From one of Britain’s leading writers comes a biting satire about a country founded on Nihilism and a government gone mad
Nihilon is a country where honesty is outlawed, drunk driving is mandatory, and nihilism reigns supreme. Five researchers are sent into the midst of this chaos to compile a new guidebook about the peculiar, unexplored land and its all-powerful leader, President Nil. Adam, Benjamin, Jaquiline, Edgar, and Richard attempt to gather information—but find themselves swept up by a nation turned upside down.
As they navigate their way to the capital through artificial mist created by President Nil to disorient his people, the writers are stopped by ordinary citizens whom they quickly discover cannot be trusted. Adam accidentally starts a ground war, Benjamin is forced to buy a car, and Jaquiline discovers that robbery is not only legal, but encouraged. The researchers, who arrived as tourists, will find that although it is easy to enter Nihilon, it is much, much harder to escape.
Alan Sillitoe, the bestselling author of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, crosses into uncharted territory in this comic dystopia that is as smart as it is engrossing.
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Travels in Nihilon
By Alan Sillitoe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Alan Sillitoe
All rights reserved.
The frontier area was shrouded in mist, a factor that Adam had not reckoned on as he cycled away from his Cronacian hotel after breakfast. It simply meant that he would not need to use his poetic talent on a long description of the area, which he had been told to do as one of his contributions to the guidebook. When the hotel manager said that the Nihilon authorities often put up artificial mist to obscure the mind and eyes of both friends and enemies alike, Adam had taken it as a subtle hint that much would be deliberately hidden from him in the country he was about to visit. This was what he expected, anyway. But though it was a real mist, there was no distance behind it so early in Spring. It was a veil of promise that, at this early hour, gave off a smell of suave Nihilonian warmth.
Following the Editor's instructions Adam had come by train along the southern coast to the last town in Cronacia, travelling a day and a night sitting in an empty carriage because, for quite unfounded reasons, he worried for the safety of his bicycle in the neighbouring luggage van. Stowed in the lightweight pipes of the aluminium frame were two thousand travellers units – the currency for his daily expenses through Nihilon. He had never possessed such wealth before, and balancing this concern was a feeling of security at the thought of it, causing him to marvel again at the ample but mysterious financial help that the projected guidebook must have received, and glad that after so many indigent years he had been called on to work for it. Frugal living had kept him thin for his age of forty, and his muscles had hardened since the trip began, though he had not yet done much cycling.
The road went straight up the steep hill, to the customs post at the top. As he approached, pushing his bicycle, which was burdened by panniers on either side of the back wheel, he perceived through the dispersing mist a large sign saying:
WELCOME TO ALL TRAVELLERS WHO COME WITH
FRIENDSHIP. SIGNED: PRESIDENT NIL.
On the olive-tree side of the route, groves of twisted grey trunks descended by an undulating landscape to the sea a few kilometres away. Soldiers standing behind concrete blocks bore sensitive but uneducated faces, and submachine guns. On the oak and coniferous flank of the road, the land climbed gently at first, then more sharply to the stony plateaux and snowy heads of the Nihilon Mountains. Trenches were dug behind thick entanglements of wire, because relations between Nihilon and Cronacia had never been good, and flared occasionally into open warfare. It distressed Adam that no trouble was ever taken to disguise this tender situation, or to remedy it. The socialist regime of Cronacia was mild and orderly, in no way quarrelsome regarding its black-hearted neighbour of Nihilon. But Nihilon bristled with wild dreams, was inwardly polluted with nightmare (so the manager of the hotel in Cronacia had said), and therefore not to be trusted along the one frontier it possessed, which Cronacia's fair land had the misfortune to share.
He was the only tourist crossing at that time of day, and the mist finally cleared as he approached the sentry at the wicket gate. On the handlebars of his bicycle an unobtrusive Tonguemaster had been clipped, an ingenious instrument that enabled him to understand and be understood in the many languages and dialects of Nihilon. He felt confident and fit, full of sensibility and wellbeing, and free of responsibility, as if he had been put back to a younger age when faith or lack of it had not yet risen to the peak of spiritual turmoil that had tormented him before taking this job. The sentry thrust an ugly-looking bayonet towards his stomach: 'Passport.'
Adam handed it to him with a pleasant smile. Glassy splinters of sunlight spread over them both. The sentry gave it back without looking at it, and said: 'Can I have a ride on your bicycle? I can control a tank, but I've never used a bicycle, though ever since I can remember I've longed to join a circus.' His face was earnest and sad and good-natured, and even had it not been, Adam would have let him borrow the bicycle, because he invariably became friendly and pliant whenever he held out his passport at a frontier. He took the sentry's gun, while the sentry clumsily mounted the frame and pedalled along the road, and was soon lost to sight around a bend.
To pass the time till he returned Adam inspected the rifle, a compact well-made bullet-gun that, because he had never been near a factory, seemed a miracle of human ingenuity. He had always been awed by machines. Even a bus or a bicycle might send him into realms of dreamy respect when he stood by the side of the road in a certain mood of physical uncertainty or disorientation. He lifted the gun up, as he had seen it done, and squinted along the line of the barrel. The fine steel of the curving trigger drew his finger, and when he stroked the shining polish there was a thump at his shoulder, and noise hammered forth and reverberated like whipcracks in all the mountains around, breaking the misty stillness of the dawn.
Another note sounded, similar though more distant, and a faint burn passed along his elbow like an angered wasp, followed by the thud and splintering of bullets into the nearest tree. When it was obvious that they came from the opposite direction, he fell to the ground for shelter, cheek against stones and soil, tears on his skin as machine guns tore the air open from Cronacia. Retaliatory bursts from Nihilon sent out rhythmical loud strings of similar noise from the concrete stumps picketing the forward slope of the frontier post, and in the occasional peace used by both sides to draw breath he heard shouting from nearby soldiers and laughter as, without orders, they gladly took up emergency positions to break what must have been several days of tedious inaction.
Adam slithered backwards, still gripping the guilty gun, filled with vain and bitter regret that he had mindlessly taken the rifle when the soldier had pedalled away on his bicycle. But such thoughts were drowned in the clatter of small-arms fire which at first hindered his progress to a position of safety. Chips of wood fell against his back, and stony earth spat around him. As minutes passed and the furore increased he felt less in danger of death, and moved with more skill.
A mortar began thumping up bombs to his left. He had both expected and dreaded this. Down and across the valley in Cronacia smoke puffs lifted along the hillside like large birds taking off in alarm. His belly detected a violent upheaval of the earth not far away, as the veteran Cronacian defenders of their soil commenced an artillery fireplan against this barefaced provocation of territorial integrity, unwittingly set in motion by Adam. Heavier guns from Nihilon phlegmed out smoke and fire from the heights behind, and during the momentary peace of his own mind he counted the explosions and noted their patterns of white and dark-green gradually spreading in a single pall over the whole hillside.
Retaliation couldn't be long in coming. Adam, with an exceptionally refined sense of self-preservation which, though it acted for him at moments of extreme physical danger, rarely warned him of the more devastating psychic upsets, ran on hands and feet between tree boles pitted with bullet marks. He reached the lea-side of a concrete lean-to, choking with fear and excitement, wondering how he could get free of the battle and find his bicycle, still clutching the rifle that might lead him to it.
Petrol fumes reeked in the air. The frontier post was burning, and all he had to show for his entry into Nihilon was an unstamped passport, and a rifle. The fact that he had so far escaped injury did not weigh much with him, for he was beginning to feel, as he sat on a fallen tree trunk some way back from the worst of the shelling, that without his bicycle he would soon cease to exist. In it was all his money, as well as pens, ink-bottle, maps, paper, and change of shirt. The best plan, he decided, was to follow the main road away from the frontier, and look for his bicycle as he went along. At least he had got into the country. Having been told to expect a savage and rigorous customs check, it now seemed as if no such establishment existed at this entry point. Or if it did it had probably been concussed into a smoking ruin. That was one thing to be thankful for, at least.CHAPTER 2
Benjamin Smith, who had stayed late in his hotel bed, and did not approach the frontier till almost midday, specialized in politics and military history. Being fat and bald, and confident with his senior age of fifty, he had been nominated chief field-worker on the collection of data for the guidebook to Nihilon. He did not know why this was so, yet realized that it was just, and therefore saw no reason why he should hurry on what promised to be nothing more than a month's exploring holiday in Nihilon. He drove a black Thundercloud Estate car along a well-made road that curved up to the highest pass, and in spite of the gradients, and the great weight of his equipment, he did over eighty kilometres an hour. The sun's heat beamed on him, but he wore a dark-green eye-shield fixed across his forehead, happy and free in such heat, though not especially grateful in case it should put him off a lunch of local delicacies once he had broached the border.
He had been warned of difficulties that might tax his skill getting into Nihilon, but no border had ever fazed such a master of extensive travels around the world as Benjamin Smith. He stopped by the roadside and lit a cigar, then continued the winding ascent. At the next sharp bend a pair of sentry huts signalled the last outpost of Cronacia, and the guards there did not stop him to look in his passport, but indicated that he should go on. As if in acknowledgement of his comradely wave, they pointed at his car and laughed so hilariously that, catching a last view in his rear mirror, he saw them actually rolling on the asphalt surface at some joke that he was now too far off to share. A brief question as to what could be so amusing at that particular time of day flashed through his mind, but was soon pushed out by a bout of speculation on what different fundamentals of life he would find once he had passed into Nihilon.
There was little time to think, for the glittering white-and-olive line of one-storied police posts stretched before him like a clean new town, a sight which reminded him to switch on his Tonguemaster for the inevitable parleying to come. On a high pole waved the flag of the People's Capitalist Republic of Nihilon. Its emblem was a large nihilistic black ink-blot, splayed on an immense white sheet of cloth. When he paused to make sure his papers were ready, an old white-overalled road-cleaner with a square grey moustache leaned on his window:
'It's a beautiful pattern, sir,' he said, 'and a lucky man who had the genius to think it up. It's copyright, sir, you know.'
'Spectacular,' said Benjamin nonchalantly, though it looked almost truly so against the pale blue of the Nihilon sky. The road-duster went on to say that the author of this design had made a fortune in royalties, since every postcard or lapel button, car window or steamer funnel that displayed it contributed to his unparalleled riches.
'Some people are born lucky,' the old man muttered as he went away, shaking his head at the cruelty of such injustice.
When Benjamin drove forward and stopped at the kiosk, a policeman strolled over to him, smiling pleasantly. Across the road, painted along one of the white buildings, and intended mainly for tourists leaving the country, was the cryptic but worrying legend:
SELF-EXPRESSION PLUS SELF-INDULGENCE EQUALS
SIGNED: PRESIDENT NIL.
'No one is allowed into our wonderful country today,' said the policeman.
'On whose authority?' Benjamin demanded, turning his window lower.
'Mine, and the rest of us,' the policeman grinned. 'We just feel like being awkward. It's part of our self-expression. Sometimes we let them in, sometimes we don't. Today we don't.'
Four loudspeakers attached to the flagpole emitted a shattering roar of what Benjamin could hardly call music, as if it were played by a collection of brass bands, a few hundred fire engines, a thousand blacksmiths' hammers, and the amplified reproduction of a force-twelve wind. The policeman looked towards the flagpole with rapture, hands pressed together. Seeing the alarmed and puzzled look on Benjamin's face, he took out a tiny square notebook, for it was impossible to be heard, and passed a scribbled message through the car window, which said: 'It's our National Hymn to Nihilism. Don't you think it's beautiful?'
Benjamin tried to smile, while gritting his false teeth to stop them rattling. 'What's it called?' he wrote facetiously on his own square of paper, imagining that such monstrous noise could not possibly have a title.
The policeman grimaced, as if maliciously imitating him: 'I'm glad you asked that. It's called "The Hammer and Chisel Forever!"'
Benjamin sweated for almost half an hour, and though both hands were clamped on his ears, the vibration of the symphony for loudspeakers shattered every vein. The policeman stayed close, and occasionally broke out of his rapture to scribble further little notes: 'It's our Geriatrics Symphony Orchestra playing,' 'That's my favourite part,' 'I hope they play it again tomorrow,' or 'I could listen to it forever, couldn't you, dear traveller?', at which Benjamin Smith could only nod and grin, and observe other Nihilonians gently gazing at the loudspeakers, as if by looking they'd be able to hear better.
He opened his briefcase and found the official letter for the Nihilonian Ambassador which said that Mr Benjamin Smith, as a bona fide traveller to Nihilon, was to be admitted to the country and allowed to wander at will without let or hindrance. It was covered with stamps, seals, photographs, fingerprints, dates, and obscene marks of every colour and description. In tiny smudged print at the bottom was a statement saying that anyone disobeying these commands or rendering them null in any way would be shot by order of President Nil. This was a document that Benjamin had thought to use only in absolute necessity, but now that the music had stopped he pushed it towards the frontier guard, disturbing him in the act of filing his nails, for he considered it of vital importance that he should cross the frontier on the same date as Adam the poet, who had no doubt already done so near the coast, a hundred and sixty kilometres to the south.
The policeman looked at the paper closely, to show this supercilious traveller that he could read, and Benjamin got out of his car in case he should need help in its interpretation. Several minutes passed while the reading took place. Then the policemen's face became blotched with rage, as he ripped the paper into small pieces, and threw them in the air so that they were scattered by the wind back towards Cronacia. 'Why did you do that?' Benjamin demanded.
The policeman drew himself to his full height, and stuck out his chest proudly. 'Because I'm a Nihilist, you Red Fascist Pirate, that's why.'
'Oh, are you?' Benjamin cried, and gave him a great blow in the stomach, then punched him so violently in the jaw that the policeman went sprawling across the pavement. Panting with rage, he stood ready to hit him again should he try to get up, or to fight anyone else who might attempt to arrest him. But the few onlookers smiled, fellow policemen and local cleaners, who obviously thought he had acted properly. The policeman, with a look of tearful despair as he lay on the ground, wearily waved him on.
This is obviously the thing to do, thought Benjamin, as he hurriedly started his car and moved forward. I'm learning once again how to behave in this cesspool of President Nil.CHAPTER 3
Adam remembered that ice-maps of the Alpine regions had been prepared by the cartographic staff of the guidebook, but he had not been allowed by the General Editor to bring them with him. This was just as well, for they were no doubt totally inaccurate, and in any case he had no intention of cycling through mountain country if he could help it, much less on ice and snow. His only desire at the moment was to get clear of the too sensitive frontier and find the soldier who had unwittingly taken his one means of sustenance and locomotion.
A short distance from the border, when the sun was drawing sweat through his vest and into his jacket, and his feet were beginning to ache, and also his arms from the effort of carrying the rifle, he entered an area where the road and its confines were an overlapping spread of craters. Between the trees he saw a solitary soldier lying on the lip of one, a stream of ochred blood colouring the soil by his left boot. The face was turned sideways, and going close, Adam recognized it as that of the soldier who had taken his bicycle – which he now saw lying under a tree, unharmed, both panniers intact.
Excerpted from Travels in Nihilon by Alan Sillitoe. Copyright © 1971 Alan Sillitoe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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