James contemplates the end of the world in quiet, haunting ‘Children of Men’

August 24, 2012

In the year 2021, no human child has been born for nearly 24 years. England is one of the few remaining bastions of civilization. Oxford historian Theo Faron, 50 years of age, contemplates his species’ impending doom with a detached eye. But when he’s approached by an emissary from a small group of motley would-be revolutionaries, he discovers, against all expectations, that there may be hope for the future.

This haunting vision of Britain in decay is detailed in The Children of Men, a 1992 novel by the esteemed British writer P.D. James.

Faron, her protagonist, is a keen observer. But he also embodies the apathy that has overtaken nearly everyone in England. He occupies a five-story house; it has been his alone for a year, ever since his wife left him for an artist. The marriage was a bad match from the start. Its eventual doom was sealed in 1994 when Faron backed over and killed the couple’s 15-month-old daughter, their only child.

Omega — universal infertility — occurred the following year, 1995. No effort to explain the phenomenon, let alone provide a cure, has succeeded. England imports foreigners, known as Sojourners, to provide cheap labor; it exports criminals to a penal colony on the Isle of Man. The nation regularly holds mass suicides, called Quietus.

Some cities have been designated future population centers, where the nation’s ever-dwindling work force will eventually focus on supplying energy and other necessities to remaining residents. Already, many little-used roads are in disrepair, and a number of small villages are virtual ghost towns.

The story is set in motion when Faron is asked to speak to his cousin, Xan Lyppiatt, who rules England as its so-called Warden. Faron is unimpressed by the supplicants, a group that styles itself the Five Fishes, and his minimal involvement with these dissidents prompts what little action takes place in the first half of the book.

In this early passage from the novel, Faron recalls one of the stages of humanity’s decline:

It was in that year, 2008, that the suicides increased. Not mainly among the old, but among my generation, the middle-aged, the generation who would have to bear the brunt of an ageing and decaying society’s humiliating but insistent needs. Xan, who had by then taken over as the Warden of England, tried to stop what was becoming an epidemic by imposing fines on the surviving nearest relations, just as the Council now pays handsome pensions to the relations of the incapacitated and dependent old who kill themselves. It had its effect; the suicide rate fell compared with the enormous figures in other parts of the world, particularly countries whose religion was based on ancestor worship, on the continuance of a family. But those who lived gave way to the almost universal negativism, what the French named ennui universel. It came upon us like an insidious disease; indeed, it was a disease, with its soon-familiar symptoms of lassitude, depression, ill-defined malaise, a readiness to give way to minor infections, a perpetual disabling headache. I fought against it, as did many others. Some, Xan among them, have never been afflicted with it, protected perhaps by a lack of imagination or, in his case, by an egotism so powerful that no external catastrophe can prevail against it. I still occasionally need to struggle but I now fear it less. The weapons I fight it with are also my consolations: books, music, food, wine, nature.

These assuaging satisfactions are also bittersweet reminders of the transitoriness of human joy; but when was it ever lasting? I can still find pleasure, more intellectual than sensual, in the effulgence of an Oxford spring, the blossoms in Belbroughton Road which seem lovelier every year, sunlight moving on stone walls, horse-chestnut trees in full bloom, tossing in the wind, the smell of a bean field in flower, the first snowdrops, the fragile compactness of a tulip. Pleasure need not be less keen because there will be centuries of springs to come, their blossom unseen by human eyes, the walls will crumble, the trees die and rot, the gardens revert to weeds and grass, because all beauty will outlive the human intelligence which records, enjoys and celebrates it. I tell myself this, but do I believe it when the pleasure now comes so rarely and, when it does, is so indistinguishable from pain?

The novel’s second half is much more eventful. Faron is drawn back into the dissidents’ orbit; over the course of a few short, intense days their actions have consequences that ripple far beyond their small circle.

James made her reputation as an accomplished crime novelist; Scotland Yard homicide detective Adam Dalgliesh is probably her best-known hero. Fourteen of her books have been adapted for film of television, according to WikipediaThe Children of Men is one of just two James books that depart from the conventions of the mystery genre. (I read the other, her 1980 book Innocent Blood, many years ago; it does in fact involve crime but proceeds along unusual lines.)

But while The Children of Men is in fact a science fiction story, it’s more accurate to call it a novel of ideas. At less than 250 pages, it is a relatively short read, but not always an easy one.

I must confess that my enjoyment of this novel was tempered by my love for Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant 2007 film adaptation of the material; it is a grim movie, but also a gripping one, and I connected to it in a far more visceral way than I did to James’ book. (Over the next few weeks, I intend to write a long essay examining the differences between the two versions, which are many in number and major in their significance.)

Yet I don’t wish to damn the novel with faint praise. It is a quiet and thoughtful book, and the future it describes is sobering. In all, James has assembled a powerful story about doom and damnation. Any serious person seeking something a little different to read would do well to open The Children of Men

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