Thanks for asking me to annotate a passage from Whirlwind Romance. The book is a collection of stories about the moments when our reality falls apart. The stories vary in subject, setting and genre, but most of them hover somewhere between the real and the fantastical — and all are interested in the many ways that the world we have been living in, imagining it was solid under our feet, can turn out to be fragile. Travelling to an unfamiliar country could reveal uncomfortable truths about home, or reconnecting with a long-lost sibling could show your childhood in a new light, or becoming a parent could teach you that you are not who you thought you were. Falling in love could make you realize that the most precious person in your world lives in a different reality from your own; getting lost in a book or a video game could take you further from normality than you intended; living through a global disaster could strip you of the illusions you once believed were sane.
All these scenarios play out in Whirlwind Romance, but for this commentary I’ve chosen the opening passage of ‘The Red Song’. This is the second-longest story in the book: when I started working on it I thought it was going to be a novel, and put in a lot of world-building and plot-planning accordingly, but I found that it kept folding down into a tighter, more allusive kind of text. It tells the story of an English academic, Flora Hardy, who accepts a research fellowship and travels to the remote nation of Hesper a short time after it has gone through a revolution and deposed its long-reigning dictator. Flora is an expert on the literature of the place, but she discovers that she knows little about its present.
The Red Song
I remember spring rain dripping from the balconies, and streets blocked with the rubbish that went uncollected for months. I remember heavy skies, bright evenings, wet light. I remember the Yellow Rose in all its forms: flags, placards, posters and graffiti, adorning the city from the shutters of the Old Town to the concrete slabs in front of the ruined palace.
I remember Hesperus.
For me, one of the pure pleasures of fiction-writing is inventing imaginary cities. Whirlwind Romance contains several: some are just slightly twisted versions of places I know — often Belfast or London — while others are more thoroughly fantastical. I’m fond of the one in ‘The Red Song’. Hesperus is an unreal city, but it has elements of real places, mostly Dublin and Tripoli. It’s fascinating how you can take details and atmospheres from two or three sources, mix them together and produce a setting which, with luck, has a new, vivid identity of its own. This sort of fun is often one of my motives for starting a project, and it certainly was here.
The fellowship carried no formal teaching responsibilities, but over my stay I was meant to offer three talks on topics relating to my research. The turnout was surprising for my first seminar, with a good thirty people filling the classroom to hear me talk about Fallon Herm and the Nine Songs. I told them the university’s manuscript collection was a treasure trove and that I hoped my translations would play a small part in bringing Herm’s vision to the wider world. I showed them a length of string in which, to the best of my ability, I had made a phrase in Astic knot-script. I was respectful to the point of flattery: I was lecturing them about their national poet.
One student waited afterwards. A short, serious young man with broad shoulders, dark eyes and a shabby overcoat. I had seen him smoking roll-ups around the Arts Faculty. In fast, inaccurate English, he told me that Fallon Herm had been a great man and what I had said was true, nothing was more important than Herm’s work because it held the future of the Hesp nation. I was not sure I had quite said this, but he was nodding fiercely, enthusiasm spilling from him like heat. Then he let his fringe fall into his eyes. He must apologise, he said. He was a fool to waste the time of such a scholar as myself. Unsure whether he was teasing me, I gave him a brisk smile and gathered up my papers. All at once he looked so disconsolate that I asked his name.
‘Petar Bron,’ he said, brightening. ‘An honour, Dr Hardy.’
I find that stories usually have several seeds of inspiration: one isn’t enough, but when several elements come together a story starts to form. One seed for ‘The Red Song’ was a short visit I made to Tripoli in 2013, as part of a British Council cultural exchange scheme in which UK writers were sent to meet authors in various other parts of the world, and asked to write something about it afterwards. During a few days in Tripoli, I was bowled over by the beauty and energy of the city. I thought I had never been somewhere so palpably and dramatically poised at a turning-point as Tripoli was in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the Libyan revolution. This was a moment, between the end of the first civil war and the outbreak of the second, when the mood was hopeful and almost anything seemed possible. I learned an enormous amount from conversations with Libyans (especially with the novelist Salah Al Hadad), but I knew I hadn’t even scratched the surface.
Back home, I wrote up a piece on my trip, but I was painfully aware of being a tourist with no right or reason to say anything about what was happening to Libya and its people. At the same time, I was left with my own private, fragmentary impressions and feelings from the visit. I wanted to explore them, but they were too confused to write about directly, so I let them settle, and later I began to search for a more roundabout route into the material. I tried writing not about Tripoli, but about a fantastical city in which a few broken reflections of Tripoli might be glimpsed.
We bought coffees from the catering stand in the basement hall of the faculty, and spent the next hour talking about Fallon Herm. I did my best to answer his questions, though he knew at least as much about Herm’s work as I did, and obviously cared about it with a passion I could not pretend to match. The first thing Bron had done after the revolution was enrol here for courses in Astic literature, he told me. It had not been possible for him to attend the university before, but now he had taken his chance. Hadn’t he been tempted to study something more useful, I asked, like information technology or engineering or business? He gave me a sharp look, then grinned and wagged his finger as if to show that he was wise to my mischief.
We walked through the campus, a sprawling, monotonous environment of tower blocks, catwalks, tunnels and stairwells finished in raw concrete. When Barris Kess had seized power in Hesperus, he had closed down the Schools of the Hidden, the learned societies that had existed since before records began. Fifteen years later he had decided, with his typical immunity to irony, that Hesperus ought to have a great university: he had a district of the city bulldozed and replaced with a vast campus designed by an architect of the Brutalist school.
As the story develops, Flora strikes up a relationship with this student, Bron, and she finds that through him she can find out more about the city — its history and its post-revolutionary present — than she could by doing research in the library stacks.
My experience in Tripoli in 2013 was that people were very willing to talk about Muammar Gaddafi. One idea I heard was that tyrants are always the same: I got an impression of Gaddafi as a one-dimensional, oddly flimsy figure. The message seemed to be that there was very little to know or understand about someone like him, because he’s exactly like every other tyrant that has ever existed or ever will: for all the horror of tyranny, there is nothing impressive or mysterious to be found in it. Later I tried to make sense of that idea by working it though this story, imagining the dead tyrant Barris Kess as a kind of nullity, even an absurdity, that overshadowed the people of Hesperus as they struggled to rebuild after their revolution.
We paused by a slab-like building decorated with a mural of the Yellow Rose.
‘And you,’ Bron said. ‘How did you come here?’
I explained as best I could that I had taken a module called Introduction to Astic Language and Literature in my final undergraduate year. At that time I spoke no Astic and knew nothing about Hesp culture, but the obscurity of the subject appealed to me. I got a high mark and decided to apply for graduate study.
‘I understand,’ he said. ‘You learn our poets, you learn Fallon Herm, and you know you must come here one day.’
I agreed this was more or less the story, though in truth I’d always had mixed feelings about Herm’s writing. The poetry was dense, ponderous and obsessed with Hesper’s past, cluttered with mystical ideas that had been out of date long before Kess came to power. But Herm suited me as a research topic. I could spend whole days in a productive trance of translation, and there was plenty of work to be done tracking down his allusions and mapping out the historical, political and cultural contexts of his writing. After four years and nine months, I submitted a doctoral thesis entitled Violence, Renewal and the Hesp Esoteric Tradition in the Narrative Verse of Fallon Herm, and I was in the process of developing it into a monograph when the revolution came.
As with inventing cities, I think there’s a simple delight to be had in making up imaginary writers — again, Whirlwind Romance contains several. For me, Flora’s research subject Fallon Herm contains traces of Seamus Heaney, Zbigniew Herbert and Václav Havel — he’s one of those rather saintly humanist poets who have been made to bear a great load of significance on their shoulders. For Flora, Fallon Herm is just a research subject; coming from Western academia, she is used to thinking of her work as rather detached, perhaps self-indulgent and probably irrelevant to everyday life. But for Bron, Herm’s work is a direct link to the deep past of the nation and has the power to define its future: he sees books and poems are urgently necessary tools for reclaiming his national culture from tyranny.
‘The revolution,’ Bron said. ‘You see the Hesp people rise up.’
I nodded. The Hesp uprising had been abrupt, unforeseen and freakishly successful. One day in April, the first crowds gathered in the Victorious People’s Square in the centre of Hesperus. Ten weeks later the civil war was over and Barris Kess was dead, hanged beside his sons and lieutenants in that same square, to which the revolutionaries had restored its old name, the Place of Shadows. For a few months Hesper was at the top of every international news bulletin and the Hesp people were heroes. They had liberated themselves and the world was on their side.
When the revolution began to appear on the news, my first response was a sort of jealousy – I had always thought of Hesper as mine alone – but rationally I knew there was no way current events could undermine the validity of my research. On the contrary, I could not have hoped for a better moment to be writing an academic monograph on the work of a difficult Astic poet who had died twenty years ago in one of Kess’s prisons: it looked almost fashionable.
‘So you come,’ Bron said. ‘And now you will join in the future of Hesper.’
Walking into a courtyard, we came face to face with the Yellow Rose again. The Rose had been the Hesp flag in the times before Kess, and in the revolution it had been reborn as a rallying symbol for the rebels. This mural was an elaborate piece of work: the huge, stylised flower in the centre of the wall was surrounded by portraits of men and women who must have perished during the war, and a rainbow arched above the Rose, bearing Astic script that read Freedom.
‘I hope so,’ I said.
Bron was staring at me, grave as a boy.
‘I know it.’
Working on ‘The Red Song’ reminded me how writing fantasy, or writing along the border between fantasy and the real, offers a liberating way to start thinking through complex matters. Tripoli was a seed, but in my mind the story owes at least as much to Dublin and Belfast: I’m English but have spent a lot of my adult life in Ireland, and part of the appeal of writing a story like this is that it brings these disparate elements into conversation. And beyond that, I knew the story was coming alive when Hesperus stopped being Tripoli or Dublin or Belfast or anywhere else, and began to have an atmosphere of its own. Hesperus is a strange place, with its Neoplatonic occultism, its mask rituals and its ancient drama-cycles.
I’m uneasy when writing a story like this. Part of me asks whether it’s despicable to write about imagined revolutions and wars while real ones continue. Another part responds that telling a story about an imaginary revolution in an invented city is a way to find a point of view on the real. Still another says that fiction is free, and will use any reality it likes as fuel for fantasy. The unease does not subside, but that’s as it should be. It’s in the story’s blood.
Sam Thompson’s Whirlwind Romance is out now, published by Unsung Stories. Here’s the synopsis:
A new love affair awakens a host of malignant things on the fringes of a young man’s vision. An academic uncovers an ancient song with the power to change reality. A violent computer game turns into an obsession, bleeding into the waking world.
This debut collection from Sam Thompson (Communion Town, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize) explores the cracks in the fabric of our existence, the hinterland where the mundane meets the strange. Drawing upon writers like Robert Aickman and Thomas Ligotti, Whirlwind Romance creates a landscape all its own – a place where a single moment can be the catalyst to turn the very nature of reality upside down. Breathtaking, poetic, and yet shot through with an unsettling darkness, it confirms Thompson’s place as a major talent.