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The word “trailblazer” does not sit either easily or commonly in the world of art. This constraint is particularly exacerbated in the field of literature where a Thomas Kuhn or a James Carse or a Panini appear like a blazing meteor when the world least expects such a manifestation. Kay Dick, was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. A courageous queer author, editor and publisher, Dick spent her literary life shrouded in a cloak of anonymity. Spending over two decades in Hampstead with her partner Kathleen Farrell, Dick also authored one of the greatest ever works of dystopia, which but for the eagle eyes of an intrepid literary agent, might have remained confined to a dirty and musty corner of a charity shop. First published in 1977, ‘They’ is a terrifying blend of prescience and plenitude.
Narrated in a spine chillingly matter-of-fact by an unnamed and ungendered protagonist, the spright volume moves at a breakneck pace. The setting is the English countryside. The corpse of a dead canine signals the harbinger of ominous portends. The narrator along with a band of intellectuals and artists, lead a nomadic existence as they seek to outwit a roving and predatory band of mercenaries. Referred to with a horrific conciseness as “they”, the hunters target talented people who lead solitary existence. Painters have their eyes gouged out, unrepentant musicians are reduced to permanent deafness. A sculptor using glass to exquisite perfection has his works remorselessly shattered before remnants of them are pressed deep into the sockets of his eyes.
The less daring of the lot, and the ones with families are locked up in desolate and evil looking towers, where they undergo a systematic and surgical ‘purge’ of memories. Akin to Orwell’s visionary precognition of totalitarian regimes, Kay Dick’s restless and mercurial imagination seems to have possessed a clairvoyant bent that foretold Xijin Ping’s merciless detention camps for ‘reeducating’ the Uighurs. Reeducation centres being a shameful euphemism for Nazi era concentration camps.
“They” represent judge, jury and executioner. Pilfering novels, and burning poetry, they make their eerie presence felt by camping in trawlers and insidiously wandering around the dwellings inhabited by the intelligentsia. To defy is to die a dire death or suffer brutal consequences. A sadistic “They” gang “ hold the right arm of Jane, a poet, over a burning flame for eight minutes. Her travesty – approaching her work that was consigned to the flames. Jane’s husband Russell however was a practical chap. When his creations were being steadily consumed by the fire, ‘You’ve forgotten this,’ he exclaimed and proceeded to hurl a recently completed fugue into the fire.”)
When “They” was first published, the reception from the readers, to put it mildly or even virtuously, was lacklustre. Her editor when asked by Dick for a paperback edition, did not hesitate to remind her that authors were obliged to pay for their own copies unless their advance had been earned out. An unperturbed Dick is said to have crabbily reprimanded her editor thus: “I suggest that Penguin make efforts to sell more copies of They to cover this deficit.” Unfortunately the book went out of print within a couple of years of its author’s death, before it received a timely reprieve courtesy the literary agent referred to in the beginning of this review, who happened to chance upon a worn out copy of the book in a charity shop.
A maestro of dystopia, Margaret Atwood, gushing eloquent about “They”, remarked that the book was ‘A creepily prescient tale … Insidiously horrifying!’ In one unforgettable passage in the book, the narrator is accosted by a writer of books for children, who in a permanent zombie-like state wades into a pond daily. This act, which is almost redemptive in nature, is apparently to obliterate the memory of being set alight. Blazing embers are a hallmark of the book as they find repeated mention. They represent wanton destruction as well as a purifying act of cleansing.
Kay Dick sometimes wrote under the pseudonym, Edward Lane. Born illegitimate, raised affluent, Dick was a veritable rebel with cause aplenty. Plunging headlong into pursuing amorous same-sex relationships and foraging into unrepentant hate campaigns, Dick spent far less time trying to carve out a niche as a writer. However a profligate lifestyle took a toll on this novelist. She accumulated debts amounting to more than £6,000, (in 1986) of which £3,000 was paid off with a gift from the Royal Literary Fund. Grumpy, foul mouthed, singularly unpredictable, yet possessing an incredible gift of the pen, Dick died bereft of friends and with no lack of foes on the 19th of October 2011.
Maybe this inimitable women felt “they” never meant a pidgin to her in the grander scheme of things.