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'The Alteration' by Kingsley Amis mixes alt-history, satire

"The Alteration" by Kingsley Amis (NYRB Classics, May 2013) Credit: Handout

THE ALTERATION, by Kingsley Amis. NYRB Classics, 256 pp., $14.95.

In some parallel world, Kingsley Amis' alternate-history novel "The Alteration" (1976) may already have the wide readership it deserves.

Amis (1922-1995) is best known today for his campus novel "Lucky Jim" and for being the father of novelist Martin Amis. But "The Alteration," just reissued by NYRB Classics, is a terrific novel that blends the fantasy pleasure of alternate history with Amis' brand of literary satire.

Set largely in England and Western Europe circa 1976, "The Alteration" imagines a world dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, politically as well as spiritually. The Reformation turned out to be a minor event, its effect limited to "New England" (i.e., North America). Instead of being a reformer, Martin Luther became a pope.

Ten-year-old Hubert Anvil, a boy soprano at an English church, sings so beautifully that church officials (all the way to the pope) decide he must be castrated to preserve the beauty of his voice. This plot line, horrifying as it is, reflects the real past tradition of musical castrati.

Hubert's clerical masters and father all try to steer Hubert toward the operation, presented to him both as the foundation of a great musical career and as God's will. Only his reluctant mother and family chaplain (who's pursuing a personal agenda of defiance) voice dissent.

Hubert, as bright as he is talented, decides to run away and stay out of reach until he can age past the onset of puberty, so the operation wouldn't be performed. Amis creates a driving sense of urgency as Hubert, aided by his school friends, tries to reach a place where church authorities can't touch him.

Early in the book, Hubert and boarding-school classmates Thomas, Mark and Decumen have gone to bed, following their prayers, at lights out. When they're sure the threatening prefect has moved on, the boys light candles, get out forbidden snacks and prepare for illicit activity: the reading of Time Romances and Counterfeit World tales, strictly forbidden stories set in alternate timelines and worlds. While this scene allows Amis to deftly work in the counterfactual elements of Hubert's world, it also advances the novel by revealing a society so repressive that reading fantasy is forbidden.

This joyless theocracy can't help make a contemporary reader think of another no-fun dystopia, Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985). While Amis' imaginary world is calmer and less jackbooted than Atwood's, both are a horror for women.

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