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Authors: Alan Sillitoe

Travels in Nihilon

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Travels in Nihilon

A Novel

Alan Sillitoe

Prologue

More than twenty-five years have gone by since a guidebook to Nihilon was published. A committee of editors has therefore decided to collect information for a new and more up-to-date volume. This is a difficult undertaking because Nihilon is, by and large, that undiscovered country from which few travellers can be expected to return. Nevertheless your Chief Editor hopes to complete the writing of this handbook when his five more active collaborators – soon to be introduced – have come back from Nihilon itself.

The reason for publishing a handbook to Nihilon is that tourists seeking strange meetings and unexpected thrills, travellers with unusual desires, and people wanting merely to live in that country, need the experience of others on which to plan their hopes and expectations. Although it is true that out of many who have gone to Nihilon, few have returned with enough lucidity to give information or tell of their adventures, it must be said that guidebooks are not written for those who come back, but to prime those with the impetus to go, and to help those ardent spirits who have the good fortune to arrive.

In any case, the little-known country of Nihilon can claim certain achievements worth showing to the world. Its nihilism, they say, is second to none. Its nihilistic principles are applied to modern life in such a way that, as one lands at Nihilon City Airport, being only permitted to approach at dusk, a string of immense and lit-up letters nearly two kilometres long spells out the coruscating message:

NIHILISM WORKS
!

Such a country ought to be explored and, if possible, described.

At the same time we also believe that whatever dangers are to be met with in Nihilon will be effectively dispelled if sufficiently written about. Indeed it is our fond hope that a thorough guidebook to a country whose life and economy is based on nihilistic principles could certainly be not a little responsible for undermining the very foundations of the country itself, and bringing about a new and more lawful era in its history. Man, by nature, is not nihilistic, and in order to make him behave and live in such a fashion, one can assume that certain ‘principles of nihilism' have been formulated by the one man who runs the country, and whom we hope to meet in the course of this narrative. Though Nihilon, through him, has devised the perfect system of regimented chaos as the best way of safeguarding the eternal spirits of its citizens, this is no proof that a better method could not safeguard them even more.

Since most of the capitalistic freedom-loving nations are going in the same direction, we feel it our duty to show the truth of what Nihilon claims to have achieved by way of constructive nihilism. We will also fill in the pot-holes of its recent history, and instruct in geography, as well as voice a few opinions on the arts and other matters – about which recent travel and encyclopaedic works are all too vague.

Certain documents have already arrived from my five collaborators in the field, and I will incorporate other material in this book as it comes to hand. It will be necessary to adjust the prose here and there, since the styles of the reports too often betray touches of panic and hysteria, a tone that may not commend itself to the general reader.

Some might say that the original reports, being more in tune with events related, should have been left as they were written, and that the style I have adopted may be less vivid. To which I reply that since the documents came into my hands and not those of my forewarned critics, then I am the one who will have the final word on it. A guidebook to such a country as Nihilon puts me into an unbending frame of mind, which I feel is necessary if I am to maintain strict control over such disordered nihilistic material.

I spoke to all five members of this perilous expedition before they set out, and from everyone received permission to arrange their notes as I thought fit. Whether this compliance was because they were visiting Nihilon, and not another more civilized country, I have as yet no way of knowing, though I decided that this may well be the truth on reading the preliminary despatches.

If it is eventually plain that Nihilon will not after all submit itself to having a guidebook written about it, then this work will have to be presented in the form of a novel. I hope novelists will forgive me for this, because it seems that after sifting through the basic material to hand, I may well find it necessary to move into their territory.

But this Guide to Nihilon comes from underground, and may have been tainted by the nihilistic quality of the material in question. However that may be, let us begin the story of five people who travelled to Nihilon. They were foolhardy, but who is not?

Chapter 1

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.

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