The Alteration (1976) by Kingsley Amis
Alternate history allows a reader not only to contemplate the past. It also makes one think upon the current culture and contrast its positives and negatives. This is what Kingsley Amis’s novel The Alteration does. It, however, comments on much more: the nature of freedom,
Alternate history allows a reader not only to contemplate the past. It also makes one think upon the current culture and contrast its positives and negatives. This is what Kingsley Amis’s novel The Alteration does. It, however, comments on much more: the nature of freedom, dogma, and creativity, and how they interact. This winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award contrasts from the writer’s normally comic literary output. However, even though it’s not as well-known as Lucky Jim and The Old Devils, it’s one of his most thought-provoking novels.
It’s 1976, but the world of The Alteration is very different from the then-contemporary time of our world’s 1976. The Roman Catholic Church powerfully holds sway over the realm of Christendom, often dictating to the nationalistically-weak temporal powers. Technology is less developed, and Europe is in a tense cold war with the Islamic Turks.
How did this world come to be? Two pivotal incidents in our history led to this strange world: Martin Luther, the instigator of the Reformation, became reconciled to the Catholic Church, eventually becoming Pope Germanian I, and Arthur Tudor’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon ended up being fruitful, leading to a papal crusade to fight against Henry of York (Henry VIII in our world), who tried to usurp his nephew’s throne. The Church’s triumph leads to the near extinguishing of incipient Protestantism (Protestantism later flees and establishes itself in North America). This causes the arresting of further revolutions in scientific and political thought that would’ve followed.
This is the world that the novel’s protagonist Hubert Anvil is born in. He’s a ten-year-old boy who possesses a beautiful gift for music, both in singing and in composing. The Church appreciates his beautiful soprano voice, but wants to preserve it past maturity. The only option for this is castration, or as they call it in this world, alteration. Hence, one of the meanings of the novel’s title. As the time approaches for Hubert’s alteration approaches, will he submit to the authority of those desiring this operation? Or will the intrigues within the Church as well as concerns from Protestant representatives from the Republic of New England cause Hubert to change what seems to be his destiny as a castrato in service to Rome?
The narrative’s POV is third-person omniscient, but the focus is on Hubert. It’s quite a change for Amis to have such a young character as the principal character, but he does well in fleshing him out. Hubert is portrayed as innocent as a young boy would likely be, especially under the strictures of his society. However, he is not naïve, as time shows him to be perceptive and inquiring as story’s progresses. He knows that the alteration will nullify a future amorous existence and the prospect of family life even though he has limited knowledge of carnal matters. He realizes that this will lead to his living such a different life as a male after the operation, that by the time of his decision, he contemplates on his potential otherness, and how he would view himself and others would view him.
Amis populates the story with a variety of characters, whose personalities and motives this world’s history and culture has molded. Not all clerics have the same view about what they should do to Hubert. Charity motivates some, ego motivates others, while the rest see him just as a pawn in the struggle for authority within the Church. However, the characters are not cardboard cutout heroes and villains. Even the father of Hubert, who comes across as authoritarian in the beginning, comes out as sympathetic. He, just like the other characters, are who they are because of circumstances. They still though have the choice of making moral decisions despite what the unreasoning authorities may proclaim.
Is this a story of clerical authority run amok? Yes, but it’s much more. As mentioned earlier, the value of creativity when it’s submitted to dogma is another theme. Throughout the novel, there are references to many known creative figures, such as Mozart and Beethoven. We know that in our world that many of their creations were religious pieces, but the authorities did not force these works out of them. However, it’s likely that in the world of The Alteration, the creators do not produce out of religious joy coming from the heart. Instead, it comes from pressure from a Church that wants to control through fear.
Another interesting aspect is that Amis subtly disguises real 20th century political figures by as members of the Church’s hierarchy. These are men who in our world supported socialist, communist, fascist, and Nazi ideologies. What Amis is likely saying is that the desire to control people’s lives goes beyond dogma for those with totalitarian tendencies. It doesn’t matter what the cause or belief is, some just want to stamp down individuality. In a time when there is a creeping “soft” totalitarianism of PC or good-thought dogma, especially in the arts/entertainment field, this novel especially rings true.
Some may hesitate to read the novel because they feel that they lack enough of a historical background. Or they believe that they’ll fail to understand the sprinkling throughout of Ecclesiastical Latin and religious terminology. Having such knowledge will help the novel come more alive. However, just taking your time to immerse yourself in the narrative will enrich by taking you to a speculative world that is strange but somewhat familiar.