A Country of Ghosts by Margaret Killjoy is a radical speculative novel that explores a range of socio-political themes from an anarchist perspective. It tells the story of an imperial war correspondent who is captured by anti-imperialist forces and exposed to the harsh realities of the realm in which he lives. He is then introduced to and embraced by the anarchist confederation of Hron, which he grows to love. Originally released by Combustion books in 2014, it was republished by A. K. Press, the radical publishing house known for anarchist literature, in November 2021 as part of the Black Dawn series.
A Country of Ghosts presents itself as a book written by Dimos Horacki, its main character. Horacki’s book is intended to demonstrate the existence of successful anarchist societies to his readers. Despite this frame, the narration of A Country of Ghosts slips in and out of narrative style. At times, the tone shifts from a conversational account to elevated description, which can distance the language from the narrating character. For example, contrast sentences like “I fell asleep at last, lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the train and the ethereal visage of the ice that encased the world around me” (p. 10) and “For a writer of my adventurous temperament and immodest ambition, it was a dream assignment. I can’t tell you I wasn’t elated…” (p. 2) with statements like “I’ve got an eyepatch and a wicked scar down my face—Vin says it makes me look tough” (p. 206) or “Then we were off, and I remembered just how goddam much it hurt to ride a horse with a bullet wound in your arm” (p. 124). With such shifts between narrative style, it can sometimes seem like Horacki is reaching for a voice that lies just beyond his grasp.
Throughout the novel, nearly every character Horacki meets speaks frankly and directly. This characteristic seems to apply to the people of both Hron and Borolia, the imperial state. This frankness may be intentional—it provides a direct line of sight into the motivations and thoughts of characters; however, it can also come across as heavy-handed exposition. With too much frankness, characters risk losing the opportunity for reflection, threatening to neutralize their being as people. They become silhouettes with little time to waste on nuance or complexity.
Some of this criticism can be chalked up to a matter of style. Aesthetics are, of course, subjective. To me, the book’s simple sentences resonate most powerfully. For example: “The sun rose over the bay and cast the train’s long shadow over the Sotosi Sea” (p. 7). The subtle adjective here heightens the sentence’s rhythm, rather than disrupting it. At other times, phrasing can feel awkward. For example: “In my four days on the Tores I ate more money’s worth of food than I had in the rest of my life up to that point all told” (p. 6). Overall, however, the narrator is more concerned with recalling a series of events as they unfolded than with the poeticism of this process.
Though A Country of Ghosts is a work of fiction, it was released with explicit emphasis on its radical theoretical approach. This is where the novel is most interesting. A Country of Ghosts is an anarchist work, and Hron is a self-defined anarchist society. Anarchism as described in the novel corresponds with many aspects of anarchism as it exists in the real world. In the real world, anarchism is a political philosophical tradition which can be traced back to nineteenth-century Paris (certain scholars trace its roots elsewhere but such claims often seem to be cases of retroactive and colonially-minded categorization. Many of the practices and attitudes that are now classified as anarchist did exist prior to the establishment of a cohesive tradition of anarchism; however, defining these concepts and activities as specifically anarchist involves the presumption of European political philosophical dominance and authority). In Killjoy’s fictional world, anarchism has an entirely different history than it does in the real world—it is the ideology of a collective of distinct indigenous groups who come together in a confederacy to resist subjugation under colonial rule. But, in the context of the ideas themselves, and the tradition referred to by A. K. Press, the real-world tradition is relevant.
Killjoy has been immersed in anarchist communities for decades, and her theoretical work has been shaped by active participation. The book is, in many ways, a presentation of her ideas. There is, of course, a frame of fantasy around these ideas. In an afterword to her novel, Killjoy explicitly states that “This book is not a blueprint.” It is not intended to present an example of the way an anarchist society might look in the real world. It is, instead, a utopian novel intended to offer the “argument that freedom is possible” (Killjoy, p. 207).
As its main character is introduced to Hron, A Country of Ghosts provides the reader with insight into some of the basic principles of anarchist theory and practice, applied to the fictional world. It is a welcome representation of anarchism in fiction and seems heavily inspired by the work of Ursula le Guin. For those unfamiliar with anarchist theory, the novel may also serve as a compelling introduction to these concepts.
A Country of Ghosts exists in the tradition of American anarchism. This is a direct offshoot of the European anarchist tradition, highly influenced by European immigrants such as Emma Goldman. In America, anarchism is a settler philosophy intended to be mutually rather than extractively related to the continent’s Indigenous inhabitants. This notion is evident in A Country of Ghosts, which distinguishes Horacki and other sympathetic imperialists from Boralia at large. Yet, in terms of colonialism and imperialism, much is left unsaid. The issue at the heart of the conflict often seems reduced to the violence of war, leaving issues of extraction or dispossession largely unaddressed. As this is a work of fiction, the narrator himself may simply be unable to theoretically engage with notions of colonialism and imperialism. Due to the inclusion of an afterword establishing the author’s relationship to the ideas presented in the book, however, it can be difficult not to focus on this neglect.
There are a number of interesting conflicts drawn forth by this work. For instance, a certain tradition of American anarchism tends toward individualism in a liberal sense. Rather than breaching the dominant ideology of liberalism, it adapts to it. Pragmatic anarchism in this style often seems to rely intensely upon the logics of social structures based upon dominance and hierarchy. This prevents it from becoming truly anarchist. This problem is also present in Hron. As one character states, “We’re people who have each other’s backs because having someone’s back means someone has yours, and that’s a good way to live” (p. 84). To this character, Hron emphasizes a self-interested anarchist tradition rather than a tradition of mutuality that is based upon genuine goodwill. It is survival, not love, that drives him to mutual aid.
Another character claims that “States are like people… most people work like this: if they think they can beat you up and take your shit, they will. Letting them knock you around is a losing strategy. If you stand up to them, most of the time they back off” (p. 192). To this character, people must be strong enough to resist other people’s natural urge to dominate and extract. This belief set is not anarchist in the true sense. In the true sense, anarchism attempts to establish conditions which do not fuel the desire to dominate or extract. It does not accept them. Anarchism is mutuality based upon love rather than self-interested survival. Recognizing that collectivity can be based upon love rather than self-interest requires a radical critique of liberal notions of selfhood, individuality, and human nature. This individualist, survivalist strain of “anarchism” does not seem dominant in A Country of Ghosts, merely present. Much of Hron society operates in a more legitimately anarchist fashion. As someone else states in the novel, “Hron is a voluntary association of autonomous groups and individuals who cooperate to provide one another mutual aid,” (p. 83). This provides an interesting internal conflict. It would have been interesting to see such issues tackled more directly.
All of this demonstrates a certain instability in the anarchist society established. The inclusion of instability provides depth and complexity to the world created by Killjoy. It also demonstrates that this world is not exclusively utopian. It is, at least in part, a dystopia. Ursula le Guin famously stated that “Every utopia since Utopia has also been, clearly or obscurely, actually or possibly, in the author’s or in the readers’ judgment, both a good place and a bad one. Every eutopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia contains a eutopia.” In the world of A Country of Ghosts, anarchist societies exist as anarchist societies in direct response to the aggression of an ever-expanding imperial power. The anarchist confederation only exists because its people are under siege. This places it in a tenuous, fascinating position.
The positive aspects of Hron are always contrasted to the extractive and exploitative society of Borolia. The dichotomy of two spheres is the basis of the conflict and tension. The former sphere is seemingly characterized by plurality; however, it is defined by its commitment to a unifying accord (Hron is held together by a vague but widely recognized “constitution” solidifying it as an anarchist “country”). This kind of tension within the anarchist world raises interesting questions. But, again, these questions are left up to the reader for examination and exploration. While this is not necessarily problematic, it does feel like there was possibility for deeper exploration within the novel.
In her afterword, Killjoy acknowledges that certain complexities were under-engaged with in her book. She suggests that she may, one day, return to the Cerrac mountains with a prequel to “tease out” some of the things currently left unexamined. I hope she does. Killjoy has created a big world with big problems and squeezed it into a brief novel. She has established a framework for further exploration and there is much room for expansion.