What would Britain look like if Hitler had been our friend?

In Sansom’s humbled nation, the Labour leadership had scorned Hitler’s supposedly generous treatment of Britain and her empire, denouncing pro-appeasement backbenchers prepared to split the parliamentary party after it rejected Halifax’s rationale for mak

The great strength of C J Sansom’s counterfactual novel Dominion (Mantle, £12.99) is its convincing portrayal of an alternative Britain in 1952. George VI is recently deceased and his eldest daughter awaits her coronation. Nazi Germany is ostensibly an ally not an occupying power: after Lord Halifax rather than Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain in May 1940, the fall of France led to a peace treaty signed in Berlin.

Thus only the Isle of Wight is occupied, although Senate House constitutes German sovereign territory in the heart of London, with Ambassador Rommel deaf to the screams coming from the Gestapo cells in the basement. Away from Bloomsbury, Sansom’s humbled nation remains in many respects the close-knit yet subtly fissured society that was faithfully reconstructed by David Kynaston in Family Britain; except that, to echo Orwell, the strictest members of the family are very much in control.

In Downing Street, Halifax has made way for a Pétain-esque Lloyd George, his death enabling the Canadian press baron Lord Beaverbrook to satisfy the growing demands of a ruthless dictator in a distant capital. Yet here, it is Hitler whom Beaverbrook is eager to court and not Stalin. Sansom has done his homework, noting how out of uniform and in front of a camera a transformed Oswald Mosley could render the abhorrent acceptable. No wonder that by 1952 a now respectable British Union of Fascists has a sizeable presence in the Commons, allowing Mosley’s appointment as home secretary. Draconian powers render the Home Office a powerful agency of state control, its ambition thwarted only by Whitehall turf wars that the Germans find baffling.

Still surviving is the India Office – however ferocious the struggle for independence in southern Asia – and in charge is Enoch Powell, displaying on television that disturbingly intense stare unique to the intellectually gifted and the manically inspired. His broadcast reaffirms “No surrender!”, but in this case it’s Uttar Pradesh not Ulster, the Führer’s respect for the British Empire ensuring German support for costly counter-insurgency operations. This is a recasting both persuasive and ironic, Sansom drawing on Powell’s wartime fantasy of being viceroy by the age of 30.

In Sansom’s humbled nation, the Labour leadership had scorned Hitler’s supposedly generous treatment of Britain and her empire, denouncing pro-appeasement backbenchers prepared to split the parliamentary party after it rejected Halifax’s rationale for making peace. After 12 years of the state smothering even the tamest dissent, Attlee’s party has joined Churchill’s rogue Tories in abandoning Westminster: the two men provide political leadership for a resistance movement intent on destroying a regime that is ever more indifferent to parliamentary supremacy and the rule of law.

Irony is rooted firmly in accuracy, with only the odd factual error (Etonians play football not rugby; and by dying in 1947 the pro-appeasement cleric Arthur Morley could never have been archbishop of Canterbury five years later). However, Sansom is mistaken in portraying Sir John “Jock” Colville as the devoted acolyte of Churchill he became in real life. In May 1940 Colville was Chamberlain’s loyal private secretary and thus keen for the foreign secretary to succeed should his master be forced to quit. Had Halifax become prime minister, then a relieved Colville would never have altered his view of Churchill as a dangerous opportunist. This is a minor criticism given Sansom’s success in recreating the urban, and especially suburban, landscape of early-1950s Britain, and in recalling the claustrophobic, conservative nature of domestic life.

The book’s authenticity is rooted in a refusal to exaggerate the grimness of everyday living, as well as a recognition that more than a decade after a brief and Blitz-free war, Britain would have emerged from austerity, in the same way that for different reasons the “second Elizabethan era” really did embrace growing affluence and incipient consumerism. Britain across the 1950s saw old prejudices suppressed or melt away, while new ones emerged. No Windrush generation can exist in Sansom’s counterfactual society but he recognises the reality of festering anti-Semitism. At a time when Jews were still often blackballed at the golf club, insulted as “Yids” and labelled as mean, clearly there existed the potential for a malign remoulding of public opinion.

Sansom’s “Historical Note” rightly challenges postwar complacency as to how the British would have dealt with defeat. His afterword articulates a set of fundamentally decent social-democratic values. Where many readers may demur is when he defends depicting a purged SNP as collaborationist and quasi-fascist. Not surprisingly the Scottish Nationalists are appalled by Dominion, dismissing the half-Scottish author’s right to portray nationalist aspiration as too often a dangerous and reactionary phenomenon.

Here is an argument that will run and run, fuelled by aggressive promotion of the paperback edition. Yet however contentious Sansom’s views on Scottish independence are one year away from the referendum, even his harshest critics north of the border would concede that Dominion is the most imaginative restatement of counterfactual fiction since Robert Harris’s 1992 Fatherland. It may not be Alex Salmond’s bedside reading but as an exercise in virtual history, Dominion remains a remarkable achievement.

Adrian Smith is professor of modern history at the University of Southampton

Could Hitler have ever been an ally to Britain? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism