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3 June 2023

How to survive a nuclear holocaust

A luxury hotel protects the affluent in Sven Holm’s Termush, a rediscovered 1967 dystopia that sheds light on our own crumbling way of life.

By John Gray

Termush is a luxury resort unlike any other. Enjoying a remote coastal location, the hotel provides exceptional facilities for the discerning guest. Housed in secure above-ground suites, residents have access to subterranean gourmet food stores and freshwater reserves. An in-house reconnaissance team and building-wide entertainment system create an atmosphere of relaxation and security. By booking one of its premier survival packages, guests will receive an exclusive Termush radiation suit and personal doseometer. Armour-plated shelters offer security against danger, and a motor yacht is available for trips along the coastline and emergency uses.

These details of life in Termush can be read on a website marketing the resort – which, it transpires, is a spoof by the publisher Faber & Faber, advertising the Danish short-story writer and novelist Sven Holm’s forgotten novella. It is a brilliant conceit for a superb find. A writer in a realist tradition, Holm extends its style and methods to probe human psychology in a devastated world. Originally published in 1967 and translated into English by Sylvia Clayton for publication by Faber in 1969, this spare account of life after a nuclear holocaust has been republished with a foreword by the American writer of fantastic fiction Jeff VanderMeer. Discovered by Faber’s “archive mole” Ella Griffiths while she was browsing in the publisher’s stacks, Termush is an addition to the post-apocalyptic canon that lingers disquietingly in the reader’s mind.

The residents of Termush are a privileged few, but the survivalist variation on the hotel in The White Lotus lacks the titillating diversions of its 21st-century successor. Radiation meters have been installed on the sunshine roof and on every floor, and the hotel doctor collects urine samples from guests several times a week. When one refuses to comply she is quietly taken away to be given a sedative injection. When she returns to her room opposite the narrator’s, she seems not to remember the incident. He discovers she is a former university teacher like himself, and a widow. She asks him to call her by her Christian name, Maria.

Together they look out on a petrified landscape that appears to have been frozen in time. The hotel gardens contain giant stone lions and tigers, which lie staring out at the sea or towards the hotel “with great arched eyes”. The sea seems almost motionless, “a cooled-down desert filled with colourless gleams of sun”. Looking inland, the guests see that

… what has happened has burnt up everything permanently; we can expect no change in that situation. The world looks as it did in the second when the disaster struck; we, who remained behind, can move around the immense black crystal, but we are quite incapable of altering it.

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We gaze at the dark mass, where buildings, streets, trees, hordes of people, wide stretches of country with farms and herds of cattle are set solid like flies in amber… water streams out of the taps and the cars are piled up in the streets and nothing of this can be changed; the world has spun full circle, and the survivors must exist without it.

Time has not stopped. The bodies of people from a nearby village who have died of radiation sickness are found on the steps of the hotel. News of them is kept from the guests, but one of the security guards reports the corpses being taken away. When survivors arrive they are housed in the library, sparing the long-term residents the sight of their sickness, though cries and groans can still be heard. When an alarm sounds and they are carried down on stretchers to the shelters, permanent guests turn away to avoid seeing their facial injuries. Once everyone is safely underground, the narrator writes, his fellow residents “sank into our familiar passivity with no sign of reaction or emotion”.

The residents of Termush are suspended in “a wavering convalescence between sickness and death”, but life keeps breaking in. Bands of stricken people, remnants of larger groups roaming the countryside in search of food and medicine, have heard of the hotel. “Our fear,” the narrator comments, “is no longer a fear of death but of change and mutilation.” He moves in with Maria, but their sleep is punctuated by the sound of nearby gunshots.

Together with other residents, they decide to leave. The “remote and watchful” Maria is silent as she follows the narrator on to the yacht. As they sail away, they see the hotel gardens full of people and the stone figures gleaming in the sun as the land slips from view. The passengers sleep, and wake up to be served with coffee and rolls. Barely moving, they lie about with eyes half closed. “Outside the sea is still. There is no darkness and no light.”

[See also: The moral corruption of Holocaust fiction]

VanderMeer writes of Termush as a “bridge novella” between John Wyndham’s cosy stories and “the extravagant, mind-bending dystopias of JG Ballard”. He may be thinking of Ballard’s novels of urban collapse such as High-Rise (1975). Neither Holm nor Ballard offer any prospect of a reversion to the old social order, but there is a crucial difference. The protagonists in High-Rise embrace the disintegration of society, and find in it a kind of self-realisation they had not known before. In this regard, Ballard’s novel has more in common with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), in which a party of schoolboys who descend into savagery on an uninhabited island are rescued by a Navy “trim cruiser”.

The opening paragraph of High-Rise has its chief character calmly savouring his new life:

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months… it was here if anywhere that the first significant event had taken place – on this balcony where he now squatted beside a fire of telephone directories, eating the roast hind quarter of an Alsatian before setting off to his lecture at the medical school.

Bought after his divorce for its peace and quiet, Laing’s apartment is one of a thousand in a 40-floor block containing a concourse, restaurant, supermarket, bank, hairdressing salon, gymnasium, sauna, swimming pool and liquor store. In the ensuing months, as the residents stage orgiastic parties and fragment into groups warring over territory, corridors and elevators are littered with human and animal bodies. High-Rise ends as it began, with the psychiatrist on his balcony on the 25th floor of the tower block, roasting the dog he has stuffed with garlic and herbs. As dusk settles, he makes out another high-rise in the distance, where after a power failure the residents are moving about with torches in the darkness. “Laing watched them contentedly, ready to welcome them to their new world.”

In their different ways, Holm and Ballard illustrate a paradox in the modern literature of apocalypse. In its original biblical meaning, it combined two ideas: the end of the world and a revelation. In the modern genre the ending is not final and the revelation emanates not from the heavens but the depths of the human mind. The residents of High-Rise are savagely vital whereas those in Termush are almost affectless, but for both apocalypse is not the end. When one world passes away, another comes into being.

In rationalist philosophies the idea of apocalypse is dismissed as a fever dream, but if it is understood to mean the end of a local world or way of life it is a common human experience. The Aztec world was extinguished by the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, that of Tasmanian indigenous people by colonisation and genocide. Climate change and pandemic diseases destroyed the far-flung networks built by the Romans. The Akkadians in Mesopotamia and the Khmer empire in South-East Asia were wiped out by drought, overpopulation and resource wars. Uncounted other civilisations have disappeared in similar ways.

In some countries there have been successive apocalyptic upheavals within a single human lifetime. In 20th-century Russia and China, revolutions and wars consumed immemorial communities of peasants and nomads, along with urban workers and intellectuals. A bourgeois civilisation that had developed over centuries fell apart in interwar Europe, opening the way to conflicts of extermination and the Holocaust. Long periods of gradual change have been rare, and abrupt discontinuities the historical norm. In other places – the Congo, Lebanon, Haiti – collapse has become a way of life. The same end may be in store for American cities that have become body-strewn war zones as a result of the opioid epidemic and uncontrolled crime.

Not everyone enjoys stories of the end of society as we know it. For some they express a deplorable pessimism regarding human agency; for others they pander to a morbid pleasure in contemplating disaster. Both reactions miss the point. Termush can be read as a commentary on how the affluent, pleasure-loving Western societies of the Sixties blocked out awareness of the sufferings of the rest of humankind. More deeply, it is a meditation on the ways in which human beings adapt to social breakdown. Sympathy for anyone outside their own small group soon withers away, and strangers come to be seen as enemies. People may fear and resist this change in themselves. But, like Holm’s narrator, they are powerless to prevent it. The novella is an inquiry into a painful kind of self-knowledge.

[See also: Arno J Mayer’s 20th century]

Holm’s message is chastening, but the import of Ballard’s fictions is more disturbing. The conventional classification of them as dystopias is misleading. For his characters, it is life before the fall that is dystopian. On the roof of the tower block, “the sense of a renascent barbarism hung among the overturned chairs and straggling palms”. The feral psychiatrist Laing finds transcendent beauty in barbarity: the silhouette of the dog he is roasting on the spit “resembled the flying figure of a mutilated man, soaring with immense energy across the night sky, embers glowing with the fire of jewels in his skin”. For some, chaos and violence are more exciting than peace and order.

A few years ago, Holm’s vision of life after a nuclear holocaust may have seemed dated. It is less so now, when the use of nuclear weapons is again a realistic possibility. In Termush, however, nuclear conflagration is a metaphor for a subtler change. The true theme is not the prospect of a mass dying-off, but an inner mutation that is already under way.

Rather than happening after a catastrophic event, our present way of life is more likely to end through a process of dissolution. First in particular milieus, then throughout society, the regularities we have taken for granted crumble away. Everyday life becomes more and more unpredictable, and much of it spent in anxiety and boredom. War quickens this transformation. Alongside the return of First World War trench warfare and cities obliterated by Second World War-style carpet bombing, there are cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. Airports, road traffic systems, hospitals, schools, underwater cables, financial markets and media are all targets. Ever more extreme weather adds to the chaos. At the same time, with deglobalisation and broken supply chains, the devices on which we rely may no longer be available or functional. Imagine making your way across a gridlocked city without a smartphone. The biggest shock may be how quickly you acquire the necessary skills.

The faith persists that Western societies can avoid the anarchy advancing across much of the planet. Progressive rationalism, neoliberalism and eco-utopianism are branches of fantastic fiction, which serve to distract us from the daily corrosion. In contrast, Termush is a testament to realism, a travel guide to the world in which we are learning to live.

John Gray’s “The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism” will be published later this year by Allen Lane

Sven Holm, translated by Sylvia Clayton
Faber & Faber, 144pp, £9.99

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[See also: Babi Yar: a harrowing masterpiece of Ukraine under Nazi rule]

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine