Black & White
The Rat & The Serpent was another of those “characters used as real people and as cultural archetypes” novels. It was inspired by an experience I had in Exeter one summer evening. I was standing on a roadside pavement, waiting to be picked up from work, when an intense thunderstorm began to lean in over the city; and it was moving straight towards me. As it approached, colours began to leach out of the city around me, as the storm-dark clouds neared. It wasn’t raining yet, but everything I could see seemed to be in black-and-white because of the drastic reduction in light and because of the density of the clouds. As I surveyed all this, a thought popped into my head: would it be possible to write a novel entirely in black-and-white, just as a black-and-white film might be made? I watched people running this way and that with their black umbrellas and I thought: what if it was soot falling from the sky, not rain?
Those were the basic thoughts which I began with. Later, I devised an upwardly mobile plot and created the four main characters. The novel focuses on Ugliy, who is a disabled street beggar living in the dark, soot-shrouded city of Mavrosopolis. After some unpleasant experiences he decides to attempt to climb into the lowest of the formal social levels, that of citidenizen, where he hopes to find a just and bearable life. He has one unusual advantage however: he is a shaman of the black rat. Using his native guile and his special abilities, he makes the attempt, and succeeds.
But once he is a citidenizen he finds more social levels above him. He also sees worse stratification, worse inequality and worse corruption. So he decides to rise further, buoyed by his friends and by his social conscience. Eventually however he finds himself in the dilemma of not knowing how far to progress, since a particularly vile and secretive cabal exists at the top of the social pyramid.
The first chapter was difficult to write, but once I’d got the hang of imagining only in monochrome the rest flowed quite nicely. In fact, once I got going it was surprisingly easy to do: I wanted to write a gothic novel, I have quite a gothic imagination, and the whole black-and-white thing helped a lot.
I employed a few carefully devised writing aids. The novel is set at night – so no blue sky and yellow sun. All the food mentioned in the novel is black, grey or white. The most difficult thing however was not mentioning blood. There are a few hand-to-hand fights in Ugliy’s ascent, and all had to be of the sort where no blood is shed. I not only had to imagine the novel in black-and-white, I had to avoid anything with strong colour associations that would break the monochrome spell: sky, blood, apples, butter, and so on.
Reviews were mixed. One reviewer commented that the novel was an uneasy allegory, which in retrospect is a fair point, though at the time of writing there was no such sense in my mind. But it does read as something of an allegorical tale. It is in fact a variation on the Little Prince folk story, a point made plain in the book’s introduction.
One reviewer said: … Some style choices made it difficult for me to follow… [The film] ‘Metropolis’ was a blend of mythology with technology in what might be described as a Dystopic environment written in a style that tried to emulate some epic classics. And that’s what you get from The Rat and the Serpent which almost becomes something of an anachronistic style of writing.
Would I write it differently now? Yes I would. But not too differently perhaps.