Thursday, 16 July 2015

Book Review: A Secret History of Time To Come

Above - Post-apocalyptic art by Rolf Bertz
History has its turning points, but even if it is ultimately a linear process, are its contents nonetheless circular, endlessly recurring? Does humanity's nature condemn us to repeat ceaselessly the mistakes of the past? Are we fixed to a future where this most innovative and intelligent of species is nevertheless trapped, inert and doomed forever to not realise its potential?

Robie MacAuley's 1979 novel, "A Secret History of Time To Come", posits this at the very heart of its narrative: a story of a wanderer, Kinkaid, in future centuries, several generations on from an apocalyptic conflict that destroyed the industrial world and left in its wake scattered communities eking a lonely living among the decayed, overgrown ruins of the forefather days. Folk memories and snatched bits of history recall the times of the war between the "burnt" people and the ancestors, of waggons without horses and boxes that spoke over long distances.

Set in an arc from Cleveland to Chicago to Memphis, the journey of Kinkaid has been inspired when, as a child, his father gave shelter to a dying stranger in his home village in Pennsylvan-land far to the east. The man had an ancient ESSO ROAD MAP OF THE NORTH CENTRAL STATES with a line marked on it to a point named Haven. Now, as a young man, he is tracing the line back to seek the origin of the stranger. As he traverses a landscape largely empty of humans but replete with the artefacts of the past and the thick, choking vegetation of today, reclaiming the lands once conquered from Nature itself, he is drawn into his surroundings: "a dream of infinity - a green enigma of trees and bush, vaster than comprehension, stretching about him not miles but centuries..."

Into his dream comes repeatedly one of the "burnt" people of the past. A man in strange clothes carrying something for him, something he does not know or understand.

And it is in dreams that MacAuley's tale not merely links but binds the future and the past: for Kinkaid's dream is shared in time by an unnamed narrator from the 1980s who appears juxtaposed with him in the future in the initial chapters. This is a black journalist who is drawn into a devastatingly vicious race war as the USA is riven by unrest, civil conflict and, though unnamed, ethnic cleansing by what remains of the white-led government. In his own dreams, he sees the man in homespun clothes and a broad hat coming through the forests of the future, or perhaps the past, seeking something from him and, in time, he realises the importance of recording events to leave an account, secreted away, maybe for his future companion to find and learn.

The future world is a harsh one: genetic mutations, plague and the incomprehensible dangers from the forefather ruins haunt the small groups of tomorrow's people huddled behind their stockades. A few keep reading and writing alive, often like medieval monks in their scriptoria transcribing from old books passages they only sporadically understand. Ancient manuals for cars, maintenance guidance for recording equipment, cooking instructions for dishes with strange contents sit alongside tales of Robin Hood, the random reading of some forefather. Like the jumbled contents of our own bookshelves, what would be made of them, outside any context at all, salvaged by our descendants in a world where the chord of learning was snapped aeons before?

Yet in this world there remains so much of today - ego, violence, slavery, lust and love - tied back and ever repeating like the narrator and Kinkaid's visions. Across golden flatlands, along breathtaking rivers and through the deepest, verdant forests pierced with difficulty by the old roadways, and most striking of all amidst the "cliffs" - Kinkaid's word for the crumbling shells of the skyscrapers in the ruins of Chicago - his odyssey encounters suspicion, threat, hostility and friendship as he trades his skills in healing for bowls of food from his hosts' hearth-pots.

MacAuley's prose is rich, hauntingly lucid, evoking a world we know but have never seen other than in our own dreams, or maybe nightmares. It is a world where the familiar is fading and our species, bar a few individuals, seems to be sleepwalking, oblivious to its continuing self-harm. The major difference, perhaps, is that in this future humanity appears as a threat only to itself - it is no longer powerful enough to threaten the world, which is in any case gradually re-absorbing homo sapiens into the thick canopy of the endless forest.

There was a chance, he thought, that this might be the place of refuge of the forefathers he'd often pictured in his mind and that there might be sleeping people of the old race over there as he watched. But the sense that came to him from the silent towers was of emptiness. There was no light except for the moon's and no sound came over the water and no smells of life - only the river smell. The great place almost seemed to speak of its death.

MacAuley's writing is filled with empathy, not only for Kinkaid and the companions he befriends, but even for his opponents, and chillingly enters the mind of a psychopathic horseman, the ironically named Hurt. In one particularly striking passage, Hurt is drawn to the physique of a young woman captive thus: He seemed to see the lines of the bay colt his father had given him when he was a boy; the forefather gun, curled lines drawn in its metal and polished stock, that once he'd owned; the white-winged birds he'd seen sailing one morning in the northern sky. He didn't know why these things came to him. The colt had died; his father had traded the gun; the birds had flown away.

Robie MacAuley, 1919 - 1995
Born in 1919 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Robie MacAuley grew up in a family of artists and publishers and was consequently drawn towards a literary life. After studying under the novelist Ford Maddox Ford, he served in US Counter-Intelligence in Europe and Japan in the last years of the war. He was involved in the liberation of Flossenberg concentration camp in April 1945.

"Most of the bodies that I saw had been stripped and it was impossible to tell which were those of Jews and which of Christians. Nazi murder was a great leveller, fully ecumenical... Hitler's bell tolled for all."

It is an account that has clear echoes in one early passage in A Secret History, just as his wartime experiences informed a number of short stories he wrote in the late 1940s. However, after ending his military service in the early 1950s, his main focus was to be on teaching American literature in colleges and later on as a literary critic, including editorship of the prestigious Kenyon Review. Perhaps more controversially, in the 1970s MacAuley was Fiction Editor of Playboy. There, he published work by a wide range of prominent writers including Doris Lessing, Saul Below, Ursula K Le Guin and a host of others.

He wrote only two other novels, on completely unrelated themes - one set in the Alps during the Great War and another about a university love affair - although he did produce a wide range of short stories. He received praise from his literary peers but was largely unrecognised as an author before his death in 1995 from cancer.

A Secret History of Time To Come is a novel I have read six times now over almost thirty years (I have the 1983 edition). On each of my journeys with Kinkaid, there has been something new, something previously unnoticed to discover and oftentimes delight among the verbal dexterity and visual ingenuity. There is a clear narrative, its pace rising as the book continues, but it is also a meditation on memory, on connection and on solitude, on time and, above all, on hope. For this is a world where, like our own, it might be all so easy to stagnate, seduced though unstimulated by the familiar, the known. But, driven by a map from the past, a dream about a stranger and an inherently human thirst for knowledge, Kinkaid endures and more than that explores, goes ever on, out from the dark thickets of forest and onwards under the boundless sky.


  1. Replies
    1. There's a copy for sale here