When I was in my 20s I came across a copy of Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, one of the strangest and most wonderful not-quite-science-fiction novels ever written and I sometimes feel as if I have never stopped reading it. A deluded narrator in an unreliable universe undertakes a journey to the Dream Archipelago. I put the book down one grey winter’s morning in perhaps 1987 and began my own journey to a place I knew beyond doubt existed for me: the dream archipelago of my own imaginary future.
At the time I was living under the dictates of the second State of Emergency and feeling trapped in a beleaguered country at war with itself, closed to the world outside those patrolled borders, an international pariah, a place of secrets and hidden terror. I was trying to complete a thesis in which I had lost faith. Living alone, I was drinking too much and living in the past. The only relationship I wanted was one that had ended two years before. I was afraid of the present, which seemed unmanageable and messy and lonely. The future of my imagination had a bright unknowable dazzle.
So in my dreams I began searching for the white islands and gleaming cities of the Dream Archipelago. At night I would place a last glass of wine on the bedside table, crawl under a grubby duvet without bothering to undress and go away into a place I had never known in my ‘real’ life.
The islands were grey and misty and beautiful. There were friendly sailors at the harbour who pointed out directions, and a ferry that left each Thursday at noon for the nearest port of the western archipelago. I often sat beside the same woman with a basket of dried goods and a small overnight bag. We would talk about the bad weather on the mainland and all the underground cellars being built in back gardens for security reasons. When the ferry docked on the outer rim of the archipelago I would see my friend waving from the jetty but I could not go ashore in the west of the islands, I had to get permission from senior officials at the Archon further into the cluster of islands. So I would wave to my friend and then stay aboard waiting for another passenger boat heading further into the archipelago. Often it did not arrive and I would have to go back to the mainland disappointed.
For the first few months it was sunny and the seas calm — we saw dolphins once or twice, swimmers on broad white beaches circling the bays. But then the summer passed and I would watch snow falling on the rocky promontories and fir pines of islands as we passed. The sea was dark and choppy. Gunboats passed us, heading out to sea. The woman who had sat beside me no longer caught the ferry and I often found myself alone in the cabin or standing on the decks. Permission to visit my friend arrived in a bulky envelope from the Archon. Reading through the documents I found I had been given me a new name and identity details for the purpose of travel and warned me that travel to the north was not advised because war had broken out in the archipelago. I had a phone call one afternoon and a woman’s voice told me I might have to stay on the islands if I was caught in the shipping blockade while visiting. My lifespan on the island would be much shorter than on the mainland but I would be able to move around freely in the Inner Islands and would be mentored for a new career. This made me feel exhilarated for days.
For much of that year I lived in my ongoing daydream. It seemed more real to me than anything of my waking reality. Then one evening I went out for supper with a friend who was also writing up his thesis. Emboldened and made careless by too much red wine, I began to tell him all about my wonderful dreamlife, a spool of magical narrative I was thinking of turning into a novel. My friend listened for a while and then interrupted me.
‘Stop it,’ he said. ‘I find this very disturbing. You sound as if you are having some kind of nervous breakdown. We can’t turn our backs on reality like this, Nita. You sound unanchored and a little delusional. Let me make an appointment with student health up on campus and get you some counselling. The stress of the thesis must be getting to you.’
I began to tremble and weep then and agreed with him. I did feel disoriented and in need of help. And so I stopped dreaming about the wonderful future in the archipelago, deliberately paid no attention to that siren call. I resumed my unhappy life and for a while I drank much less and made an effort to get out and be with others. It bothered me extremely that my friend had called me by my dream name, the name I had been given to travel to the west islands of the archipelago. Madness seemed to be hovering nearby.
Literature opens us to possibilities and to ways of escape into selves and quests we dare not undertake in our daily existence. It was a false beginning, an adventure in unreality. Years later when I read Iain Sinclair, JG Ballard and more of Christopher Priest, I felt the spell of that dreaming life come over me again. But this time I could recognise the dangers and step back. And I could see the role played by alcohol, by extreme isolation, by fasting, lack of self-care. Talking with woman friends, I find that as young women many of my friends went through something similar — rituals and initiations more imagined than real, daydreams enhanced by dope or appetite suppressants or sleep deprivation. Travels in the the underworld, the futures denied to us in this reality. The Dream Archipelago will have to wait.