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Worse shit, old wrapping 

Ali Smith's Autumn provides a better understanding of Post-Brexit Britain than any political analysis.


Ali Smith:
Hamish Hamilton, 2016

In a closing scene in the movie T Investor Mark Baum sits on a rooftop in New York talking to an advisor about what's going to happen, right after the market collapses and dress-clad people pour out of the investment banks with cardboard boxes in their hands. The adviser believes that banks must be held accountable for leading millions of homeowners to the light of their rotten loans, while the high-profile investor is not so sure about this: “I have a feeling that in a few years the people will be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming the immigrants and the poor. ”

We are jumping ten years ahead of time, until the day I write this. 19. January 2017, the day before the Americans set in motion a president who wants to build a wall against Mexico and reverse the law that gives the nation's citizens basic health care – an aid no less needed after Wall Street speculators raised five trillion – 5 000 000 000 000 – out of their pension money, real estate investments and bonds out the window.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the situation is not so much better. Instead of reforming neoliberal trade agreements, the population is drawn to anti-immigration protectionism based on an ideology that does not even deserve to be called "the same shit". In this political landscape, one of Britain's most linguistic writers has written the first post-Brexit novel. She puts into words the fear found in large parts of the British population through a protagonist who is herself an immigrant and feels that she is no longer wanted in the country she has grown up in.

Supply and demand. Autumn opens with a paraphrasing of Dickens' opening sentence in A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times." With his precise observations, Smith paints a picture of contemporary Britain, which is about to become as divided as France was before and after the revolution. The revolution, as we know, led to increased democratization, but it is still highly uncertain whether Brexit will do. Smith paints a picture of a neoliberal ideology that, along with dysfunctional media, creates a hollow and paranoid atmosphere – a breeding ground for brown ideas.

The antiquarian becomes a picture of right-wing populism's false nostalgia – the idea that it is possible to get things back just as they were.

There are two central characters in the novel, both with symbolic names. Elisabeth Demand is a young art historian with a typical "no-fixed-hours casual contract", while her friend, 101-year-old Daniel Gluck, floats in and out of consciousness in a hospital bed in London. Like Ali Smith's previous novel, The Brilliant How to Be Both, the story moves back and forth between different times and places, and between dream and reality. The novels also have in common that they thematize the healing potential of art.

The contrast between Elizabeth's everyday challenges and the memories of the Gluck meetings is an effective tool. In one part of the story, Elisabeth is fighting a chaff fight against a postal worker who will not give her a new passport because she never fails to fill in the intricate forms. These scenes reveal how little trust is left in society and how the citizens have failed to identify their common problems, so they end up suspecting each other instead. For example, when Elisabeth tries to obtain medical attention for her old mother, the receptionist is annoyed that the mother does not have a printer at home for printing even more forms – and that Elisabeth does not have a passport, ie a valid ID card. They will be blaming the immigrants and the poor.

Antiquity terror. In another part of the story, a happier time in Elizabeth's life, as an eight-year-old, she becomes acquainted with her new neighbor Daniel Gluck. He challenges notions of time, space, and narrative patterns, and makes her see the value of art by making her aware of how well-known stories – like the good versus the bad – shape our lives, and why they must be countered by alternative narratives . "Whoever makes up the story makes up the world, so always try to welcome people into the home of your story," urges Daniel Elisabeth.

Against Daniel's openness to the world stands not only xenophobia and market dogma, but also Elizabeth's mother's obsession with a celebrity television program on antiques. The antiquarian becomes a picture of right-wing populism's false nostalgia – the idea that it is possible to get things back just as they were. The past grenades are a contrast to Daniel Gluck's view of art as dynamic and subversive, and the television program they perform in a glaring portrayal of the extensive escapism mass media provides.

At the same time, we are reminded that we also have much to learn from the past, as Elizabeth's mother illustrates when she decides to carry out "antiquity terror" against the government's refugee policy. She stands outside the prison-like building the refugees have been locked in, "bombing that fence with people's histories and with the artefacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times."


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