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The Books Interview: Michael Frayn

"I don’t think I shall ever write anything again."

Your new novel, Skios, is the first time you’ve tried farce in fiction rather than on stage, isn’t it?
There’s a certain amount of farce in Headlong but I think this is the first straightforward farce I’ve done as a novel. I see it as experimental literature. This is not entertainment, it’s a serious attempt to see if you can do farce in the form of a book. In theatre, farce works because you’ve got an audience and hearing people laughing around you licenses you to laugh yourself. Whether you can ever do that with just one person reading a book – an audience of one – I don’t know.
Is it easier or harder to do farce in fiction than in the theatre? Is there a different threshold of plausibility in the novel?
In a sense, it’s easier in the theatre because it’s harder. You’ve got to end up with something that living human beings can actually do in front of your eyes. I have to say that a lot of actors have hurt themselves doing my play Noises Off! But in a novel, of course, you can not only fall downstairs, you can fall off a cliff. In a way, the more freedom you have when you’re writing, the harder it gets – because to write anything you rely on pushing against the constraints of the form. In a novel, it’s harder because it’s easier. 
Are there ways in which this novel resembles Noises Off?
Yes. Like Noises Off, it’s partly about how human beings use their own imaginations. In Noises Off, the actors are set an impossible problem in the first act: how to continue with the play. And they have to use their invention and imagination to do it. I suppose I’ve gone one stage further in this novel in that the plot depends on just one person using their imagination absolutely arbitrarily. 
Much of the comedy of farce lies in the slow dawning of comprehension on the part of the characters. Is that where the fun comes for you as a writer?
I think that’s absolutely right. When people are rude about farce, and about plot in general, it’s because they think it’s something mechanistic – that it’s like suggesting that human behaviour is like a piece of clockwork. 
In fact, almost no plots work like that. Plot works on the basis of what people perceive has just happened. Even in the most simple 19th-century plots, it’s not just because someone has written this clause into their will, or whatever, that makes the thing happen; it’s because people reading that clause are infuriated by it or moved by it – it’s what people believe to have happened that makes them behave as they do.
The tendency of humans to mistake mere succession for causality is one of the themes of this novel, too.
As I said in The Human Touch, all these things are a matter of our putting interpretations on it – causality doesn’t just lie out there in the world, it’s our understanding of the way things work that makes a causal reading of the world possible. 
Scientists have to see the world that way. But, as I quote Richard Feynman as saying, any good physicist knows four or five good explanations for the same phenomenon. 
Feynman was a populariser, as is the protagonist of Skios, Norman Wilfred. Do you enjoy popular science writing?
I’m all in favour of scientific popularisers. Science is increasingly an esoteric subject that is only accessible to people with mathematics. As Feynman says, trying to explain physics to someone who doesn’t have mathematics – although he made enormous efforts to explain physics to lay audiences – is like trying to explain music to the tone deaf. 
I’m incredibly grateful, since I don’t have any mathematics, to scientists and science writers who do try to make the subject accessible to a lay public. Everyone must admire Richard Dawkins, for example, partly because he writes so well and his books are so absolutely compelling. And I’ve always enjoyed reading Feynman, because he’s very provocative. I’ve enjoyed reading Werner Heisenberg, too.
What are you working on next?
I don’t think I shall ever write anything again. I’m going to go out to a clockmaker’s, buy a clock and present myself with it.
Michael Frayn's "Skios: a Novel" is published by Faber & Faber (£15.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis