Some of the English language’s most inventive authors have written novels exploring alternate versions of history or reality: Philip K Dick, in The Man in the High Castle (1962), imagines the social and political landscape of North America following an Axis victory in World War II. Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (1986-87) is set in a world where the existence of superheroes alters the course of the Cold War. The City and the City (2009) by China Mieville is an odd, noir-ish tale about two cities in Europe that occupy the same physical space but exist in separate, but often overlapping, dimensions.
The England Operation, by Yangon-based British author Peter Swarbrick, adds a different twist to the genre, offering a clever and very humorous reality based on a classic carnivalesque inversion of reality.
Whereas such reversals during carnival celebrations are usually social (the king becomes the fool, while the downtrodden peasant plays leader), here the exchange is geopolitical: In Mr Swarbrick’s world, the wealthiest nation on the planet is the United States of Africa (USA), and Nairobi is the globe’s pre-eminent metropolis, home to the best universities in the world. Islam is the dominant religion, with after-work drinks enjoyed at a restaurant called Thank Allah It’s Thursday.
From the African perspective, Europe is the Dark Continent, and England, where most of the novel is set, is “cold, bleak, muddy, rainy, snowy, foggy, sleety, remote, roadless, godless, unfriendly, uncivilised, Christian, quarrelsome, unforgiving, profitless, backward”. The North American Colonies are a place of discord, where ruthless pirates prey on yachts off the coast of Cape Cod.
These reversals require frequent reality (or rather unreality) checks while reading. For example, the term “US Marines” tends to evoke mental images of American soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan; in The England Operation, however, it refers to the elite, globe-trotting fighting force from the United States of Africa.
The author is also playful with people’s names; a character named Saloth Sar (better known in our world as Pol Pot) is not the genocidal leader of an agrarian Southeast Asian country, but rather the special assistant to the head of the “world’s premiere intergovernmental body”, the Organisatio Nationorum Orbi, or ONO.
The plot of the novel revolves around the launch of a peacekeeping mission to England. Normans had invaded the country in 1066; it’s now 1141, and there’s civil war between two claimants to the throne, both of whom are descended from the original invader, William the Conqueror. ONO is sent in to protect the civilian population from abuses from both sides.
While the more advanced nations such the USA, Nirvana (encompassing areas of Asia, including Myanmar and Cambodia) and Persia have developed motorised vehicles, firearms and airships that travel slowly from one country to another, England itself is stuck in the 10th century. Outside influences have created a landscape that looks a lot like the Middle Ages with machine guns in the hands of the powerful and the privileged.
How this global state of affairs came about is never explained by the author, and it doesn’t have to be. This is the world that is presented, and in its own odd way, it all fits together. All that’s required is for the reader to buy into it and enjoy the journey. Mr Swarbrick provides more than enough imaginative – and often funny – detail to make it easy to do so.
At its core, The England Operation is a satirical critique of the United Nations and its culture of bureaucracy and inefficiency.