A Fantastical Depiction: Guy Saville’s Alternative Histories
There is a character in Guy Saville’s The Madagaskar Plan (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) whose name we never learn. Although his nom de guerre is Salois, he is, in a nod to the films of Sergio Leone, a man with no name. He is also a man of all names and a living testament to the power of the written word. Saville, who can work sixteen-hour days when in the grip of a book, has now published the first two volumes of his Afrika Reich trilogy to critical acclaim and popular enthusiasm.
His books are alternative histories, intense, passionate thrillers set in a Nazi empire in Africa. What drew Saville to the genre is that its ‘speculative quality allows writers to ask…questions about the nature of history…Would things be better or worse if it had taken a different path? In The Madagaskar Plan there has been no Holocaust. One would assume the outcome would have been better for the Jews – but what I’m suggesting is that the hangman’s noose would have tightened in a different way.’ In this version of history, Europe’s Jews are deported to labour camps in Nazi Madagaskar.
What sets Saville’s work apart is the subtlety of its characters. The hero of both novels is a morally and physically compromised figure, the villain a sophisticated and magnetic man with a surprising motivation for his excesses. Although Saville makes good, and often satirical, use of ‘the iconography of the Third Reich…all those ranks of black uniforms and torch lit parades,’ he also believes the writer can use the Nazis to challenge our assumptions of evil. ‘As a writer, these pre-existing assumptions give me a lot to play with as I can then shade in contradictions and complexity…If I ever struggle with this, I try to imagine my heroes as villains in a different story.’
As befits the genre, there is a good deal of carnage, yet it is not a purely masculine book; Madeleine, the heroine, is a pivotal figure whose decisions drive the narrative and who is possibly tougher than all the men put together. On the challenge of writing the opposite sex, Saville notes, ‘In writing Madeleine I was less interested in defining her as male or female than as human…If you’re driven to survive against overwhelming odds, it is that survival instinct that defines you as much as your gender. Having said that, I enjoyed writing her immensely.’
The third novel in the Afrika Reich trilogy is well on in the planning stage. ‘I have a working sketch of the third book and certainly know the key dramatic moments and, most importantly, how it ends. It’s set several years after Madagaskar [set in 1953], when a full-scale war has engulfed Africa and the Nazis are close to defeat. Most of the action will take place in the Sahara, “a place of sand-lashed camps and secrecy”.’
Despite a clear idea of where his own writing is going next, Saville’s assessment of the current uncertain state of the publishing industry is bleak. ‘I believe the biggest threat is that people are reading less…There are too many other distractions – from TV boxsets…to social media and computer games, to constantly checking your mobile phone.’ He fears this has not only led to greater conservatism among the major publishing houses, but has dumbed down reading habits. ‘I think this is a problem for any serious writer…anyone who doesn’t want to do “middle of the road” fiction.’
Saville’s influences are writers such as Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Balzac, whose ‘fantastical depiction of the world strikes me as more truthful’ [than realist fiction]. Saville works at least partially in pen and ink, in a cabin at the bottom of his garden, surrounded by fields. Although he also cites contemporary writers among those he admires – William Boyd, Robert Harris, Sarah Waters – he is, perhaps, an old-fashioned novelist in his ability to create memorable characters, realise a concrete fictional world, and devise ingenious, multi-layered plots that stand up to close scrutiny – all in prose which is elegant and cleverly allusive. It’s the kind of writing we should all hope readers continue to want.
About the contributor: Sarah Bower is the author of two critically acclaimed historical novels, The Needle in the Blood and The Book of Love. Her contemporary literary thriller, Erosion, was published in 2014 under the pen name S. A. Hemmings. She is currently working on a novel about Palestine in the 20th century.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 74, November 2015