least. The islands were once part of Mauritius, a British colony until 1968. Knowing the US wanted a base there, Britain made independence conditional on retaining Chagos, which it promptly leased to the US in exchange for cut-price nuclear submarines. None of this came before parliament or Congress – or the Chagossians, who over the next five years were removed from the islands by subterfuge and force, barred from returning to live there.
If ever there were a subject for a protest novel… Yet the concept of political fiction is just one of many things complicated by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams’s wonderful new book. Opening in 2014, it follows two Edinburgh-based writers, Damaris, who is British-Mauritian (like Soobramanien), and Oliver, who is Scottish (like Williams). The story turns on their encounter with Diego, a garrulous Mauritian who vanishes after a couple of nights out in their company, leaving them only with his luggage, both literal and figurative in the form of his tale of the misery, or sagren, which followed his mother’s childhood expulsion from Chagos in 1973.
For Damaris and Oliver, his story is an education, and perhaps for us, too, as the writers’ subsequent, increasingly outraged reading-up on the Chagossians (once dismissed as “a few Man Fridays” in a British government memo) finds its way directly into the narrative, glossed or verbatim, in an unfussy manner akin to Ali Smith. But the stakes are raised when, to Oliver’s quiet dismay, Damaris composes an experimental story that, comprising the second part of the novel, maps Diego’s tragedy on to the tragedy of Oliver’s brother, a video artist who killed himself after leaving a psychiatric ward.
There’s much warmth in the book’s portrait of literary friendship, as the two writers talk of Adorno and autofiction en route to and from the library and pub, getting by on teaching gigs and bitcoin trading. But the first thing you notice is the book’s style. Cigarettes are always referred to as “tubes”, books “blocks” and the text splits into two columns whenever Damaris and Oliver are apart; when they’re together, run-on sentences meld first-person plural and third-person singular: “We’d spent [the morning] the way we spent every morning, him coming to her room with coffee, her accusing him of switching the heating off, him denying this.”
More than a gimmick, the style is key to a novel that unsettles the notion of writing as a solitary pursuit, letting air out of the egotism that tends to hang over literary production. Co-authorship is one strategy – Soobramanien also wrote two chapters of Williams’s 2011 debut, The Echo Chamber (a difficult-sounding enterprise alluded to in Oliver and Damaris’s backstory) – but the narrative thrust also draws us away from the idea of literature as a winner-takes-all pursuit. Even before Oliver questions Damaris’s motives, we’re invited to raise an eyebrow at her desire to write a book that will “connect the social death of the Chagossian people ghosted by the British government to the structures of intercontinental superexploitation… The blow my book will deal to the military-industrial complex!”
Diego Garcia is righteously scandalising yet it recognises, vitally, that the imperative to circulate the painful history of the Chagossians doesn’t require anyone to claim it for themselves. Instead of setting out to leave us acclaiming the authors’ skill in evoking the islanders’ plight, it sends us off in the direction of other articles, books and films, such as Olivier Magis’s remarkable documentary Another Paradise, about the Chagossian community in Crawley. Intimate yet expansive, heartbroken but unbowed, and a book about writing that is anything but solipsistic, it’s a stirring novel that lights a way forward for politically conscious fiction.