Monday, 17 September 2012

A History Maker

A History Maker
Alasdair Gray 

"A tale of border warfare, military and erotic, set in the twenty-third century, where the women rule the kingdom and the men play war games. This is the fictional memoir of Wat Dryhope, son of Ettrick Forestis twenty-third century chieftain - edited, annotated and commented upon. History has come to an end, war is regulated as if it's all a game. But Wat, the History Maker himself, does not play entirely by the rules, and when a woman, Delilah Puddock, joins the fray, this 'utopian' history is further enlivened. Alasdair Gray cleverly plays with the notion and writing of history, as well as perennial modern debates on war, sexism and society - entertaining and thought-provoking, this is a delightful satire illustrated throughout by the author."

Alasdair Gray’s debut, Lanark, is one of my favourite books and I would argue that its epilogue is one of the greatest moments of any novel ever. That said, I must admit I’m not massively familiar with much else of his work so I make sure to pick up the odd book of his whenever I get the chance.

A History Maker is based on a play also written by Gray called The History Maker and tells the story of Wat Dryhope, a man out of place in a matriarchal society where women run communal tribes leaving the men to play soldiers in bloody televised battles. The utopian society is powered by household power stations which reconstitute the dead bodies of soldiers into anything the householders could wish for, As a result, there is no need for manual labour.

On the surface this could be looked at as a fairly typical story, a futuristic society peopled by uniformly minded characters with a single main character who sees a flaw in the way the society is run. It’s a story we’ve seen a dozen times, in works by Orwell and Huxley and in the films of Fritz Lang. Here however there’s something different. The world itself feels fresh, at once a Scotland that seems at home in a gleaming future-scape, the present day and the days of the Roman empire. There’s also a great sense of not knowing quite what’s going on. Having completed the novel I’m still not 100% on a lot of what I read. With most novels this would be a bad thing, but not so with Gray’s work. Here, as in Lanark, there is a sense that Gray is deliberately withholding information from the reader. Creating a world as confusing to the reader as it is to Dryhope himself.
This sense of withheld information is backed up by the large body of notes that make up almost a third of the total book. These intricate notes serve multiple purposes. They offer translations of Scots phrases for non Scots readers as well as mini lectures on the history of war and information on songs, poems and stories by the likes of Burns and Hogg. Most interesting however, are large sections that tell very important parts of the story not included in the actual text of the novel. These sections deal with what happens to the characters after the novel itself has ended and are not included until the very end of the notes. There is a feeling of Gray playfully using these to keep the true end of the story hidden from readers who have either given up on reading the historical notes or skipped over them entirely.

If that doesn’t put you off then I would  definitely recommend you read this book. Despite all the confusion the books is a brilliantly crafted piece of work, at once a bluffers history of Scotland, and allegory of the futility of war, utopian science fiction and historical epic all topped off with Gray’s wonderful illustrations. It’s just bloody good. Read it.

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