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The strange work of French pulp writer Serge Brussolo is finally available in English

The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome is the first of Brussolo's novels to be translated – and, happily, it's also one of the best.

The improbably prolific Serge Brussolo is the author of well over 150 books in his ­native France, in genres including science fiction, thrillers, horror, fantasy, war, police procedural, historical drama and young adult fiction. He has written weird tales influenced by J G Ballard, books set in ancient Egypt, in Viking Europe and during the Hundred Years War, techno-thrillers à la Michael Crichton, werewolf novels (under the pseudonym Akira Suzuko), medieval interstellar adventures (as Kitty Doom) and a series of bestsellers about an American teenager with magic ghost-o-vision glasses, Peggy Sue et les fantômes. Brussolo publishes up to three books a year, a rate at which even a team of writers working overtime might be hard-pressed to maintain stylistic consistency, and this, coupled with his unapologetic recycling of plots and ideas, goes some way towards explaining why his literary reputation hovers between guilty pleasure and national treasure. Even so, one might expect to have had a sniff of his work in English before now. Mais non.

That is about to change with The Deep-Sea Diver’s Syndrome, the first of Brussolo’s novels to be translated into English and, happily, also one of the best. The premise will be distantly familiar to readers who have seen Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (released in 2010), though the book appeared in France 18 years earlier, as Le syndrome du scaphandrier: its protagonist, David, leads a gang of metaphysical burglars who enter a dreaming mind and pull daring heists to retrieve its treasures.

In the wonderful opening pages, David and his two sidekicks leap out of a long, black car that keeps obstinately trying to turn into a shark, and on to a pavement that desperately wants to become a beach (“Fix your stability,” one character warns, “take a consistency pill”), and use a jeweller’s eyeball and severed hand to gain entry to his shop. Their quarry is a huge black safe – “No matter the shop, the safe was always the same” – which belches, gives out “intestinal gurgles” and the thuds of a beating heart, and recites random numbers and mocking slogans as the cracksman sets about his work.

Once opened, it reveals crunching bagfuls of loose stones (“He came across bags like that in every heist. The psychologist said it was negative thinking”), which the protagonist seizes as his dream begins to disintegrate and he is sucked helplessly towards the surface. As first chapters go, it takes some beating.

But Brussolo’s novel is even stranger than these opening fireworks suggest. Unlike the dream-agents of Inception, who fish for industrial secrets in the minds of their drugged subjects, David is a sole trader and the brain he plumbs is his own. Objects brought back from a dream are mysteriously converted upon waking into flesh-like sculptures, “palpitating faintly like frightened animals” until someone comes and takes them away: they are, we soon discover, the new artworks of a world in which Picassos and Klees have become the province of rag-and-bone men (“Paint applied to a canvas with a stick topped by animal hair? How crude!”) and where collectors scramble for “ectoplasmic curios” manifested by dreaming prospectors.

The overheated pulp heists in which David specialises, as his psychiatrist observes crossly, are just “a magic formula that allows you to concentrate”; another dream-diver spends his nights on endless safari, where he is the great white hunter Majo-Mako, “He-Who-Slew-Like-Lightning”. In most cases, indulging in too much of this kind of introspection ends badly: although the public loves dreamers’ work, they often slump into endless comas, poison their inscapes with tranquillisers, or die of porcelain brain tumours in which the pathologists discover “tiny, exquisitely chiselled figurines”.

It doesn’t take a very alert reader to spot the metaphorical dimension in all this, but the anarchic surrealism at work in Brussolo’s novel is such that it can never quite be reduced to a parable about the artist and society. Like Burroughs in his cut-up fictions, or Ballard in the mad Californian dreamscapes of his Vermilion Sands stories, he is coolly at home in the deranged landscape he creates, in which hypnotists whisper cryptically to security cameras, dead dreams lie frozen in special vaults lest they explode when they thaw and flowers sprout wildly in cityscapes of the mind as the dreamers’ bodies decay.

His book is sometimes silly (there is some awkward dialogue, the odd dramatic longueur and altogether too much banging on about “ectoplasm” for my taste) but it is also totally, unapologetically compelling. What an introduction, then. And there’s plenty more to come.

The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome by Serge Brussolo, translated by Edward Gauvin, is published by Melville House (220pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist