Where (and When) to Go?

A Booker Prize-winning novel poses the question but doesn’t answer it.

Where (and When) to Go?

“Dystopian” is a word many critics apply to Prophet Song, a novel about Ireland becoming an authoritarian state, but author Paul Lynch isn’t so sure it fits because, somewhere in the world, the country he describes is very real and not speculative at all.

The book, which won the 2023 Booker Prize, tells the story of a woman whose family only belatedly takes advantage of a chance to escape after her husband and son disappear — in ways too reminiscent of actual disappearances — and her youngest child is apparently tortured to death.

The Netflix movie “The Swimmers” recounts the saga of two sisters who fled Syria in 2015 and saved their migrant-filled dinghy, whose engine had stopped, by jumping in the water and swimming alongside it. Lynch called the civil war in Syria one of the inspirations for Prophet Song.

The question that makes both the book and the movie so relevant today is this: How do you know when it’s time to abandon your country, uproot everything you’ve ever known, and become a refugee? Lynch uses the example of Ireland, a member of the European Union and filled with white people, but the question applies to many nations. (It applied, too, to Jews in Europe in the 1930s. Some escaped in time, but most did not.)

Dystopian, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean “postapocalyptic” and can refer instead to authoritarian police states, many of which parallel real places. Brave New World, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, and The Handmaid’s Tale, among others, concern places that evolve into totalitarian states. Postapocalyptic novels such as The Road or Wool, on the other hand, deal with worlds that survive some cataclysmic event.

Dystopian novels are closer to reality, and Lynch’s point is that totalitarianism and refugees are all around us. Robert Kaplan has hammered away at this theme in numerous nonfiction books that combine geopolitical insights, journalism, and travel writing, often focusing on the attraction of the West as a refuge for migrants.

The recent European Parliament elections demonstrated a decisive rightward swing as E.U. countries reacted to immigration, and the southern border of the United States has become a perpetual campaign issue after repeated influxes of immigrants.

The question of unchecked immigration is vexing, and no country is immune. Lynch has written, in The Prophet, a novel variously described as urgent and claustrophobic, with an ending that’s ambiguous. But the real-life question for so many today is where to seek refuge. Our own country is riven by factionalism and contrary forces. It has survived such challenges before and hopefully will again, but as Lynch reminds us, we can’t take anything for granted.

Darrell Delamaide is an author and journalist in Washington, DC. He has written two novels and two nonfiction books.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus